EXCLUSIVE: Inside the investigation into fatal UGA crash

Police considered more serious charges against defensive star Jalen Carter
The Athens-Clarke County police department says University of Georgia football star Jalen Carter, left, was racing with recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, right, before LeCroy's car crashed on Jan. 15. LeCroy and football player Devin Willock died in the crash, and Carter was charged with street racing and reckless driving.

Credit: Compilation

Credit: Compilation

The Athens-Clarke County police department says University of Georgia football star Jalen Carter, left, was racing with recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, right, before LeCroy's car crashed on Jan. 15. LeCroy and football player Devin Willock died in the crash, and Carter was charged with street racing and reckless driving.

ATHENS — The celebration began early and ran late. A parade through the University of Georgia campus. A ceremony that drew tens of thousands to Sanford Stadium. And, for Georgia football players and staff members, a triumphant night on the town, capped off at a strip club called Toppers International Showbar.

“Everyone was there,” linebacker Xavian Sorey Jr. would later recall.

The club closed at 2 a.m. But not everyone was ready to go home. Several players and a pair of young recruiting analysts made plans to meet at a Waffle House, where they could continue savoring Georgia’s second consecutive national football championship.

Jalen Carter, the team’s defensive star, led the way out of downtown in his Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. Equipped with a 707-horsepower engine called the Hellcat, the vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds.

Close behind, recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy pushed a Ford Expedition through traffic on a still-busy downtown street.

Carter darted around other cars in a center turn lane and on the wrong side of the road. LeCroy followed.

Soon, both would be speeding through Athens at 100 mph.

Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson was just getting home from Toppers at 2:46 a.m. when Carter called. Dumas-Johnson would later repeat his teammate’s words to police:

“They crashed.”

These details of the Jan. 15 crash appear in police reports obtained through a public-records request by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The documents — released late Friday after Carter was sentenced on two misdemeanor charges related to the crash, concluding a criminal investigation — confirm the newspaper’s earlier reporting on events that led to the deaths of LeCroy, 24, and offensive lineman Devin Willock, 20. The tragedy, fueled by alcohol and fast driving, cast a shadow over a team at the pinnacle of its sport.

The documents also contain previously unreported information about how the police investigated what officers termed the “reckless disregard” with which Carter and LeCroy raced between downtown Athens and the crash site, about three miles away.

Investigators examined whether a third car, which lost a bumper at the crash scene, had been racing with Carter and LeCroy; they ultimately discarded that theory. They used surveillance video and cell phone records, including location data, to establish Carter and LeCroy were racing side by side along much of their route out of downtown, despite a denial by Carter. And they considered filing more serious charges against Carter that could have led to a lengthy prison sentence.

Still, some details remain unknown.

The police reports indicate that some Georgia football players gave incomplete, misleading or even false accounts about the crash. The players, some of whom acknowledged going to multiple bars during the night, were not all forthcoming about where they were when the crash occurred or even how they heard about it afterward.

Warren McClendon, an offensive lineman who was riding in the Expedition’s front passenger seat beside LeCroy, told the police he had been looking at his phone before the car crashed and hadn’t paid much attention to how fast LeCroy was driving.

And Tory Bowles, a recruiting analyst who suffered serious injuries, declined to talk to the police about the crash. An officer asked whether anyone had told her not to talk, but she said no. The police apparently did not approach her again.

‘Aggressive accelerations’

LeCroy had spent the day tending to prospective recruits who observed the celebration of Georgia’s football championship. She returned downtown about 10 p.m., an analysis of her cell phone showed, apparently in the Expedition, rented by the football program for the day’s activities. University officials have said neither she nor Bowles was authorized to use the vehicle after they finished their work duties that Saturday.

It’s not clear from the police reports where LeCroy went first, or with whom. Both McClendon and Carter later said LeCroy and her passengers had been drinking. A toxicology examination found LeCroy’s blood alcohol concentration was more than twice the legal limit when she died. Authorities did not test anyone else involved in the crash for alcohol impairment.

Carter had skipped the victory parade earlier in the day, he later told the police, although he attended the ceremony in Sanford Stadium. About 12:25 a.m., he left his apartment and headed downtown, stopping first at Pauley’s, a restaurant and bar.

A little after 1 a.m., at least five players and five women who worked for the football program’s recruiting office entered Toppers, the strip club, according to surveillance video reviewed by the Journal-Constitution. The group included Bowles, LeCroy, McClendon and Willock. Carter and more players went in about half an hour later.

The “entire football team” was at Toppers, Carter later told the police. McClendon would estimate that people affiliated with the football program made up a majority of the club’s patrons.

Just before 2:30, about half an hour after closing time, players, recruiting staff members and others began streaming out of the club’s front door, the video shows. Carter and another player walked off alone, stopping on a nearby sidewalk to talk with some apparent acquaintances. LeCroy, Willock, Bowles and McClendon walked separately to their car.

Carter told the police he talked with McClendon and Willock as they got into the Expedition, confirming they would meet at Waffle House. Moments later, Carter’s black Trackhawk arrived at a downtown stoplight, video shows. LeCroy’s Expedition was immediately behind him.

When the light turned, Carter took off, fast — in one of what the police report calls “aggressive accelerations” documented on video. In the next block, LeCroy passed two cars, one on the left and one on the right, to keep up.

The race to Waffle House was on.

Surveillance video shows moments leading up to deadly UGA crash

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Along the way, the police reports say, both cars drove “at unreasonable speeds … recklessly passing other vehicles several times.”

