UPDATE, Jan. 27, 2015: Christopher Hinnard was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide, and will spend fifteen years behind bars. Click here for the story
Original story from May 10, 2014:
On this Mother’s Day weekend, I can’t get my mind off one mother in particular. I saw her interviewed by WRCB’s Kimberly Barbour on the news Friday. Her story needs to be told, her voice needs to be heard. While most of us will celebrate this wonderful day honoring, or remembering our mothers, Elizabeth Wilhoit will be hurting. “It is an emotional pain that is also a physical pain,” she told me. “Sometimes I’m sure my neighbors can hear me crying.”
Last year, on the night before Mother’s Day, Elizabeth’s son was on a mission. 45-year-old Allen Phillips was driving a taxicab. A financial analyst by trade, Allen had lost his job during the economic slump a few years earlier. He had built a solid clientele as a cab driver, becoming the go-to guy for well-heeled bar hoppers who knew better than to drink and drive. Allen was a classy cabbie, wearing a coat and tie, and passing out his business cards. “Just give me a little notice,” he’d say, “and I’ll be there for you.” On this Saturday night, he asked his dispatcher for the most lucrative route of the night, a trip from downtown Chattanooga to Chickamauga, Georgia. “I want to surprise my mom with something nice for Mother’s Day,” he said. “I could use the extra cash.”
Elizabeth Wilhoit had three children, all from her first marriage. Two daughters also live in the area, but middle child Allen had become especially close in recent years. After Allen lost his finance job, Elizabeth and her husband persuaded him to move in with them. “We were buddies, he would always ask me if there was anything I needed,” she said. “He was a big presence in my life.”
On that night before Mother’s Day, there was a knock on the door. It was a traffic investigator from the Chattanooga Police Department. “Is Allen Phillips your son? I’m afraid there’s been an accident.” He gave her the details. At around 7:25 p.m., Allen was driving southbound on Rossville Boulevard. Another driver, obviously impaired, crossed the center line, striking Allen’s van head-on. “Your son is dead,” Elizabeth was told. In addition to his mother and sisters, he was survived by a daughter and a grandson.
What has happened in the year since that fatal accident, is very disturbing on a number of levels. Wouldn’t you like to think that if this happened to a family member of yours, that you would be contacted occasionally, and kept informed on the progress of the investigation? That’s what Elizabeth thought too. But it didn’t happen. “We bugged the police department for months. They knew who did it, so why didn’t they pick him up? The investigator gave me his card that night. He told me if I ever needed anything, just call. He never, ever called me back. We finally got a form letter saying investigations couldn’t go forward until toxicology reports from Nashville were completed. So we checked there, and they just said they were really backed up.”
Elizabeth’s friends and family kept working the phones, and learned the toxicology report was complete about three months ago. The tests revealed the other driver, 35-year-old Christopher Hinnard, had seven different drugs in his system that night. Why wasn’t he being arrested? They were told the case was in the hands of the Grand Jury. More months went by.
Finally, last Wednesday, 362 days after her son died at the hands of an intoxicated driver, Elizabeth got a call from her sister. She had checked the online police booking reports each day, and had made contact with a friend in a neighboring police department. When the arrest was finally made, she got a call. The charges against Hinnard were vehicular homicide, failure to maintain lane and DUI.
The family also learned of Hinnard’s past record. DUI charges in 2000, 2006 and 2008. “How is this allowed to happen?” Elizabeth asked. “This man has proven he doesn’t intend to change. Every time they catch him, he pleads guilty, pays a fine, gets a suspended sentence, and they let him out due to good behavior. Then he goes out and kills an innocent man. Why aren’t people outraged about this? Why aren’t they upset about a legal system that enables repeat offenders?”
Hinnard’s arraignment date is set for Friday May 16, but Elizabeth won’t be there. She was diagnosed with colon cancer three months ago, and will be at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville on Friday for tests. The following week she will undergo surgery, and her doctors tell her it could take four months to recover. She says that won’t stop her from attending Hinnard’s trial, which is set to begin in early July. “I WILL be there,” she exclaims, “I may be in a wheelchair, and I may only be able to sit, but I have to be there. Allen was always there for me.”
“I’m 69 years old,” Elizabeth said. “I want Christopher Hinnard to hear me. I am so weak, I am very depressed. If I could talk to him, I would tell him: You not only killed my son, you killed me too. I am no longer alive. I hurt so bad, not just physically, but emotionally. I hurt so bad, so horribly inside, I have actual pain in my heart. You might as well have killed me.”
After a year of being given “the runaround,” of getting little or no communication from those she counted on to fight for justice on her behalf, Elizabeth Wilhoit is hoping to be strong enough to withstand serious surgery and the trial of the man who is charged with taking her son’s life. As we observe Mother’s Day, and we honor the women who gave us life, let’s also remember Elizabeth. She is among many mothers grieving children whose lives were cut short.