NC man gets 14 years for fatal crash during police pursuit

Published 8:44 am Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye  During his sentencing hearing in Criminal Court on Monday, Robert Cook apologized to family members of Dalton Reece and said he hoped they could forgive him.

Star Photo/Abby Morris-Frye
During his sentencing hearing in Criminal Court on Monday, Robert Cook apologized to family members of Dalton Reece and said he hoped they could forgive him.

A North Carolina man who was charged with vehicular homicide in connection with a fatal crash during a police pursuit last year received an effective prison sentence of 14 years on Monday after pleading guilty to multiple charges in the case.
Robert Alan Cook, 23, of Elk Park, N.C., appeared in court Monday for sentencing after having previously entered a guilty plea to charges of vehicular homicide, theft of property over $10,000, felony reckless endangerment, felony evading arrest and driving on a suspended license during a court appearance in April. Cook entered what is called a “blind plea,” which means he pled guilty to the charges as presented without reaching a negotiated agreement on sentencing with the District Attorney’s Office. On Monday, Judge Lisa Rice heard arguments from both the defense and prosecution regarding their positions on what sentencing should be as well as testimony from a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer and victim impact statements written by the family and friends of the victim in the crash, 17-year-old Dalton Reece.
The charges against Cook stem from an incident on May 22, 2015, where Cook admittedly stole a Honda Pilot SUV from North Carolina and then fled from officers of the Avery County N.C., Sheriff’s Department in the vehicle. The police pursuit began in Elk Park and then proceeded into Roan Mountain, Tenn., as Avery County officers continued to chase Cook.
During the pursuit, officers said Cook reached speeds of around 100 miles per hour and was driving into oncoming traffic.
The pursuit ended on Crabtree Road in Roan Mountain after Cook lost control of the SUV, which went airborne and wrapped around a tree about 50 feet down an embankment near the Doe River. Reece, who was a passenger in the SUV during the pursuit and subsequent crash, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Cook suffered serious injuries and was transported to a local hospital for treatment. Following his release from the hospital, Cook was arrested and taken to the Carter County Detention Center.
As part of his sentencing hearing, Cook’s attorney Assistant Public Defender David Crichton said his client would like to enter a statement of allocution. During a sentencing hearing, a defendant is allowed to make a statement regarding their offense but, unlike testimony on the stand, no one is allowed to ask the defendant questions during an allocution statement.
Cook directed his statement to family members of Reece who were in the courtroom for the hearing. He described Reece as “a good friend” and said despite the fact they had not known each other long they had grown close as friends.
“On May 22, 2015, I made the worst decision of my life and I have to live with that every day,” Cook said. “If I could take it back or even change places with him I would.”
Cook said he could only imagine the grief felt by the family and he hoped that one day they would forgive him.”
After Cook finished giving his allocution, Kimberly Reece, the mother of Dalton Reece, asked if she could address the court and Cook, which Judge Rice allowed.
“I forgive you and I want you to get your life straightened out,” Kimberly Reece said, adding she had gone to school with Cook’s father. “I know you’ve had a hard life and made some bad decisions, but I forgive you. Just do everything you can to get your life straightened out.”
In reviewing the facts of the case before rendering a sentence, Judge Rice shared some of her thoughts on the case and the sentencing laws surrounding the offenses. She particularly addressed a statute that allows a sentenced to be enhanced if the offense was committed for the excitement or pleasure of the defendant.
“I know we typically only think of this in regard to sex offenses, but I think it applies in this case,” Rice said, noting Cook’s criminal history with charges of stealing vehicles and evading arrest. “I think Mr. Cook has itchy fingers when it comes to stealing from cars, or stealing cars, and running from the police.”
“I think it excited him. I think he liked running from the law,” she added. “I think he enjoyed stealing a car and catching a blue light in the mirror.”
Rice sentenced Cook to eight years in prison on the vehicular homicide charge. She sentenced him to eight years on the theft of property over $10,000 charge and ordered that sentenced to be served concurrently with the vehicular homicide sentence. Rice then sentenced Cook to serve six years on the felony evading arrest charge, with that sentence to run consecutive to the vehicular homicide sentence. Cook received a sentence of three years on the felony reckless endangerment charge and five months and 29 days on the driving on suspended license charge with those sentences to run concurrently with the felony evading arrest sentence.
In total, with the concurrent and consecutive sentences, Cook received an effective prison sentence of 14 years in the case. He was classified as a “Multiple Range II Offender,” which means he will have to serve 35 percent of his sentence before he is eligible for release.
After sentencing Cook, Rice made noted Cook only had an eighth-grade education and encouraged him to take advantage of the education and job skill opportunities that will be available to him through the Tennessee Department of Corrections while he is serving his sentence.
“Don’t let Mr. Reece’s death be for nothing,” Rice said as she referenced Elizabeth Reece’s plea for Cook to straighten his life out. “Don’t come out of the Tennessee Department of Corrections a worse person than you are going in.”

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