A life lost, a law changed by hot pursuit

In 1996, a drunken driver being pursued by West Virginia State Police smashed into Amanda Smailes' car, killing her. Since then,

In 1996, a drunken driver being pursued by West Virginia State Police smashed into Amanda Smailes' car, killing her. Since then,

December 30, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

INWOOD - On the other side of Cynthia Smailes-Rybak's back yard, cars, pickup trucks and tractor-trailers rumble by, visible and audible as they make their way up and down Interstate 81.

It's the road Smailes-Rybak's daughter, Amanda Smailes, could have taken Nov. 24, 1996. But Smailes didn't like the high speed required on the interstate, and chose instead after ending her shift at Wal-Mart to drive home on U.S. 11, a two-lane road that parallels the interstate.

There, a drunken driver slammed into the back of Smailes' car, pushing it into a utility pole. Reports indicate the driver may have been going as fast as 100 mph.


Smailes was killed.

The driver, Robert Lee Smallwood Jr., who was 28 at the time, was being pursued at high speeds by West Virginia State Police Trooper Kevin Plumer. Plumer had members of a video crew from a reality TV show in his car.

Since then, Smailes-Rybak has pushed for a policy to regulate high-speed pursuits. From her efforts, a brief paragraph indicating pursuits were up to an officer's discretion has been replaced by an in-depth policy.

An interview with Smailes-Rybak and her former husband will air on the cable television A&E channel Jan. 5 at 10 p.m. on the show "The Point." The episode, titled "In Hot Pursuit," deals with police chases.

The accident

It was 1:06 a.m. when Sparkman's Nissan 200 SX slammed into the back of Smailes' 7-year-old Ford Escort.

Sparkman had reportedly been drinking at an area bar. Smailes was on her way home after working an unscheduled shift at the Martinsburg Wal-Mart. Although Smailes had not planned to work that evening, she called her employer beforehand and asked if she could work. A nursing student at Shepherd College, Smailes worked at the store to earn extra money.

One of Smailes' two sisters, Pamela, worked at the store that night, too, but left in a separate car and took the interstate home.

Smailes died about 10 to 14 minutes after the crash, her mother said, just as Smailes-Rybak and her sister were talking during a visit at her sister's home near Pittsburgh.

Around the time Smailes died, her mother and aunt both felt a "wave of dread." Around 4 a.m. they received the phone call.

"'We lost Amanda to a drunk driver,'" Smailes-Rybak remembers being told by her husband at the time, John Smailes.

Resuscitation efforts by a paramedic who lived by the accident site failed. Smailes was pronounced dead around 1:45 a.m. at City Hospital.

Sparkman, who was ejected from his car, was also seriously injured in the wreck, but later was indicted on a felony charge of DUI causing death.

"His sentence was one to 10 (years)," Smailes-Rybak said. "Mine was life."

Sparkman served about five years before he was released over the summer. He has not contacted Smailes' family since then.

Amanda Smailes

Smailes-Rybak reaches for a tissue offered by her husband, Ted Rybak. Family friends for years, the two married in December 2000.

Smailes-Rybak wipes her eyes, blows her nose and apologizes.

"I still leak," she says. "I don't fall apart and cry anymore. I just leak."

Her husband says something nearly inaudible, but gives her a sympathetic look. She then concedes that she does not break down in public any longer.

Before taking the tissue, Smailes-Rybak has been telling stories of her daughter's life, cut short 21 years, eight months and three days after her birth.

Amanda Smailes and her mother attended Shepherd College at the same time, Smailes as a nursing major, Smailes-Rybak as an elementary education major. Smailes-Rybak now teaches third grade.

Smailes was not the type of young woman to be embarrassed by the fact she attended school with her mother. Should Smailes spot her mother, she would often yell "Mummy" three times, a frequent greeting.

"If she saw me, the world had to know her mother was there," Smailes-Rybak says.

Smailes befriended AIDS patients at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg and made friends with just about everybody in her high school - even those not typically considered part of her clique, her mother says.

"She collected friends. She didn't like things," Smailes-Rybak says. "If she could find somebody to talk to, she just bubbled. She had an aura around her that drew you to her."

After her death, a stranger wrote to Smailes-Rybak, saying Smailes' line at Wal-Mart was always the longest, as people waited for a chance to be the recipient of a smile and kind words.

"Going through Amanda's line always made her day," Smailes-Rybak says of the letter writer. "That was Amanda's life. There was no such thing as a stranger."

Smailes and her boyfriend, whom she met during high school when the Smailes family lived for a year in Ravenswood, W.Va., would have been engaged had they been able to afford a ring.

Smailes-Rybak still has a picture of the ring the couple had picked out. And she keeps in touch with Smailes' former boyfriend, a U.S. Marine.

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