Deadly West Virginia chase called a 'blur'

February 07, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The man charged in the crash that left an Inwood nursing student dead cannot remember the events surrounding the Nov. 24 high-speed chase, his attorney said in court Friday.

Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., of Gerrardstown, has been charged with driving under the influence resulting in death, a felony.

Sparkman, 28, sat quietly in Berkeley County Magistrate Court through Friday afternoon's lengthy preliminary hearing, which ended with Magistrate Harold "Gene" Darlington ruling that enough evidence exists to bind Sparkman over to the next term of the Berkeley County grand jury.

The suspect, who was seriously injured in the early-morning crash that left 21-year-old Amanda Marie Smailes dead, wore a head brace to court. He did not testify.


West Virginia State Police described in detail the 12-mile chase along U.S. 11. Police said the chase reached speeds in excess of 107 mph.

Trooper Kevin Plumer said he went to the suspect's car after it had rear-ended Smailes' 1989 Ford Escort near Smileys Inn on U.S. 11 in Darkesville. The suspect's car had struck a boulder, overturned and hit a tree at a nearby house, police said.

Plumer testified he found the driver lying face down and moaning on the ground outside the car. Plumer said he detected the smell of alcohol.

Sparkman's attorney, Aaron Amore, questioned state police about the number of high-speed pursuits they have conducted, and whether they had considered calling off the chase with Sparkman.

But Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely argued: "We are not here to try the state police."

Sparkman had used cocaine earlier in the day, State Police Sgt. Scott Wigal testified. Wigal read in court a statement taken from someone who was with Sparkman that day.

Plumer said Wigal, who was in another cruiser, asked him during the chase whether he had been able to get the car's license number. If the license tag had been proper, Plumer said, police could have called off the chase and picked up the car's owner the next day.

Police later discovered that the expired registration plate on Sparkman's car belonged to a Ford van owned by a Bunker Hill couple, according to state police records.

Plumer said the chase started about 1 a.m. when he saw a car swerving off the shoulder of U.S. 11 near Musselman High School south of Inwood. Plumer tried to pull the car over, but the suspect sped away, police said.

Several miles down the road near the community of Pikeside, Wigal attempted to block U.S. 11 near Woody's Market, but the car went around the officer's cruiser and continued to the intersection of U.S. 11, W.Va. 45, and W.Va. 9 just outside of Martinsburg, police said.

The suspect attempted to turn left onto W.Va. 45 but lost control, spun around in the intersection and collided head-on with Plumer's cruiser, police said.

Plumer said he started to step out of his cruiser at the intersection, but the suspect's car then took off in the opposite direction on U.S. 11.

On the way to Darkesville, the suspect continued to drive recklessly, running motorists off the road and speeding at more than 100 mph, Plumer said.

"It was kind of a blur," Plumer testified, trying to recall the string of events.

Police believe the suspect's car may have been traveling about 100 mph when it struck Smailes' car near Smileys Inn in Darkesville. Smailes, a Musselman High graduate who was studying nursing at Shepherd College, had been on her way home from her job at Wal-Mart.

The pursuit was filmed by a crew from the television show "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol." The tape, which was never aired, was not shown during Friday's hearing.

Neely said Amore could view the tape, but only in her presence. Otherwise, the tape will remained sealed in Circuit Court, Neely said.

State police Superintendent Thomas Kirk has turned down The Herald-Mail Co.'s Freedom of Information request to view the tape.

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