Two young men, 20 and 18, facing north. Two straight lanes, clear and flat, inviting them into a very dark place.
They arrive at the stoplight at the Burger King just before 3 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2008, a white Ford Crown Victoria in the right lane, a green Mercury Grand Marquis in the left lane, music thumping from each. They’ve been at a party and go-go band practice. The driver in the Mercury is the group’s lead singer.
Let’s say Darren Bullock and Tavon Taylor race. Each will admit to it later; each will deny it later. But let’s say they start right here in the same spot, and let’s leave the video evidence and the eyewitness evidence and the skid marks and the cops and the state’s attorneys and the media attention out of it for a moment. Let’s just say they race because, quite simply, that’s what young men do here.
This is Indian Head Highway, Maryland State Route 210, one of the straightest divided highways in the Washington, D.C. area. At the northern end of the highway is the nation’s capital. From there it shoots south, running parallel to a section of the Potomac River where bald eagles nest. At the southern end of the highway, about 30 miles south of Washington, is the town of Indian Head, where boards cover up the windows of an old department store and an empty grocery store, and a bank has been turned into a church.
In the middle of the two worlds is an isolated stretch of road about 3 miles long without shopping centers or stoplights, lined mostly by woods. The highway has four lanes here, with extra turning lanes at intersections, and it’s divided by a grassy median strip about 30 feet wide. In the 1990s, a few new housing developments in the area attracted African-American families seeking suburban life in four- and five-bedroom houses away from the city. But those developments sit well off the highway, protected by access roads and a new tree line. There are no streetlights here, and at night darkness drops on these four lanes like a blindfold. In the winter months, when tree frogs and crickets aren’t around to sing, the quiet is broken only by the whoosh of passing cars.
Long, straight roads have drawn young men to race since the automobile was invented. Longtime southern Maryland residents say this part of the highway has been a popular racing strip for at least a half-century, back to when the road was only two lanes and girls wore ribbons in their hair and cheered for farm boys who competed in quarter-mile bursts. Kids here grow up listening to stories of their parents meeting at the races along Indian Head Highway. For decades, the crowds for the semi-organized yet illegal street races were nearly all white. In the past 20 years or so, they’ve become nearly all black gatherings of residents from lower Prince George’s County and western Charles County. No matter how the area ages or changes, racing on this road remains irresistible.
Far more races take place spontaneously, with young people of all makes and models testing the limits of engines and adrenaline. The closest town has two pizza delivery options, and if a Domino’s guy pulls up to the stoplight next to a Pizza Hut guy, one might rev an engine, the other might nod, and they just might go for the fun of it.
So on that frigid February morning, when Darren Bullock and Tavon Taylor leave go-go practice and head out Indian Head Highway and hit the last light for miles with nobody in sight, let’s say they floor it.
They accelerate past a liquor store named Big B’s and a crab shack named Doc’s and a bank that’s gone by many names. They pick up speed. At the break in the pavement at the county line, their tires go da-dum. The road rises a bit. Both cars have four doors and are full of passengers. Darren’s white 1999 Ford Crown Victoria, a model also known as the Police Interceptor, was once favored by nearly every law enforcement agency in the country. It was the cop car of choice for movies and television, too; in the 1990s most Hollywood police chase scenes included a Crown Vic. Its 200-horsepower, 4.6-liter, V8 engine is capable of reaching speeds of 120 miles per hour, and by the time these two young men reach the county line, it’s clear that Darren’s car is more powerful. Tavon’s green 1994 Grand Marquis is in many ways the Crown Vic’s twin, made by Ford’s Lincoln Mercury division, carrying under its hood a 210-horsepower, 4.6-liter, V8 engine and otherwise differing only in styling. But it’s five years older than Darren’s car, and tonight it is slower.
Both engines are howling. They’re more than 2 miles from where they started when they pass a factory that manufactures Beretta guns. A security camera pointed at the road records them flashing by, the white Crown Vic first and the green Grand Marquis three-quarters of a second behind, traveling at an estimated 102 miles per hour. It’s 2:57 a.m., and at this pace they could be at the front steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in less than 12 minutes. But they don’t have 12 minutes. And they’re not going that far.
They have only eight seconds, and 1,200 feet.
Out of the camera’s view, they roll. Darren is nearly a hundred yards ahead of Tavon now. His expensive stereo system is pumping. On this highway made for speed, this is his race to lose.
But as he follows his headlamps into an otherwise lightless night, he starts to see people.
They’re standing in the road, most of them in dark clothes, jackets, and coats, with their backs to him. He’s 300 feet away. With every revolution of his tires, his lights reveal more people. Some on the left side of the road, some on the right side, some in the middle. People on the shoulder. Two hundred feet. More people on the access road. One hundred feet. They’re everywhere. A few heads turn, their eyes wide. They start to scatter, but Darren can’t stop, and they can’t run fast enough. The Crown Vic measures 78.2 inches across and weighs 4,000 pounds. It’s a 6 ½-foot wide bullet taking aim at a crowd.
