EXCLUSIVE: UGA star Jalen Carter present at scene of fatal crash

Player’s shifting accounts alter police narrative of single-car wreck
Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter, projected as a top pick in the NFL draft, left the scene of a fatal accident involving two members of the football team and two recruiting staff members. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter, projected as a top pick in the NFL draft, left the scene of a fatal accident involving two members of the football team and two recruiting staff members. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Updated to reflect street racing and reckless driving charges filed against Jalen Carter.

At first, Jalen Carter told the police he was nearly a mile away when a University of Georgia teammate and a football staff member died in a car crash.

Later, Carter said he had been following the car when it wrecked, close enough to see its taillights.

And, at one point, he acknowledged he was alongside the other car, later determined to be traveling at 104 mph.

Carter, a defensive star for Georgia who is projected as a top pick in this year’s NFL draft, left the crash scene, apparently before the police or emergency medical workers arrived. When he returned an hour and a half later, he gave shifting accounts of the wreck as an Athens police officer questioned him about whether he had been racing the car that crashed, according to documents reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The police in Athens announced Wednesday they had obtained arrest warrants charging Carter, 21, with street racing and reckless driving in connection with the Jan. 15 crash, which killed recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy, 24, and offensive lineman Devin Willock, 20. Another recruiting staff member, Tory Bowles, 26, and offensive lineman Warren McClendon, 21, were injured. The charges are misdemeanors.

Carter’s presence at the moment of the crash, previously unreported, alters the narrative that Athens police officials offered publicly from the beginning. It was, officials said, simply a single-car accident, caused by LeCroy’s driving too fast.

But the police had reason to suspect almost from the moment of the crash that other cars had been at the scene, and they soon learned at least two of those vehicles were driven by Georgia football players. Seeking evidence of racing, officers collected surveillance video from city-owned cameras along the route the players took out of downtown Athens. They also obtained footage from at least one business owner. The police have declined to release these videos, saying they are evidence in an open case.

UGA offensive lineman Devin Willock, from left, recruiting analysts Chandler LeCroy and Tory Bowles and offensive linemen Warren McClendon were involved in an accident Jan. 15. Willock and LeCroy were killed. Bowles suffered serious injuries and McClendon had minor injuries.

Credit: Compilation

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Credit: Compilation

Carter’s connection to the crash came to light as NFL teams assess potential picks ahead of the April draft. Carter was attending the NFL’s annual scouting combine this week in Indianapolis, where he was to undergo a physical examination and sit for interviews with team officials. The combine could determine how high he is chosen in the draft’s first round as well as the value of his rookie contract. Carter did not appear at a previously scheduled press conference in Indianapolis on Wednesday.

Carter’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. Carter posted a statement on Twitter that said he would return to Athens “to answer the misdemeanor charges against me and make certain that the complete and accurate truth is presented. There is no question in my mind that when all of the facts are known that I will be fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.”

As the best defensive player on the best team in college football for the past two years, Carter benefitted from name, image and likeness deals. He has endorsed an Ohio luxury car dealer, appearing in a video in which he roars away in a 2021 black Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk. With a 707-horsepower engine known as a Hellcat V-8, the vehicle has a top speed of 180 mph and can accelerate from zero to 60 in about three seconds. Used models retail around $100,000.

Carter drove the same model the night of the fatal crash, as well as on a Thursday evening last fall, when the Athens police ticketed him for driving 89 in a 45 mph zone. A judge fined him $1,013 for the Sept. 22 speeding ticket.

UGA football player Jalen Carter endorsed an Ohio luxury car dealer, appearing in a video in which he roars away in a 2021 black Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk.

A chaotic scene

The crash occurred on Athens’ Barnett Shoals Road at 2:45 a.m. Jan. 15, following a long day and night of celebrating the football team’s second consecutive national championship.

Several players, including Carter, capped the evening at Toppers International Showbar, a strip club in downtown Athens, accompanied by members of the football team’s recruiting staff. The group left the club about 2:30 a.m., surveillance video obtained by the Journal-Constitution shows. Several of them planned to meet at a Waffle House about three miles away.

The surveillance footage shows three cars leaving the downtown nightlife district about the same time. One was a 2021 Ford Expedition, rented by the university and driven by LeCroy. University officials have said LeCroy was not authorized to drive the Expedition at the time of the crash. Neither the university nor its athletic department have responded to questions about protocols for using the SUVs that it rents to transport prospective football recruits during their official visits to the Georgia campus.

Another car appeared to be a 2019 Dodge Charger belonging to linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson. He was charged last week with street racing and reckless driving in an unrelated incident that occurred five days before the fatal crash. The police also questioned him at the Jan. 15 crash scene, records show.

And the third vehicle matched the description of Carter’s black Cherokee Trackhawk. The surveillance footage shows the car stopped at an intersection near the strip club, immediately in front of the Expedition. When the light turned green, the Jeep rapidly accelerated, turning the heads of nearby pedestrians. LeCroy, driving the Expedition, passed one car on the left and another on the right to catch up before the next stoplight.

