Drunk driver gets 16 years in police officer death

A Stone Mountain woman who said she was driving drunk when she struck and killed an Atlanta police officer last January on a Downtown Connector interstate ramp was sentenced Friday to 16 years in prison.

Chasity Nicole Jones, 22, pleaded guilty to one count of vehicular homicide and one count of failure to obey the directions of an officer in the death of Senior Officer Gail Thomas. She was indicted in February on 13 counts, including driving under the influence of alcohol and possession of an open container of alcohol while operating a vehicle.

Friday afternoon as Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall considered her sentence, Jones apologized to everyone affected by the tragedy, and offered a warning to would-be drunk drivers.

“No amount of words that I can say could get Gail Thomas back,” she said, weeping openly. “I just want to apologize to her father and to her daughter. Her daughter was my age, so I feel her pain every day.

“I know I was in the wrong to get behind the wheel while I was drinking. And I just want to say sorry to everybody that was affected by this situation.”

“Yes. I was in the club scene. That’s how I lived, and drinking came with it,” she said. “I just advise anyone, if you just had one drink, you had two drinks, you just had a sip, don’t get behind the wheel because something like this could happen.”

Friday’s plea hearing had to be moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate the huge number of law enforcement officers in attendance.

Thomas arrived on the scene of an auto accident the night of Jan. 24, 2012, to assist another officer, according to testimony Friday morning.

As she angled her patrol car along the southbound side of the Interstate 75/85 Brookwood Exchange – with blue lights flashing — Thomas got out of the car to divert traffic away from the accident.

A packed courtroom, filled with law enforcement officials ranging from the youngest Atlanta police officers to Chief George Turner, Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, sat silently as Fulton Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski described what happened next.

“The defendant struck her and the patrol vehicle,” Dunikoski said, as sobs emitted from Jones, Thomas’ family and numerous officers. “She was sandwiched between (Jones’ 1998 Honda Civic) and the patrol car. It took off her leg. She was thrown into the windshield of the patrol car and she died.”

Earl Thomas, Gail Thomas’ brother, told the courtroom, “We’ve taken it very hard. The crime will never fit the punishment due to the fact that my sister is no more.”

Lt. Jeff Cantin, who was Thomas’ supervisor, characterized her as a mentor for many of the young officers coming out of the police academy.

“Many of them were the same age as her daughter,” Cantin said. “She was their mother figure. Many of them had never seen a dead body. And to see her out there minutes after they’d stood with her in roll call was a lot for them.”

Prosecutors said there were no skid marks at the accident scene, meaning Jones didn’t try to brake to avoid the collision. Jones’ three passengers admitted they’d all been drinking.

Jones was arrested at the scene, and later told investigators she had been drinking and smoking marijuana before the accident, prosecutors said.

“She admitted that she had consumed vodka that evening about one hour before the accident,” Dunikoski said. “They were rushing to the club.”

The prosecutor described a conversation with Jones’ boyfriend, Fredrick Jones, who was in the front passenger seat, who told about drinking a mixture of blue Hawaiian Punch and vodka before leaving Marietta for a Buckhead bar.

“He said the intention there was to continue ‘pre-gaming’ in the car prior to getting to the club so that they would not have to buy cocktails in the club,” Dunikoski said. “They would be intoxicated by the time they got to the club.”

Jones registered a 0.155 blood alcohol level, nearly twice the legal limit for DUI, authorities said.

Judge Schwall said the case will haunt him.

“In this job, just when I thought I’ve seen it all, I get a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life … the picture of a police officer through the windshield of a car, deceased with a severed leg,” he said. “I don’t think 16 years is enough. If I had a choice, it would be more than 16 years.”