Barely half a mile from Toppers, the reports say, Carter drove in a center turn lane and into an oncoming lane to pass slower cars. LeCroy copied the maneuver.

As the cars passed a Dairy Queen another half a mile southeast on Oconee Street, Carter was driving 100 mph, according to calculations by police investigators. The speed limit there is 35.

Carter and LeCroy stopped briefly at a Waffle House on Oconee Street but decided to continue on to another location on Barnett Shoals Road. They immediately resumed the race, the police reports show.

Video footage and cell phone data show the cars racing side by side on Oconee, passing an interchange with the GA 10 expressway and turning south onto Barnett Shoals.

The last video that captured the cars showed them driving side by side as they passed a gas station on Barnett Shoals; police estimate LeCroy’s speed there at 99 mph. The speed limit is 40.

Her speed only increased over the next 3/10 of a mile to the crash site, a computer attached to the Expedition’s air bag system showed.

At five seconds before impact, she was driving 103.5 mph; at four seconds out, 104.2.

And when the Expedition came to a rest, after crashing through utility poles and trees and hitting an apartment building, the speedometer was stuck at 83.

The police reports depict a gruesome scene: LeCroy slumped over the steering wheel, apparently not breathing; Willock facedown on the ground, apparently ejected through the rear driver’s side door; Bowles seriously injured; McClendon walking around bleeding from a cut on his head.

An ambulance crew took LeCroy to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Willock was dead at the scene. A police officer covered his body with a pink sheet.

‘A straight answer’

When the Expedition crashed, Carter stopped his SUV and ran to check on the victims while his passenger called 911, according to his lawyer, Kim T. Stephens. Carter “was told” he could leave the scene, Stephens said. But Stephens didn’t know who cleared Carter’s departure, and nothing in the police reports suggests officers allowed him to leave.

“It was somebody who he knew to have authority,” Stephens told the Journal-Constitution. “I don’t know if it was directly from law enforcement.”

On the way home, Stephens said, Carter stopped for gas.

When police investigators arrived, they almost immediately began trying to determine how other players already on the scene had learned about the crash.

Among the first to be interviewed were Dumas-Johnson and his teammate Smael Mondon, who were accompanied by Bryant Gantt, a football team official who often intercedes when players get into trouble with the law. The Journal-Constitution reported last month that the Athens police chief granted Gantt access to investigators less than half an hour after the crash, an arrangement that policing experts suggest could hamper a thorough inquiry.

Dumas-Johnson and Mondon at first claimed not to know the name of the person who called them after the crash, a report said. Later, though, they said it was Carter.

The police then asked Gantt to call Carter back to the scene. Carter arrived about an hour and a half after the crash.

Jalen Carter, a defensive lineman, was considered a top pick in next month's NFL draft. His standing seems to have fallen since his arrest on misdemeanor charges related to a fatal car crash.

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At first, Carter said he heard the crash from an apartment complex nearly a mile away. Then he told an officer he was following the Expedition, close enough to see its headlights. At one point, he said he had driven alongside the other car.

“I tried to find out how close or far away from the vehicle he was,” the officer wrote, “but I never could get a straight answer.”

Officers documented scrapes on the roof of Carter’s car, which they said were consistent with hitting power lines that fell as the Expedition crashed.

“The scuff marks being on the roof of Jalen’s car indicated to me that he was almost right next to the other vehicle when it crashed,” an officer wrote.

Carter denied racing with the Expedition, and officers let him return home.

The police interviewed Carter again in February, this time by telephone. Carter acknowledged driving side by side with the Expedition on Barnett Shoals Road, in the area where LeCroy was estimated to be driving 99 mph.

“I was in the left lane,” Carter said. “I guess she was in the right lane. And that’s when … we started driving a little bit and the turn came up and that’s when I slowed down. Cause it was pretty dark on that road. I couldn’t see if it was an actual turn. So I slowed down to be safe. And then that’s when I seen her car come past my car.”

In a second telephone interview with Carter last month, the police learned he had a passenger at the time of the crash: a young woman he encountered after leaving Toppers. Carter said he couldn’t identify her by name but gave an officer her telephone number. The woman later said she’d ridden with Carter in the Trackhawk 10 to 20 times. She said she had been too intoxicated that night to know why the crash occurred.

Officers did not suspect Carter had been drinking, however, and did not perform a field sobriety test when they questioned him at the crash scene.

On March 1, the police obtained warrants for Carter’s arrest on charges of reckless driving and street racing, both misdemeanors. At the time, Carter was in Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. He had been considered a top pick in next month’s draft, although his standing appears to have fallen since the criminal charges.

After his arrest, Carter posted a statement on Twitter predicting he would be “fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.” But last week, he pleaded no contest, and a judge sentenced him to 12 months probation, fined him $1,013 and ordered him to perform 50 hours of community service.

The police considered filing more serious charges, the reports show: vehicular homicide and serious injury by vehicle. The charges could have resulted in a prison sentence of three to 15 years.

“While traveling, both vehicles were operated at excessive speeds and reckless disregard for the safety of other roadway users, resulting in the collision and death of Chandler LeCroy and Devin Willock, as well as the serious injuries sustained by Victoria Bowles,” Officer James Trotter, the police department’s lead investigator, wrote in a report.

But prosecutors recommended charging Carter only with the misdemeanors because his car didn’t collide with the Expedition before and because LeCroy’s blood-alcohol concentration was so high.

“This ends the investigation,” Trotter wrote. “The case is closed.”

Data analyst Jennifer Peebles contributed reporting.