In a statement, the Athens police did not mention the Charger. But the statement said that the Expedition and the Trackhawk “switched between lanes, drove in the center turn lane, drove in opposite lanes of travel, overtook other motorists and drove at high rates of speed in an apparent attempt to outdistance each other.”

Officers determined that LeCroy was driving the Expedition at 104 mph shortly before the crash, according to the statement.

About a mile from the Waffle House, the Expedition’s right front tire struck a curb, and the car flew off the roadway. It sheared two utility poles and slammed into at least two trees before crashing into an apartment building. Willock, who was not wearing a seatbelt, flew out of the car from the driver’s side second-row seat. He was pronounced dead at the scene. LeCroy was unresponsive and had no pulse when emergency crews arrived. She was pronounced dead at an Athens hospital.

A University of Georgia football player and a recruiting staff member died when this Ford Expedition struck two utility poles, trees and an apartment building. Police said excessive speed contributed to the vehicle striking a curb and flying off the road. At  impact, the SUV's speedometer stuck at 83 mph -- twice the legal speed limit. (Ceciley Pangburn / Contributed)

Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn

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Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn

Calls to Athens-Clarke County’s 911 system reflected the chaos that followed the crash. In the background of one call, what seems to be McClendon’s voice can be heard repeatedly calling out the names of the other occupants of the Expedition. Then he yells to apparent acquaintances who were standing near the wreckage. Another voice, louder and angry-sounding, asks, “What ... y’all driving that fast for?”

A siren can be heard as the first emergency vehicle reaches the scene, about six minutes after the crash.

Players questioned

One minute after the crash, a caller to 911 reported that another car was at the scene — “some large SUV down there, and there’s one guy out there looking.”

“The SUV is over in the ditch, too?” the operator asked.

“Nah, nah,” the caller answered, “that one is in the middle of the road.”

This and other calls suggest the police knew the crash was more complicated than a single-car wreck. Less than 10 minutes after the first officers arrived, one asked a dispatcher to check a police database for information on Dumas-Johnson’s Dodge Charger. Officers also checked for alerts on Dumas-Johnson himself, as well as for his apparent passenger, linebacker Smael Mondon.

Several football players gathered at the scene, but they initially declined to tell the police how they had learned of the crash, according to the documents the Journal-Constitution reviewed. Finally, at least one said they heard about it from a teammate: Jalen Carter.

Also on the scene was Bryant Gantt, the football team’s director of player support and operations. The Journal-Constitution reported in February that Gantt often intervenes when players run afoul of the law.

Surveillance footage from Athens police shows the black Ford Expedition driven by UGA recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy waiting at a downtown traffic light on E. Clayton Street approximately five minutes before the Jan. 15 crash that killed her and lineman Devin Willock. The black Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk in front of the Expedition matches the description of UGA defensive star Jalen Carter's vehicle.  Police questioned Carter the night of the crash about whether he was racing the Expedition. He told police he was not driving fast or racing, records show. (source: Athens Clarke-County police.)

Credit: Athens Clarke-County Police Surveillance footage

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Credit: Athens Clarke-County Police Surveillance footage

On this night, an Athens police officer asked Gantt to have Carter return to the scene. He arrived about 4:15 a.m., an hour and a half after the crash.

In a videotaped interview, Carter gave the officer an inconsistent account of what he knew about the crash, the documents reviewed by the Journal-Constitution show. Carter first said he heard the wreck from an apartment complex nearly a mile away. Later, he said he witnessed it from a shorter distance, telling the officer both that he had been behind and beside the car that crashed.

Carter denied racing and said he had not been driving fast. But he told the officer that occupants of the car that crashed were intoxicated, the documents say. Carter said he had seen the group downtown. The officer saw no sign that Carter had been drinking, however, the records say.

A toxicology test result released Wednesday showed that LeCroy’s blood-alcohol level was .197, about 2 1/2 times the legal limit.

An officer who examined Carter’s car found scuff marks on its roof that appeared to come from the power lines that fell when the Expedition ran off the road. The officer concluded the marks indicated Carter was driving much closer to the Expedition than he initially claimed, the documents reviewed by the Journal-Constitution say.

It is not clear whether the police questioned Carter about why he left the scene or where he went.

When Carter was stopped for speeding last September, an Athens police officer asked him few questions, police body-camera footage shows. But the officer, who criticized Carter for being “reckless,” said he had also recently ticketed other Georgia football players for speeding.

“When you’re around your teammates,” the officer told Carter, “just tell them to slow down.”

Our reporting

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has provided extensive coverage of a fatal car crash on Jan. 15 that killed a University of Georgia football player and a recruiting analyst. A week after the crash, the AJC reported that recruiting staff and players had left an Athens strip club minutes before the crash. In early February, our reporters highlighted how a UGA football staffer called the Athens police chief just after the crash and was given access to the crash scene as the investigation was unfolding. On March 1, the AJC published a story about UGA star Jalen Carter’s presence at the crash scene and questions he faced by police about racing. Athens police announced charges against Carter the same day, after the story ran. We’ll continue to follow the crash and the investigation.