From behind, Tavon sees his friend’s brake lights flicker, then disappear down a small hill on the right side of the road. Tavon slams on his brakes. His green Grand Marquis skids to a stop, just short of the people, just short of adding more casualties to one of the deadliest crashes in the Washington area in a quarter-century.
Two minutes earlier, on the same two lanes, about three miles north of the light at the Burger King, two grown men line up in muscle cars that were brought here on trailers. Two hundred people, 300 people, some say 500 people are here to watch. They’re teenagers and grandfathers, moms and daughters, and they’ve come for a semi-organized street race on a 28-degree night in February. Bets are placed. Lines are drawn in the street.
A Ford Mustang is in the left lane, and a Chevrolet Camaro is in the right lane. These are so-called eight-second cars, built and tweaked to travel a quarter of a mile in eight seconds, reaching speeds of about 150 miles per hour in that short stretch. Before they start, they burn out, spinning the slickness off of their tires.
At about 2:55 a.m., a spotter sees two slow-moving cars coming from the south. He yells, “Car!” which is street-racing language for timeout.
People clear the road. The Mustang and the Camaro pull to the side. The innocent drivers roll through. “Just common courtesy,” a witness says later.
The race cars return to the highway. But again, “Car!” Only the Camaro pulls off this time, and another innocent driver idles through, the headlights causing the spectators to squint and turn their heads, before the car passes and they adjust again to the night.
As the Camaro lines up next to the Mustang for a third time, the starter’s flashlight is going dim in the cold. They have to go now. No more timeouts. They burn their tires against the cold blacktop for extra traction. The starter snaps the beam of light to the ground, signaling the start, and the engines roar.
After the cars take off, spectators behind the starting line pour into the street for a better look. They have no idea what’s behind them. The Mustang’s engine thunders, overwhelming all other sounds for these important eight seconds. The Camaro gets off slow. Something’s clearly wrong with its engine. The Mustang surges ahead. Glowing in the distance, the taillights tell the story. It’s an ass-kicking.
The spectators throw their arms up and start to walk away, bets won and bets lost, until someone yells that no, wait, the Camaro’s making a comeback. The man’s joking, though. “Made you look,” he may as well have said. The Camaro is still coasting to the finish. The Mustang wins. The engines start to go quiet.
What if he hadn’t said that? What if the people hadn’t paused, even for those few seconds, to turn and take another look, to lean around each other, to glance down the road again, to see? What if they had not taken those two or three extra steps back onto the highway?
Because at 2:57 a.m., they hear it again.
Hours earlier, in the basement of a house where the parents are out of town, Tavon and Darren are at a party, and Top Klazz Band is hitting that beat.
Go-go music, a style of funk that involves a range of instruments from horns to guitars to cow bells to conga drums, is a cornerstone of black culture in the Washington area. It’s been the soundtrack for house parties and small clubs in region since the 1960s, but only a handful of songs have made it to the national charts. As close as Baltimore is, just 45 minutes away, people generally shun the stuff, but in and around the capital beltway, love for go-go is passed down through generations.
Tavon, a senior at Lackey High School, is Top Klazz Band’s lead singer. He’s tall and thin with a wide smile. He lives with his mother, a corrections officer, in a townhouse about 15 minutes from here. Two of his aunts also work in law enforcement, as police officers in Washington. His family will say in court later that he’s more immature than most people his age, and that he’s easily influenced.
But he seems at home when the music’s playing. He’s a natural at freestyling. In the few videos he posts online, Tavon is at the center of the room, jumping with his arms in the air. In school, he’s part of a tight group of friends that travels together from class to class. Tavon and Top Klazz Band tried to enter the talent show at Lackey, a teacher at the school says later, but because the band includes guys who aren’t students, they were turned away.
Darren is a bit older. He graduated a few years ago and has young children of his own now, but he remains friends with many of the people in the group. He’s much shorter than Tavon, only about 5’6, but he’s solid. He was a reserve linebacker on the Lackey football teams that went to back-to-back state championships in 2003 and 2004. For people with ties to Lackey, an underdog school that pulls students from all over the rural western side of Charles County, those teams delivered a shot of pride, drawing thousands of fans each week. Kids from other schools had more money and access to luxuries like movie theaters and shopping malls, but in their stadium in the woods on Friday nights, the Chargers were the class of southern Maryland. “Our players set the tone for how the school ran,” says the head coach, Scott Chadwick, who’s since moved to North Carolina. “They were very well behaved. They set the example.” Darren was a typical Lackey kid, a hard worker who had to fight for every down he played.
One athlete and one singer, 20 and 18, at the same party.
After band practice, they break out pool sticks and Madden. About 20 people show up for the party. At 11 p.m., one of the band members gets a phone call to tell him that the street racers will be out on Indian Head Highway later, about 6 miles north of here. This is how street-racing crowds form — one call, then another, and in just a few hours, hundreds of people know.
