Hit and Run

Joni Teal and her boyfriend claim that she, not he, should be in prison for the death of Evelyn Pritchard. But authorities don't seem to believe them. Maybe it's their seven DWIs.

The thunderclap of metal striking metal slowly gave way to the screams of three children -- two boys, ages five and six, and a nine-year-old girl. When their mother's pickup struck a Taurus, the kids were thrown against the dash, then onto the floorboard. They were scared, but not seriously injured.

Water from the truck's smashed radiator evaporated into the hot, late-afternoon air of Mother's Day 1995. Coolant leaked onto the pavement, commingling with motor oil and shattered glass at the intersection of Highway 90 and Sheldon Road.

But there were no skid marks at the intersection -- nor any other indication that the truck's driver had applied the brakes before driving 50 miles an hour through a red light and broadsiding the gray car.

Most likely, the Taurus's driver, 77-year-old Evelyn Pritchard, never knew what hit her. A Lifeflight helicopter flew her to Hermann Hospital, and a short time later, she was pronounced dead.

A few months later, a Harris County jury convicted Jeffery Allen Thompson of manslaughter in Pritchard's death. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Justice appeared to have been served.

But since Thompson's conviction, the case has taken a bizarre twist. For the past several months, the family of 29-year-old Joni Teal -- Thompson's girlfriend -- has been trying to persuade anyone who will listen that it was actually Teal, not Thompson, who was drunk and behind the wheel the afternoon that Evelyn Pritchard died. Teal's family has gone so far as to engage a defense attorney to have Thompson freed -- and to see that Teal is put behind bars.

Claiming to be bothered by a guilty conscience, Teal says she has been trying to make things right since last spring. She's told her story to the judge who presided over Thompson's trial, and signed a notarized confession that she was driving the pickup. A polygraph test indicates she is telling the truth.

It's unlikely that a grand jury would indict Teal with Thompson still in prison. And obviously, justice wouldn't be served by putting both behind bars for a crime that only one could have committed. But in the case of Thompson and Teal, serving time might be good for them both -- and for everyone else on the road.

"I probably sound like a drunk," says Jeffery Thompson, 30, sitting behind a Plexiglas jail window. Not only does he sound like one, but his five DWI convictions would seem to be convincing proof that he is one.

Thompson has been incarcerated since the afternoon of the accident: first in the Harris County Jail, then in the Larry Gist State Jail near Beaumont. Round-faced and slow-eyed, Thompson has put on weight in prison. He spends much of his time in the produce fields, hoeing rows of green beans and hot peppers. It is not a job Thompson likes. But then, even as a free man, he never much liked working.

Thompson says he was born in Fort Bend County, either in Richmond or Rosenberg ("whichever one has the hospital"). After his parents split up, his dad committed suicide. Jeff moved in with his grandmother in Houston, where he dropped out of school after the eighth grade and earned a living as a roofer and carpenter. He soon discovered that he much preferred to set his own hours, and began to divide his time between drinking, recycling beer cans and scavenging pieces of scrap metal. On a good day, he could bring in $250 to $500. "You just have to know the right places to sell the stuff," he explains proudly.

But even on good days the money didn't last long, especially after he hooked up with Joni Teal in 1992. She lived in Cloverleaf, an east Harris County community where dogs sleep in the street and people landscape their trailer lots. Thompson came calling with a friend who had designs on Teal, but it was Thompson who hit it off with her. "I went to visit one evening and wound up staying all week," he brags.

Teal, as the country song goes, was no maid of cotton. Bloated and surly from years of boozing, she had two DWIs, three children, and liked to party.

Thompson fondly recalls their outings. About three years ago, on another Sunday afternoon, he and Joni struck up an acquaintance with a man who needed a ride back to Louisiana. Thompson agreed to drive him.

"None of us had any money," Thompson recalls, "so we decided to wahoo us some gas and beer." They pulled into a service station's lot, filled the tank and grabbed a case of cold beer. Then without paying, they ran out the door, yelling "Wahoo!"

The trio headed east on Interstate 10. When they reached the little town of Winnie, the Louisianan insisted on stopping for a while so he could panhandle customers outside a restaurant. Jeff agreed to pull over, but he wasn't happy.

The two men got out of the truck and, after a brief argument, agreed to part company. But by then, Thompson had other problems. Joni had also gotten out of the truck, and was stumbling, drunk, around the restaurant parking lot. She announced that she wanted to drive back to Houston. Thompson grabbed her by her T-shirt and tried to muscle her into the pickup's cab. During the struggle, Joni wiggled out of her T-shirt, revealing that she wasn't wearing a bra.

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