No one disputes the basic facts of what happened that terrible night.
A Jeep Cherokee with a 17-year-old behind the wheel struck a new mom, her baby daughter in her arms, and a family friend who were walking to a concert in downtown Woodstock. All three died of their injuries.
Whether the September 2017 deaths of Kaitlin Hunt, 3-month-old Riley Hunt and Kathy Deming were due to criminal actions or a heartbreaking accident will be decided in a Cherokee County courtroom. Zoe Thomasina Reardon faces nine misdemeanor charges, including second-degree vehicular homicide and distracted driving. The trial is scheduled to start Monday, the day before Reardon turns 19. Kaitlin Hunt would have turned 30 the day after that.
In a sad irony, Hunt, a metro Atlanta native, died after driving north from her home in Florida to escape Hurricane Irma.
Authorities say Reardon’s Jeep hit the pedestrians at 8:15 p.m., just after the sun set. On-site and subsequent investigations involved cell phone records, witness interviews and a crash re-enactment informed by U.S. Naval Observatory expertise on how dark it was at the time. A Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office investigation concluded the pedestrians should have been visible; an expert defense witness disagrees.
“I found that it was unavoidable,” said Shelly Weed, a former Sandy Springs and Fulton County police officer who now owns Weed Reconstruction & Expert Consulting.
Reardon has said she never saw the pedestrians. Investigators have determined she wasn’t speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Hunt and Deming were wearing dark clothing and the collision site at the time had no traffic lights or a marked pedestrian crossing zone, as it does now. The initial Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office investigation recommended no charges be filed. Weed, testifying for the defense at a recent motions hearing, found fault with portions of the subsequent investigation that did result in charges.
“We’re missing some pretty vital pieces,” said Weed, who has investigated some 2,500 crashes. The crash re-enactment, for example, used stationary objects placed where Hunt and Deming were at the time of the collision.
Investigators determined Reardon sent her father a text message nearly three minutes before the impact. She told authorities her car was stopped at the time.
“The cellphone isn’t related to the case, and they know it,” her attorney, Manny Arora, said during a recent motions hearing. The defense tried unsuccessfully to quash the vehicular homicide charges, which accuse Reardon of being “distracted” without providing specifics. Also unsuccessful was a motion to sever the charge of text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle.
“This count is solely incorporated into the accusation because it plays to the fears of every parent, driver and potential juror — a 17-year-old teenager texting while driving that ends up killing someone in an accident,” Reardon’s attorneys argued in court documents. “The state is trying to play to the fears of the jury by injecting texting and driving into the case in order to convolute the facts and curry favor on behalf of the state.”
Pedestrian traffic deaths are on the rise, but it’s not clear why, a recent Governors Highway Safety Association study shows. More than 130 pedestrians died on Georgia roads in the first six months of 2018, up 32 percent from the first half of 2017.
“It’s clear we need to fortify our collective efforts to protect pedestrians and reverse the trend,” GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins said in a statement.
Hunt’s family members want to raise awareness about the need to combat distracted driving, and want Reardon held to account in the September 2017 deaths.
“We believe she should experience some sort of punishment, whatever the law will allow,” said Gregg Vandiver, Kaitlin Hunt’s father and Riley’s grandfather. Second-degree homicide by vehicle, or causing someone’s death without an intention to do so, is punishable with a sentence of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
After nearly 18 months, the family is eager for the case to come to trial yet anguished at its timing. Kaitlin’s sister, Lauren White, who lives in Louisiana, is due to give birth to her first child this week.
“It should be a happy week because we’re going to have a new grandchild,” Kathy Vandiver said.
Cherokee County State Court Judge Alan Jordan last month declined to change the date and denied several defense motions, allowing all charges to stand.
“There are ramifications for every decision I make,” he said, noting the case has dragged on for more than a year and that he is hopeful the family will soon have closure. It’s been hard for the survivors to move forward.
Kathy Vandiver said she struggled profoundly in the months after her daughter and granddaughter died.
“Sundays are my hardest days. That was always the day when I knew I was going to talk to Kaitlin,” she said.
“I couldn’t be alone in my house. I kept asking my counselor, ‘When should I be worried about not being able to stay alone?’”
Just before the collision, she and her daughter Lauren were walking ahead of Hunt, who was carrying the baby, and Deming.
“While I did not see it happen, I heard it. I thought it was an explosion,” Kathy Vandiver said. “The nightmares that I have when I close my eyes are the sound and seeing what happened in the aftermath.”
What happened next is a blur.
“I had started doing CPR. Riley wasn’t breathing. It wasn’t too long afterwards that a first responder was there and took her from me,” Kathy Vandiver said. “Lauren and I were standing there in total disbelief.”
Kaitlin and Riley Hunt had a joint memorial service on Sept. 17, 2017. Deming died two days later.
“It’s hard to figure out how we even made it through,” said Gregg Vandiver. “It was largely a fog we were pushing through.”
Within months, he and his partner sold their downtown Woodstock home and moved, unable to bear living so close to where tragedy struck. A memorial near the site bears silent witness.
“I never really thought I could go up there,” said Kathy Vandiver, who maintains a close friendship with her former husband. “It’s not necessarily therapeutic, but I have to go up there and make sure people don’t forget what happened.”
After Sprayberry High School and Valdosta State University, Kaitlin and her high school sweetheart married and moved to Florida. She served in the U.S. Coast Guard, and Brandon Hunt worked in law enforcement.
Brandon Hunt, who did not want to be interviewed for this article, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Woodstock. It cited a lack of signs, crosswalks, safety personnel directing traffic or other safety measures at the time. The city “knew or should have known that the traffic on Arnold Mill Road would pose a risk of unreasonable harm to the attendees coming to and from the concert,” the lawsuit says.
A letter from his attorney to the city of Woodstock says Brandon Hunt is owed $4 million and Deming’s survivors are owed $2 million in compensation for medical and funeral/burial expenses and pain and suffering. Deming’s family also did not want to be interviewed.
Reardon’s defense argues that the civil lawsuit spurred the criminal charges.
“I hate to be a conspiracy theorist, but the city gets sued and suddenly the case is reopened,” Arora said during the motions hearing.
Reardon’s attorneys didn’t make her available for an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution but say she is a straight-A student who did nothing wrong the night of the collision.
In June 2017, she was named one of two recipients of the Atlanta International School’s Educational Advancement Legacy Scholarship. The award gives “a distinctly talented member of the junior class the opportunity to pursue an academic, artistic or service program the summer before their senior year,” according to the school’s annual report.
Reardon, a member of the AIS class of 2018 who is now a Southern Methodist University freshman, chose a two-week service trip to Nepal, working at a hospital that provides physical therapy to children.
AJC staff writer David Wickert contributed to this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.