They gather at a park and ride in Accokeek, a town with three stoplights that sits about halfway between Indian Head and Washington. In some parts of Accokeek, weeds grow over the windows of dilapidated houses. In other parts, security gates protect large homes where a few of Washington’s NFL players live. After everyone meets at the park and ride, the race cars and race fans move as a group a couple of miles south to a designated spot somewhere along that dark stretch of the highway. Tonight, the races will start near a carpet store at the northern end of the racing zone, at the intersection with Pine Drive, where a big, dirt parking lot provides plenty of spaces for spectators to park.
The person who calls the party to spread the word about the races is Brandon Lynch, Tavon’s older cousin. Lynch knows everything about racing, and when he talks he uses terms like “grudge racing” or “broke tracks” as if everybody should know what he means, and most do. Lynch pulls into the driveway to pick up a band member, but he never goes in.
Tavon walks out to say hi and to tell his cousin something. “The guy in the white Crown Vic,” Tavon says, pointing to Darren’s car, “wants to race you.” It’s hard to tell if he’s serious, but Lynch doesn’t know Darren, so he declines the challenge. They say goodbye. Lynch heads toward the carpet store parking lot for the eight-second races. Tavon goes back inside to the pool and Madden.
What happens in the next two hours will become the center of a debate that plays out over several weeks in a courtroom. After Lynch declines Darren’s challenge to race at the party, does Darren then challenge Tavon? Does Tavon say yes? Who gets into Darren’s car, and who gets into Tavon’s car? Do the two of them head to the stoplight at the Burger King, intending to race? Or does Tavon turn off at the previous street to take another member of the band — a boy nicknamed Peanut — home? Everyone from Darren’s brother to Peanut’s stepfather will give statements to police that say one thing, then testify in court to say something different.
This much is true, though: At 2:57 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2008, Lynch is standing on the shoulder of the highway watching a Mustang beat a Camaro. Meanwhile his cousin Tavon is driving his Grand Marquis north on the same highway when, just ahead of him, Darren’s Crown Victoria speeds into the crowd of screaming people.
For some, the sound they remember is something like popcorn popping. For others, it’s a hailstorm.
For Crystal Gaines, she hears the bass, coming from the white Crown Victoria. That’s what she’ll hear years later when she testifies in court. That’s what she hears at 2:57 a.m., when she holds her father’s hand for the last time.
William Gaines is 61 years old, a farmer with 14 grandkids and a love for street racing. He started bringing Crystal here with him when she was a young girl, and now she’s doing the same with her 13-year-old daughter. Three generations of the Gaines family are standing in the road when Crystal hears, “Car!”
She turns around. She remembers seeing the white Crown Victoria and hearing the sound system thumping. She grabs her daughter with her right hand and pushes her. She grabs her dad with her left hand and pulls him. But William broke both legs recently, leaving him with a bad limp, so he struggles to keep up.
Crystal pulls on her dad’s arm until she’s pulling on air.
A car meeting a body does terrible things. If you don’t want to know what those things are, please skip ahead to the next paragraph. But the jury will have to hear every word of it, and Crystal will have to see every bit of it, and everyone who was there has to live with it, so here is what happens to William Gaines: 13 inches above his foot, William’s leg is amputated. All over his body, his skin is torn and ripped. A cut that starts at his left ear wraps around his head to the right side of his neck. What’s inside the skull is ejected. “The brain was not there,” the medical examiner will say later. His ribs are broken. His neck is broken at the collarbone. His spinal cord is separated. A bone from his leg lodges in his abdomen. All of his internal organs are crushed.
Crystal screams. She chases after pieces of her father. “I can’t explain what he looked like,” she says in court later, “but he was laying there on the grass, and I was just screaming his name for a while because I didn’t know which body was his. I was screaming his name, just screaming, and he didn’t answer.”
William is one of eight people who will die from a love of street racing this night. Darren yanks the wheel hard to the right. The Crown Victoria turns sideways and slides through the right lane and down an embankment before finally coming to rest on the far curb of the service road that parallels the highway, near the front door of the carpet store. His path cuts through families from all over.
Blaine Briscoe was 49 and lived in nearby LaPlata. Daryl Wills was a 38-year-old husband. Milton Pinkney, 41, was a laborer and father of three. Ervin Lee Gardner, 39, lived in Oxon Hill but his family is in eastern North Carolina. Maycol Lopez was a 20-year-old father of one who came to the United States from Nicaragua when he was 6. Otis Williams was a 35-year-old father who was engaged to be married. Mark Courtney, 34, was a father of three and brother of five, and, according to his obituary, “a big teddy bear” who “enjoyed good food, the latest fashions, working on cars, and watching the car races.”
Nine other people, including a 15-year-old boy, suffer injuries that range from broken legs to concussions, but survive. The uninjured survivors rush from the scene. Many are seen on the Beretta factory’s security tape about two minutes after the accident, fleeing “like bats from a cave,” attorneys will say later. Most of those who stay are family members or close friends of the victims. In less than five minutes, the hundreds of spectators become just a couple of dozen witnesses.
