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.
"So I grabbed her by her shorts, but she slipped out them, too," says Thompson. Luckily, she was wearing panties.
Oblivious to the scene they were creating in the restaurant parking lot, wiry Thompson and bearlike Teal wrestled around the truck before he was finally able to push her into the vehicle.
On the way back to Houston, Thompson left Joni sprawled half-naked on the seat where she had passed out, providing a passing peepshow to the drivers of 18-wheelers.
Just outside Houston, the pickup blew a tire, and Thompson pulled into a truck stop. A couple of state troopers were there to meet him.
The officers opened the door, grabbed Thompson and threw him to the ground. Teal began to come to, and the troopers asked if she were all right. "Hey, that's my old man," she replied. "And where are my clothes?"
Thompson was arrested and convicted of driving while intoxicated -- his fifth DWI. He was jailed at the probation department's Baker Street facility, but escaped by simply walking away.
Thompson and Teal were soon reunited, and doing what they seemed to love most: drinking and driving.
The last time Bobbie Puckett saw her grandmother alive, she was driving away from her other granddaughter's home in northeast Harris County, where she had celebrated Mother's Day. As usual, Evelyn Pritchard had given everyone a good-natured hard time.
"She had come to my sister's house to get her goodies -- that's what she called them," Puckett laughs. "And she got a little sideways with me because I didn't even have her a card. But I apologized and hugged her neck and she told me that I owed her one."
Joni Teal celebrated Mother's Day in a very different fashion: chugging beer and getting stoned.
Shortly before noon, Teal, Thompson and Teal's three children climbed into their pickup and headed for Love's Marina on the east bank of the San Jacinto River. Along the way, Thompson and Teal bought several six-packs of beer and some Cokes for the kids.
As Thompson and Teal drank, the kids swam under the river's bridge. Teal struck up a conversation with some folks who occupied a nearby picnic table and, before the afternoon was over, was sharing their marijuana.
By four o'clock, with the beer supply almost depleted, Thompson decided it was time to head for the house. Teal disagreed, and she and Thompson argued. Finally, the drunken couple and the children piled back into the truck, its floorboard littered with beer cans, and headed west on Highway 90.
Even under the best of circumstances, Highway 90 seems dangerous. A four-lane road with gravel shoulders, the industrial thoroughfare is home to pipe yards, pallet factories and blue-collar beer joints. There's a constant ambient noise of the air brakes and grinding gears of 18-wheelers trying to pick up a head of steam between traffic lights.
As the sun sank in the late-afternoon sky, neither Teal nor Thompson saw Pritchard's car ease into the intersection.
Emergency personnel from an east Harris County volunteer fire department arrived at the scene of the collision shortly after the accident. With the help of bystanders, they pulled Pritchard through the passenger-side door of her sedan.
While paramedics tried to save Pritchard's life, Jeff Thompson and Joni Teal were trying to get their stories straight. Huddled inside a nearby convenience store, the couple pleaded with the kids to tell police that another man had been driving the truck -- someone named Robert, who had been wearing a cowboy hat and had run away after the accident.
Joni's oldest child, nine-year-old Jamie, had sustained minor bone fractures in the wreck. When Jamie was loaded into an ambulance, Teal saw an opportunity to leave the scene. Like any concerned mother, she accompanied the child in the ambulance. But after the ambulance arrived at Sun Belt Regional Hospital, she abandoned the child and headed off on foot for the sanctuary of the nearest bar.
She sobered up three days later, then fled to East Texas to hide out for a few months on her father's farm, near Carthage. There, she thought, she'd be safe from the police.
Thompson also tried to flee the scene of the accident. Witnesses say that after he emerged from the shattered pickup, stunned and panicked, he stumbled toward the convenience store. He was bare-chested, and blood was pouring from his left knee. He reportedly asked a passerby for a ride but was refused. When he seemed about to walk away from the scene, he was forcibly restrained by an off-duty police officer.
