Eric Keais spent most of the last moments of his life gravely injured in a ditch.
The 38-year-old house painter had been riding a bicycle when he was hit by an SUV in Cedartown, about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta. Instead of calling 911, the driver left the scene and called his friend, state Rep. Trey Kelley, according to police documents. Instead of calling 911, Kelley, who works as a lawyer, called the Cedartown police chief, who also didn’t call 911, records show.
All three men have said they initially thought the SUV had struck an animal, not a person. The driver and Kelley said they looked around the scene and didn’t see Keais in the ditch, which was thick with brush.
When a police sergeant found Keais and called for an ambulance — more than an hour after the crash — Keais was still alive. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
The Sept. 11, 2019, wreck and its aftermath has been investigated by the Georgia State Patrol and is now under review by the office of Polk County District Attorney Jack Browning.
Polk County Coroner Tony Brazier is alarmed by what he learned while looking into the wreck and how it was handled by driver Ralph Dover III, Kelley and Police Chief Jamie Newsome.
“They should have contacted 911 immediately,” Brazier told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They should’ve got help out there.”
Efforts to reach Dover and his relatives by phone weren’t successful. Newsome didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Kelley, a Republican who serves as the House majority whip, said he contacted Newsome after seeing a bicycle in the ditch, when he wasn’t aware of what had happened.
“At that time, I still did not know another human being was involved,” he said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I fully cooperated with law enforcement.”
ONE LONG HOUR
Dover and Kelley had seen each other at the Polk County Fair before the wreck. Kelley said he knows Dover as a local supermarket worker.
After Dover left the fair, he drove his 2005 Hyundai Santa Fe south on Main Street through Cedartown. The vehicle struck Keais, who flew off the bike and into the ditch, according to police records. The estimated time of the wreck was 8:25 p.m., a state trooper wrote in a report. The collision left the front of the SUV crushed in and streaked with red paint from the bike. Dover kept driving for about a mile and stopped at a gas station, where he called Kelley.
Kelley received the call at 8:28 p.m., according to the coroner, who interviewed Kelley.
Kelley heard distress in Dover’s voice but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It seemed Dover thought his car had hit an animal, Kelley said in a statement. Kelley met Dover at the gas station, and they went to the wreck scene.
“After arriving and driving up and down the road,” Kelley said in the statement, “I saw nothing that indicated a life or death situation.”
At some point, Kelley spotted the victim’s bike on the side of the road and called Newsome at home. The call was placed at 9:11 p.m., almost 50 minutes after the estimated crash time, according to Newsome’s statement to one of his officers.
Kelley asked Newsome if he knew Dover and described the events of the night, beginning with the fair and ending at the wreck scene, Newsome’s statement said. Until Kelley mentioned the bicycle, though, Newsome said he thought the call was meant to seek guidance on filing a vehicle damage report.
“What?” Newsome said, according to the police report. “He might’ve hit a person?”
HELP IS CALLED TOO LATE
Instead of calling 911, Newsome sent one of his sergeants to the scene. While looking around near the bicycle, the sergeant saw something white in the ditch, got closer and realized it was a sock. Then he found Keais, still breathing faintly, and called for an ambulance at 9:28 p.m., according to 911 audio obtained by the AJC.
The ambulance arrived within a few minutes and took Keais to Polk Medical Center, where emergency room staffers worked to save him but pronounced him dead at 10:15 p.m., said Brazier, the county coroner.
Brazier said Keais’ family has been crushed by the death. His obituary, which featured a photo with him beaming while holding a baby, said he loved car stereos and was a sports fanatic.
DA Browning said his office recently received the investigative files on the wreck and will soon determine “who will be charged for the incident that resulted in Mr. Keais’ tragic death.” Browning said he will take the case to the grand jury in the coming weeks.
Among the files Browning received were records from Brazier, who said he ruled the death a homicide by vehicle.
Brazier said the case could have turned out differently if someone had dialed 911 much sooner.
“I fully believe this boy would still be with us today,” he said.
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