Meanwhile, just after 3 a.m., a tractor-trailer carrying groceries heads northbound on 210. The driver sees a dark-colored car parked in the shoulder with its hazard lights on. He casually pulls into the left lane to pass and give the car room. As he goes by, he starts to make out people on the shoulder, which seems strange at this hour, but he keeps going until he runs over … something. He stops, parks on the shoulder, steps down from the rig, and walks back toward the graveyard on Indian Head Highway.
Legs and feet and fingers and bodies.
The grocery truck driver buckles over right there.
Corporal Christopher Hinkson’s 8-year-old son has a hockey game early the next morning. The 15-year veteran of the Prince George’s County Police Department is sleeping peacefully at 3 a.m. when his phone rings. He’s spent nearly half of his career in accident reconstruction, and he’s the lead reconstruction officer on call this morning.
The communications center tells him there’s been a fatal accident. Possibly a triple, he’s told.
Hinkson has seen hundreds of fatal accidents in his career. Many involve more than one person, so as he opens his eyes, he turns to his wife and casually tells her that he won’t be able to make the hockey game. He steps into the shower. His phone rings again. He steps out, dripping.
“It’s five,” the communications center tells him. “OK, I’m coming.” He steps back in and rinses off.
His phone rings again. He steps out and grabs a towel.
“It might be as many as 10. We don’t know.”
“We’ll need everyone who’s available,” he says.
Hinkson parks at the scene in Accokeek just after 4 a.m. and walks through with his flashlight. He can see his breath. And other things. There’s an arm in the road. A hand on the shoulder. Legs everywhere. Socks. Shoes. As one witness will describe it later, “It was ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’”
Hinkson buttons the top button on his coat and goes back to his car. He turns on the heat and stares ahead, trying to understand what he’s seen before he begins the process of trying to reconstruct it.
At about 4:30 a.m., another officer gives Darren a sobriety test. He aces it — 0.0. Blood stains dry on the car he’d always dreamed of owning. He’s uninjured, but shaken. Hinkson first talks to him at about 6 a.m. He doesn’t suspect the young man of anything but bad luck. He does know, though, that some of the first people who called 911 reported two cars coming from behind, but given this grisly scene, how could they possibly know what they saw?
His first thought is that Darren was just on the wrong highway at the wrong time. “We had a bunch of people standing in the road. It’s kind of foolish for them to be doing that in the middle of the night in the dark,” he remembers thinking.
The sun rises. It’s worse in the daylight, somehow, and you might want to skip this paragraph, too. Hinkson tries to approach it like any other accident. He marks the evidence. He takes pictures with a 35-millimeter camera, the standard for the PGPD in 2008. But he won’t need pictures to remember this. In the grainy photos, one white sheet is in the median on the left side of the road. One is farther up the road in the right lane. Four white sheets are on the shoulder. Another white sheet, not pictured, covers the body of Milton Pinkney, the laborer, who’s inside the front window of the Crown Victoria, torso first, his amputated legs on the passenger’s side floorboard.
At 9:48 a.m., at a hospital in Washington, the eighth victim, Ervin Lee Gardner from Oxon Hill, dies.
For a man in Hinkson’s line of work, numbers are the only way to make sense of such chaos, so he starts measuring. There are 155 feet of skid marks on the pavement, 76 feet in the grassy area, and another 55 feet on the service road. That’s 286 feet altogether.
And there’s another set of skid marks in the left lane. They measure 102 feet, but then they get mixed up with another set of marks, which are clearly not from a car stopping but a car starting.
If Darren had been racing someone, Hinkson knows he’ll never be able to gauge how fast the other car was going or even where it stopped because its skid marks blend in with the Mustang’s burnout marks. He can’t tell the difference between where one race began and where one ended.
At 10 a.m., a former NFL offensive lineman’s phone rings. On the other end is an acquaintance who’s speaking breathlessly. The night before, the caller says, he was racing on Indian Head Highway when a car came up from behind and plowed into people and those people died and shit, oh shit, oh shit, Rod, what should I do?
Rod Milstead is a bail bondsman. Before that he played offensive guard for three NFL teams — Washington, the Browns, and 49ers, winning a Super Bowl with the 49ers in 1994. Before that he was a standout at Division I-AA Delaware State, and before that he was a star at Lackey High School. After his NFL career ended in 2000, he moved home to take a job as part-time assistant football coach job at his old high school, where his jersey still hangs in the gym.
He started a bail bond business to keep busy and to earn a steady paycheck. He bought a 1997 green Crown Victoria to transfer drug dealers and robbers who had been accused of crimes. Some days, he drove straight from work to football practice at the high school. Around 2003, a young linebacker named Darren Bullock fell in love with Milstead’s car. Every time he saw it, the kid walked off the practice field and said, “Coach, you’ve got to sell me that car.”
