Family of Amanda Smailes still hurts a year later

November 23, 1997


Staff Writer, Martinsburg

INWOOD, W.Va. - For John and Cynthia Smailes, just raking leaves brings memories of their daughter rushing back.

Amanda Marie Smailes, 21, was killed one year ago today when her car was crushed by another car being chased by West Virginia State Police.

"Last year she was obsessed with raking the leaves up so they wouldn't get into the yard of the lady next door," Cynthia Smailes said last week.

"Amanda cared about people so much, right down to not wanting Frances to rake leaves," she said of her daughter's concern for their elderly neighbor.


Early on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 24, 1996, Amanda Smailes was driving home on U.S. 11 from her job at the Martinsburg, W.Va., Wal-Mart.

Her sister Pamela, who still works at Wal-Mart, took Interstate 81 home.

Robert Lee Sparkman Jr., 29, of Gerrardstown, was fleeing from police at speeds exceeding 100 mph when he struck Smailes' 1989 Ford Escort, sending it off the road and into a utility pole.

In the year since the crash, Sparkman was convicted of driving under the influence resulting in death; the state's laws against fleeing from police were toughened; and the family filed a civil suit against Sparkman, the state police and a company that was videotaping the chase for a television show.

In that same year her family has tried to come to terms with their loss.

"It's not a natural thing," John Smailes said of a parent outliving a child.

With a year gone since the crash, other family milestones are tinged with pain, Cynthia Smailes said. "Every one of these firsts hurts a lot."

Last Thursday was the birthday of their oldest daughter, Christi Keller.

"This is the anniversary of the last time we were together as a family. It really smacks you between the eyes," John Smailes said.

Amanda was in her third year at Shepherd College when she was killed. She had hoped to work with the elderly after graduating from the nursing program, John Smailes said after her death.

The police chase with Sparkman began at about 1 a.m. when Trooper Kevin Plumer tried to pull over a suspected drunken driver near Inwood. In the cruiser with him were two producers for the syndicated television show "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol."

Sparkman was northbound when the car spun out of control at the W.Va. 45 intersection and struck Plumer's cruiser before fleeing south on U.S. 11, according to court records.

After smashing into Smailes' car, Sparkman struck a boulder and overturned. He had only minor injuries. He was convicted and sentenced in June to one to 10 years in prison.

As of July 1, the penalty for driving under the influence resulting in death was increased to a maximum of 15 years in prison, a direct result of Amanda's death. The bill was introduced by Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley.

Faircloth said he had worked on the same legislation before the fatal accident, but her death "seemed to fuel the drive for passage of the legislation." It became widely known as the "Smailes bill."

Faircloth said Thursday he had recently met with state police superintendent Col. Gary Edgell and "he indicated it was being used quite a bit around the state."

The bill also increased penalties for fleeing police. Failing to stop for an emergency vehicle had been a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Now penalties range up to five years in prison if the driver is under the influence.

Of the civil lawsuit, John and Cynthia Smailes said they are not bitter toward the police. John Smailes said he wants "strong, crystal-clear guidelines" on how to conduct a pursuit so as to lessen the danger to other motorists.

He and his wife have joined in several grief support groups since the accident, including Stop Tragedies of Police Pursuits (COPPS). Both take anti-depressants.

"Sometimes it helps. Sometimes it doesn't," Cynthia Smailes said.

Theirs is not the only area family to lose someone in a police pursuit. It was not until after the accident that she discovered that a woman she worked with at Tuscarora Elementary School, Goldie Cox, had lost a sister years before.

"We've had a lot of people who have shown us a lot of love and support," John Smailes said.

At Wal-Mart their daughter's picture is framed by a wreath at the service desk and a scholarship has been set up in her name.

On the floor there is a star with her name, one of five honoring associates who died since the store opened, according to manager Jim Waters.

Time may lessen the family's pain. But even with the passage of a year, "Never an hour goes by that she isn't on our minds."

Before leaving for their daughter's birthday, John Smailes said, "We've got to hang together to keep from falling apart."

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