BYRNES MILL, Mo. — Cecelia Williams awoke to a knock at her door and looked at her cellphone.
“I opened the door to a state trooper and a police officer,” she recalled. “They asked who I was, and they asked me how I knew Lacey Newton, and I told them, that's my daughter-in-law.
“Then they asked me about my son Cordell. And then they proceeded to tell me that they were in a fatal accident.”
Williams kept looking past the officers.
“I was thinking, ‘They're right around the corner. This isn't true. Where are they?’” she recalled.
She peppered the officers with questions.
“Are they OK?”
“Can I go see them?”
“Where's the baby? They have a baby. Where is he?”
“The trooper put his head down, you could tell he was he was stressed,” Williams said. “He put his head back up and said, 'Ma'am, all three occupants of the vehicle were killed in a fiery crash. They're unrecognizable.'”
Police say a drunk driver plowed into the back of their car.
In that moment, Williams realized she was all the couple’s remaining children had left. They happened to be sleeping at her house that night, on April 14, 2021.
Bentley was 4. Mason was 2.
“All five could have been in there,” she said. “This is hard enough to deal with, I don't think I could have dealt with all five.”
The kids needed her right away. Williams needed financial help and justice.
That process took longer than she ever thought, in part because of a delay in accident reconstruction reports from the Missouri Highway Patrol.
The I-Team discovered she’s not alone, and neither is the Missouri Highway Patrol as accident reconstruction teams in Illinois struggle to keep up with a soaring number of fatal accidents, too.
Williams’ family members were among more than 30,000 people killed during traffic crashes in 2021 nationwide, a 12% increase. That’s the largest increase since report writing began about 25 years ago, according to a February report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Delays in reconstruction reports mean longer wait times for prosecutions, wrongful death lawsuits and answers, Williams said.
“No one should have to wait months and months,” Williams said. “I know that they're doing the best that they can. It is a shame that they don't have the manpower, but they try to do what they can when they can, but things get backlogged really bad.”
Missouri Highway Patrol spokesman Cpl. Dallas Thompson blames the pandemic for the surge in fatal crashes like the one that killed Williams’ family.
“We were seeing less than 50% of the amount of traffic on the roadways,” Thompson said. “Schools were closed, businesses were closed, restaurants, people couldn't go out and do anything.
“We would stop cars daily in excess of 100 miles per hour, we'd ask them, why were they driving so fast, and the answer was just, ‘There wasn't any traffic on the roadway. I didn't think I was hurting anybody.’”
Drunk driving crashes rose, too.
The agency also showed 312 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in Missouri in 2020, a 32% increase over 2019.
How long it takes
Accident reconstruction officers map the initial crash scene, create scene diagrams, and use computer-aided drawing and photomosaic software to study the crash. They also follow up with interviews, prepare and execute search warrants, conduct structural analysis of crashed vehicles, collect and process evidence and prepare search warrant returns.
Their reports include technical calculations, mappings, computer-aided drawings, crash analysis, search warrant findings, airbag module data, interviews, witness statements, photographs and investigative summaries.
The Missouri Highway Patrol has 16 reconstruction officers divided into four teams that cover the entire state.
“They’ve got a lot of ground to cover,” Thompson said.
Thompson said reconstruction teams are finishing most of their reports in 50 to 60 days, double the amount of time it took to complete investigations before the surge in fatal crashes.
They’ve been called out about 120 times already this year.
Thompson said the Highway Patrol did not know how many reports are still pending this year but estimated about a quarter of them remain incomplete.
All but one remain outstanding from 2021.
Reports for crashes like the one that claimed Williams’ family — in which criminal charges are likely and impaired driving is suspected — take longer, Thompson said.
Wait times are up for accident reconstruction reports from the Illinois State Police, too. There, fatal crashes their Traffic Crash Reconstruction Unit worked between 2019 and 2021 increased by 25%.
In Illinois, 21 reconstruction specialists cover the state.
In 2021, it took an average of 84 days to complete a report, said Master Sgt. Christopher Watson. He said they are about 100 pages long, on average.
The Illinois State police have 20 open cases from 2021 and another seven are still open from this year, he said.
What’s being done
Thompson said the Highway Patrol is taking steps to try to reduce the backlog by increasing enforcement to reduce accidents.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean tickets, just seeing a trooper can just slow people down,” he said. “We want to be out there. We want to be seen. We want to be visible. We want to have voluntary compliance.”
Highway Patrol leaders are also talking about changing the criteria for how often reconstruction teams are called out.
“We have troopers across the state that are very well trained to conduct a crash investigation, so maybe there's some of these crashes that we're reconstructing that the troopers are able to do most of that work themselves,” Thompson said.
Commanders are also asking the legislature for more money to hire crash reconstruction specialists, but Thompson said budget requests can take a year and police departments nationally are struggling to recruit new officers to the profession.
“We’re experiencing hiring issues just like every police agency across the country is right now,” he said.
Williams said the state police should consider streamlining the amount of paperwork investigators have to complete to cut down on report writing time, too.
“There's something that has to come along to help them because their job is to help us and that's what they want to do, but as long as they have all this other stuff added on, it makes it hard for them and it makes it hard for the families that have to wait for those reports as well,” she said.
In addition to raising awareness about the delays in accident reconstruction reports, Williams is also pioneering legislation that would require impaired drivers to pay child support for children whose parents are killed in crashes they cause.
On the night they were killed, Williams’ son and his wife were doing their last GrubHub delivery for the evening. They were three days away from moving into a new apartment, so their other two children were staying with their grandmother until then, she said.
Mason is now 3. Bentley is 5.
“They loved the outdoors, they loved camping, they loved fishing, they loved four-wheelers, they really enjoyed doing things like that, especially with the kids,” she said of her son and his wife.
She’s naming the law after her first-born grandson, and has started an online fundraiser to help cover her costs to take the law nationwide.
He was also the first one she told about the accident.
“I said, ‘Remember how my mom told you that sometimes God comes and he takes people to heaven?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘God came and he took your mom and dad and your baby brother to heaven.’ He looked at me in just utter shock. And he started crying. And he said, ‘No, grandma, they're not dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, they are.’ That was hard. It was really hard.”
David Thurby, 26, has been charged with three counts of DWI resulting in death, operating a motor vehicle in a careless and imprudent manner, marijuana possession and driving without insurance.
His trial is scheduled for August, about a year and a half after Williams got that fateful knock on her door in the middle of the night.