Milstead laughed, but he liked the boy. Milstead has three daughters and he says he treats every boy he coaches like a son, but Darren was one of his favorites. The kid was short but compact, and he played hard. He also wasn’t immune to making mistakes. In 2005 he was charged with destruction of $57 worth of property and found guilty of theft of less than $500 a year later. Milstead was drawn to boys like Darren, because when you’re an NFL player and you come back to your hometown of boarded-up windows, you don’t come back to help the rich get richer. You come back to help those who might need it most.
“Do you know how many times I sped up and down 210?” Milstead says this spring. “We all make mistakes. I’m 45 years old, and I still make them.”
Darren wasn’t a star on the football team, and at his height he sure wasn’t going to make it to the NFL. But he and Milstead stayed close after graduation. Darren grew up to become a Baltimore Ravens fan. He became a father. And he bought a Crown Victoria, just like his coach, only a few years newer, and white.
On the morning of Feb. 16, Milstead has no idea that one of his favorite players was involved in the accident the night before. In fact, he doesn’t even know about the accident until his phone rings. It isn’t Darren, though, on the phone. It’s one of the drivers from the organized street race between the Camaro and the Mustang. The man wants to know if he should worry about being arrested for simply being there and taking part in an illegal, orchestrated street race with money on the line.
Milstead tells the guy to calm down. Under Maryland law, he knows, the man’s likely to only get a traffic ticket.
Turns out, he never even gets that. Nor do any of the other drivers from the organized races. Nor do the people who gathered there and helped arrange it.
The New York Times hustles to get a reporter on the story. The Washington Post sends nine. Word spreads on the national wires and cable news stations with some version of the headline: “Eight Die in Drag Racing Crash in Suburban Maryland.”
Hinkson works the scene until 1 p.m. before clearing Indian Head Highway and opening it to traffic again. Around the same time, Tavon’s phone rings.
It’s Lynch, his cousin, the one who came to the party the night before. Lynch was on the shoulder and narrowly missed getting hit. He saw the same white car that challenged him to a race earlier that night plow through all those people. Lynch suspects something more was going on, so he asks his cousin directly, “You weren’t racing Darren, were you?”
Tavon says no.
That question becomes the center of Hinkson’s investigation: Did two cars racing up from behind the organized street race cause the accident? Before the officer goes home that day, pressure already begins to build. The state’s attorney has seen this on television. So has the governor. People around the country will read stories tomorrow about the illegal street racing culture in Maryland. Someone must be held accountable, and the charge has to be more than a traffic ticket.
Everyone from CNN to community newspapers in southern Maryland devotes resources to exploring not just the accident, but the issue of drag racing. Residents who live nearby give nonchalant, almost cold, quotes. “It had to happen sooner or later,” one person tells the Times. For days and weeks, this plays out as a story not about bad decisions, but overarching morals. What are those people doing out there at that time? And even though the answer to that is quite simple — the lanes are straight and there’s not much else to do — the story grows into an indictment of all those who find street racing entertaining.
Hinkson, though, narrows his focus to Tavon Taylor.
A Crime Solvers tip comes in a few days later to say that the white Crown Vic was racing another car, a green Grand Marquis. Then a security officer at the Beretta factory calls and says he has a video of two cars flying north. Hinkson watches the tape. It sure looks like racing to him.
On Feb. 21, Hinkson and other officers pay a visit to Tavon’s house. He’s in the driveway working on the car’s stereo. His mother is inside. The officers stop him and question him. They take pictures of the Grand Marquis. Tavon gives a statement. He says he did come upon the scene of the accident. He says he stopped. He says he saw his friend Darren’s car wrecked in the service road, and he opened the door to see if he was OK. Then he says he left and kept going north toward his home.
A month later, in a follow-up interview, Tavon changes his story a bit: This time he says he not only stopped, but he picked up a few passengers. And instead of continuing north, he says he turned around and went south on 210 to drop his new passengers off at a gas station.
Tavon also has an alibi now. He says he was taking Peanut home when the wreck occurred. A month later, Peanut’s stepfather tells investigators that Peanut opened the door to the house at around 1:30 a.m., 90 minutes before the accident. He always knows when Peanut comes home because the house has door chimes. But in court nearly two years later, Peanut’s stepfather says the chimes didn’t go off until closer to 3 a.m., which happens to match the time Darren slammed through a crowd and killed eight people, which would mean Tavon couldn’t have been a few hundred feet behind in the next lane at the same time.
Four months and several conflicting witness statements later, on the morning of June 29, 2008, Tavon testifies before the grand jury. He swears under oath that he wasn’t racing Darren. The grand jury believes Hinkson’s investigation, though, and that afternoon indictments are issued for the arrest of each young man.
The state’s attorney’s office, which directed Hinkson to pursue charges against Darren and Tavon instead of the drivers of the Camaro and the Mustang who were the reason the crowd was in the road, issues a press release about the indictment immediately. That afternoon, before police can arrest Tavon, news crews gather outside of his house.
Tavon calls his father, who’s at work as an assistant chef at the local hospital. John Dyson leaves the kitchen right away. He sees his son’s face pressed against the screen in the window of the upstairs bedroom, looking down at the satellite trucks. When Dyson walks inside, Tavon is out of sorts. Dyson smells marijuana in the house. Tavon sits on the couch and starts crying. His dad hugs him and tells him it’ll be OK.
Around 4:30 p.m., three sheriff’s officers show up with the warrant and walk into the house. They don’t smell marijuana, but they do see Tavon crying. Tavon’s dad asks that when they take his son away, they put a red ball cap on his head to help hide his face. They agree to that, and the cameras can’t get a good shot.
At the station, Tavon is put into a small room downstairs. He doesn’t have an attorney with him. About two hours later, after what Hinkson calls a “come to Jesus” moment with another sheriff’s officer, Tavon confesses to racing.
The confession is nine pages. It’s written in the officers’ handwriting and signed by Tavon. He says that Darren challenged him at the party, “Come on, Tavon, race me! Race that slow-ass Marquis!” He says he lied about taking Peanut home. And when he’s asked what happened when the light turned green, he says, “We go.”
He apologizes to the officers for lying. Hinkson is stunned. The case of his life is complete. He has not just evidence but an admission: Darren and Tavon were racing that night. Foolish youth or not, they were racing, and that’s why those eight people died. You can’t charge “the culture of street racing” with manslaughter, but you can charge two young men with it.
Hinkson transports Tavon to the Prince George’s County jail sometime around 9 p.m. He drops the prisoner off and watches the jail staff process him. As Hinkson leaves, the last thing he hears is one of the staff members say, “Hey, Taylor, your lawyer’s here.”
The thing about justice in America is this: Where there’s a high-profile crime, there’s opportunity.
In walks J. Wyndal Gordon, whose self-given nickname is The Warrior Lawyer, a savvy, fast-talking, camera-loving defense attorney who has devoted his life to raising a reasonable doubt. One of his previous clients was John Allen Muhammad, the man convicted of being the sniper who terrorized the Washington area in 2002.
Now Gordon walks into the jail to meet Tavon. He starts raising those doubts immediately.
That young man in jail? He’s naïve. He was coerced. He was threatened. He was just driving his buddy Peanut home.
The fact that people saw Tavon and his green car at the scene? He’s a good Samaritan who was there to help.
Those skid marks? What do they prove?
That confession? Well, he later tells the ladies and gentlemen of the jury in his opening statement on Feb. 2, 2010, the young man was high.
The state doesn’t like to lose high-profile cases. It sends state’s attorney Glenn Ivey and assistant state’s attorney Wes Adams, both of whom have political aspirations, to work the cases together and try to get convictions.
One case is easy. Darren, the driver of the blood-stained white Crown Victoria, doesn’t have The Warrior Lawyer on his side. Instead, he has a public defender, who recommends that he plead guilty to all eight counts of manslaughter in exchange for a lesser sentence. He does so on Jan. 28, 2010. The judge agrees to wait to sentence him until after Tavon’s trial. The proceedings last one day.
Tavon’s trial begins less than a week later. It could be a movie all by itself. With The Warrior Lawyer involved, it lasts a month, and by the end of it jurors regularly send notes to the judge begging to be dismissed so they can go back to work. In the trial’s first week, Gordon’s grandfather dies, and the proceedings are delayed so he can attend the funeral in Georgia. During the second week, a storm dumps 3 feet of snow in the area. People call it Snowmageddon. In the third week, Hinkson takes the stand for a day and a half. In the fourth week, Gordon puts on a show during closing arguments, bringing his client to the front of the room to hold a computer and a protractor to try to prove that the car in the Beretta video wasn’t his. “That’s child’s work,” Gordon says, holding the measurement tool, mocking the prosecution’s expert witnesses.
The Warrior Lawyer and the state’s attorneys slug it out with each other every day, trading snide comments and sharp criticism. The 1,982-page court transcript contains hundreds of objections and calls to the bench from the judge. At one point, the judge threatens to fine Gordon $100 for his next act of misconduct. He gives four more warnings, but it’s not until Gordon essentially accuses Hinkson of fabricating evidence that the judge finally asks for the money. Gordon snaps, “I don’t have $100.” The judge responds, “I’m not saying you have to do it now, Mr. Gordon.” Then the Warrior Lawyer asks the judge to retract the fine.
For four weeks, everything is an argument, until March 1, 2010, when the defense has rested and the state has rested and everyone’s waiting for a verdict.
The jury’s note to the judge at 10:12 a.m. that day offers a glimpse of what’s about to happen. “If we unanimously agree on two charges, but are split on eight and ultimately remain split, does this mean all 10 charges will be thrown out? Resulting in no accountability for Tavon?” The judge issues a formal reply, that he has already provided all the information he can.
After 15 hours of deliberation, they return a verdict. Tavon is guilty of reckless driving and engaging in a speed contest, they say. But on the eight counts of manslaughter, one for each person who died that night, nine jurors favor conviction, three don’t. Mistrial.
The state’s attorneys, Ivey and Adams, make big statements that afternoon, saying they’ll re-try the case vigorously again that fall, but they know that won’t happen. They can’t re-create a case like this. They can’t re-create tears from some witnesses or catching others in a lie. They can’t spend another month in court. They can’t put people through that. They know they’ll never get a full conviction.
The jury’s message is this: Tavon was racing Darren that night, but he didn’t hit anybody and probably isn’t guilty of killing anyone. He won because he lost the race.
The next day, Darren arrives at the courthouse for sentencing and tells the court he accepts responsibility for his actions. The judge responds sternly, “By your extremely reckless and wanton conduct, you struck and killed eight men. No one who was there that morning will forget the carnage they saw.”
On March 2, 2010, two years after he sat at the stoplight at the Burger King and gunned it, and one day after the driver of the other car was set free, Darren is sentenced to 15 years. His family and friends bawl outside the courthouse. Speaking into news cameras, they tell the families of the victims that they’re sorry for their loss, but now, they’ve lost, too. Milstead, the former NFL player who helped bail both men out of jail when they were arrested, is still angry.
“Why is Darren’s role so much bigger than everybody else’s?” he says. “Everyone knew they shouldn’t be out there, period.”
Three months after he’s sentenced, Darren sits down in his jail cell and pens a letter in neat handwriting to the judge. “I have enrolled in every self-help group that this institution has to offer,” he writes. “I would also like to better my future while I’m here by attending college courses and shop programs.” He asks for a modification to his sentence to help him meet the guidelines for attending the college program — among them, he needs to have less than seven years left on his sentence.
His request is denied.
Tavon, meanwhile, enrolls at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he majors in accounting. In the fall of 2010, Tavon’s retrial is pushed back. Nothing happens at all in 2011, except that people move on. Tavon becomes a sophomore in college. The attorneys work new cases. The witnesses try to forget what they saw.
Finally, on Jan. 30, 2012, Tavon quietly makes a trip to the Prince George’s County Circuit Courthouse. The Warrior Lawyer quietly makes the drive down from his office in Baltimore. Adams, the assistant state’s attorney, quietly makes his way to the courthouse, too. The same judge is also here. No news crews or reporters are alerted.
With nobody watching, they reach an agreement. Nearly four years to the day after the accident, after dozens of false statements from witnesses and a month-long trial that covered Snowmageddon and ended in a deadlocked jury, Tavon enters an Alford plea of guilty to two counts of manslaughter, the same charge Darren faced, in the deaths of Ervin Lee Gardner and William Gaines. In an Alford plea, the defendant maintains his innocence but admits that the prosecution has enough evidence to find him guilty. Most of the time, defendants use an Alford guilty plea to avoid the harsher sentence that would come from going to trial and losing. Prosecutors generally accept the plea to avoid a trial and the possibility a defendant might be found not guilty and go unpunished.
In exchange for this admission, Tavon gets five years probation, a $1,000 fine, and no jail time.
This time, there is no press release.
Two young men, older now. Two guilty pleas, slightly different, to the same crime.
On May 10, 2014, one young man is in a prison in Hagerstown, Maryland; the other receives a degree in business administration in front of a crowd of more than 5,000 people at Shaw University’s graduation.
In January 2015, one is in a prison in Hagerstown, Maryland; the other starts his first day at work as a loan verification analyst for a major bank in Raleigh, according to his LinkedIn page.
In April 2015, one is in a prison in Hagerstown, Maryland; the other texts a writer to reschedule an interview about his life since the night of the accident. He says he forgot that he has a performance at North Carolina Central on the evening of the interview. He doesn’t explain what the performance is, but he’s courteous. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” he texts. “Just be having a lot going on lol.”
Tavon reschedules the interview for the following Tuesday at a barbecue restaurant in Raleigh, but he never shows. He stops responding to texts and calls, but that’s really not all that important in the grand scheme of this story.
What is important is this: The young man in the right lane in the Crown Victoria is in prison, and the young man in the left lane in the Grand Marquis is a college graduate who has a good job and a lot going on.
Darren doesn’t respond to two letters sent to him in prison requesting an interview for this story. His family politely declines. An aunt who helped raise him is still a career counselor at Lackey High School, same as she was when Darren was a student there in the early-2000s. She says it’s in Darren’s best interest that they don’t comment.
What’s a mistake worth? It seems that depends. If you’re any of the boys who’ve raced on this highway over the last 50 years, it might’ve cost you a speeding ticket. If you’re one of the eight-second street racers from the night of the accident at Accokeek, there’s no penalty at all. If you’re one of the eight people swept away by a speeding car while watching an illegal race, it’s your life.
When the cameras were on this case, the attorneys were brilliant and persuasive and battled like crazy. But two years after Darren was sentenced to 15 years, those same people worked out a deal to give Tavon probation and a fine for pleading guilty to the exact same charge.
The attorneys’ careers certainly weren’t hurt by the accident. Adams says that “Accokeek,” as he refers to the case, was “a once-in-a-lifetime prosecution.” Then he thinks about it and says he’s had other good ones, too. “I’ve had a Forrest Gump career about catching good cases at good times,” he says, and Accokeek was a good case. This past fall, he was elected to be the state’s attorney of Anne Arundel County, one of the richest counties in one of the richest states in the country.
Meanwhile, Ivey, the state’s attorney on the Accokeek case, is running for Congress this year in Maryland’s Fourth District. As of early April, the Democrat had raised twice as much as his closest competitor.
Gordon continues to be seen in places where he can be seen by many. He talks for an hour about the case and, even now, never concedes that Tavon was racing. This spring, Gordon was on camera speaking at a protest in front of Baltimore City Hall after Freddie Gray’s death. His Twitter page includes a picture of him holding up his fists. He was one of the last people to talk to John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, before his execution in Virginia. Afterward, Gordon told reporters that the sniper’s last meal was, “chicken and red sauce, and he had some cakes.”
Seven years and a month after that night, Hinkson is driving back to the scene, holding an apple that’s browning around the edges of the bites he’s already taken. He pulls into the parking lot at the carpet store where everybody gathered. A sign on the door says “Beloved Community Church.”
“It’s a church now,” the officer says. “Go figure.”
He parks and walks across the service road, into the grassy embankment where the Crown Vic slid, kicking up bodies like a tornado. Traffic moves swiftly on Indian Head Highway, headed north. Hinkson stands back and reconstructs what he saw that night by pointing, apple still in hand.
“I can see everything vividly,” he says. “I can picture that white car down there with the blood on the hood. Organs on the windshield. I can see the guys trying to find out who the feet belonged to based on the sock.”
“We were trying to match socks.” He lets out an uncomfortable chuckle, trying to soften the delivery of such an awful sentence.
Despite several efforts to stop street racing in the area, it still happens, organized or not. In July 2010, Prince George’s County police impounded cars from nearly 200 people after breaking up a nighttime race that was to start only one mile south of where eight people died in 2008.
Still, Hinkson says that even if racing does occur, he’s almost certain it doesn’t start from this spot.
“I think it’s sort of sacred ground,” Hinkson says, standing in the grass next to a highway marker that reads “North: Maryland 210.”
He’s a sergeant now, and he says the Accokeek case will be the defining case of his career. He has 20 years of service, and he’s thinking ahead to retirement. He won’t do that until he puts his two kids through school. They’re teenagers, and he thinks about them when he hears that Tavon graduated from college last year. “That’s a testament to how you can put the past in the past,” Hinkson says. “I’m sure he’s never going to forget it. He was very young, and hopefully he’s grown up and matured. And he’s gotten his education. Really, you can’t ask for anything more.”
Even after he retires, Hinkson says he’ll probably find a job that’s tied to law enforcement. He might even come back to teach accident reconstruction, he says.
Rebuilding scenes through math and science is how he makes sense of a world that can produce a scene like this one, a world where people lie and the media drives pressure and some people get punished and others don’t. He uses the numbers.
Based on all of his years of training, Hinkson says the quickest a driver can see a hazard, react to it, and take action is 1.5 seconds. At 102 miles per hour, Darren would have traveled 224 feet before he could hit the brakes. That’s the absolute best he could’ve done.
In the pitch black of Indian Head Highway, he couldn’t have seen the people standing in the road until he was 302 feet away from them. That means that even if he hit the brakes as soon as he could, he would’ve been only 78 feet from the people before the car started to slow.
According to Hinkson, at 102 miles per hour, a car needs 495 feet to stop on pavement.
It’s simple math. Darren couldn’t have stopped the Crown Victoria. Not by a long shot.
But when it comes to Tavon’s Grand Marquis, math isn’t much help.
If Tavon was racing that night, and let’s say he was because the jury found him guilty of it, he had the benefit of seeing Darren’s brake lights flicker. He had time to stop. He had time to pull over to the side of the road, right to the spot where more than half of the witnesses say they saw him. For all the chaos and things that make no sense about this nightmare on Indian Head Highway, those witnesses paint a fairly consistent picture of the lasting image of Tavon Taylor.
After the burnouts, after the false starts, after the white Ford Crown Victoria screams into view, after people yelp and cry, after a daughter loses the grip of her hobbling father, after the car spins and bowls down an embankment, after pieces of people fly everywhere, after the wheels come to rest on a curb, the occupants of the car get out and run away from it.
But they don’t turn off the music.
Up on the shoulder of the highway, Tavon stands in the doorway of the green Mercury Grand Marquis, his right foot in the car and his left foot on the ground, his right hand on the roof and his left hand on the door. People run desperately all around him, searching through bodies and body parts, crying and screaming and hoping to not find loved ones. The young man just stands there in that dark place, frozen stiff on a cold night, his favorite music thumping from his friend’s blood-stained car, looking down at all the death he would’ve caused if his car was the faster one.
And let’s say living with that is punishment enough.