Both sets of families -- Pritchard's and Teal's -- quickly made their way to the accident site. After the Lifeflight helicopter took off for Hermann, Pritchard's granddaughter, Bobbie Puckett, lingered at the scene for a few minutes to thank those who had worked to save her grandmother's life.
Jeffery Thompson, assumed to have been behind the wheel of the truck, was placed in the back of a county patrol car. There, he screamed to everyone within earshot -- especially members of Teal's family -- that he had not been driving.
A few minutes later, Thompson was given a blood test. The results showed that his blood alcohol was .36 -- more than three and a half times the legal limit.
Jeffery Thompson had been in trouble before, but never like this. At his trial, six months after the crash, three witnesses testified that he'd been behind the wheel. It took the jury only 90 minutes to convict him of intoxication manslaughter and sentence him to 15 years in prison.
"I am absolutely convinced the jury made the right decision," says Harris County prosecutor Marcy McNutt.
Joni Teal is visibly displeased that her family has brought her to McDonald's to be interviewed. On a July evening two years after the crash, she makes no effort to hide her contempt for her relatives and the reporter who has come to hear her story.
"Boy! Down!" she bellows at her youngest, who is climbing on the restaurant's play equipment. The child freezes and seems to brace himself for punishment.
Teal's claim to have been driving the pickup is nothing new: The jury that convicted Thompson heard it. But Teal apparently wasn't convincing, perhaps because she was lying about other matters. She testified that on the day of the accident, she'd drunk nothing stronger than Dr Pepper. Now she admits that she'd been drinking beer for more than four hours before trying to drive home.
"I hit the steering wheel, and when I woke up I could see a white car," she mumbles. "The kids were crying, and I asked Jeff to trade places with me. He said, 'Hell, no.' I couldn't get out the driver's side, so we all got out on the passenger side."
Mahona "Joe" Jones, Teal's aunt, is a security guard at the Harris County courts complex. She listens intently as her niece recounts details of the fatal crash. It's a story she's heard before -- and it's a story she thoroughly believes. A hard-shelled woman with red hair, Jones has been obsessed with getting Thompson out of prison. And she believes passionately that her niece should be put behind bars for her own good. After the trial, Jones says, Teal's drink-ing increased.
Teal wanders around the corner of the restaurant to smoke, and Jones confides that, these days, Teal is rarely sober. Later, Teal is unresponsive when asked about her current level of drinking. But under her breath, she grunts something about feeling guilty about sending an innocent man to prison.
"Don't get me wrong," says Jones. "I love Joni, but Joni needs help."
This spring, Jones posted fliers at stores and businesses along Highway 90. Anyone who'd seen the accident was asked to call her.
She says that three people did, and their stories matched Teal's.
On the afternoon of the wreck, Donna Moore, an employee of a Galleria-area title company, was headed down Highway 90 on her way to Channelview. After driving through the intersection at Sheldon Road, she heard a crash behind her. She pulled to the side of the road, looked back and saw a man getting out the truck's passenger-side door.
"The guy got out first," says Moore. "There's no question in my mind."
That same afternoon, inventory manager Ricky Ellison was working at Technical Industries on Sheldon Road. When he heard the crash, he looked out his office window and saw Thompson standing outside the passenger door of the truck. Ellison admits that Thompson could have gotten out on the driver's side and walked around. "But if he did," says Ellison, "he must have flown."
The Press was unable to reach the third person who contacted Jones. But in a sworn, notarized statement, 19-year-old Jason Barnes claims he saw Teal driving the truck before the crash. Barnes said that he was confused when deputies arrested Thompson.
Around the same time that Mahona Jones was posting her fliers, fledgling attorney Dave Boyle overheard her discussing the dilemma. "Immediately I thought this was a hopeless case," says Boyle. "But I also saw this as an opportunity to do what I became an attorney to do -- which is to intervene when someone's getting screwed."
After meeting with Teal, Boyle believed that she was telling the truth. But so far, the case has remained hopeless.
Last May, Boyle arranged for Teal to speak to Bill Harmon, the state district judge who presided over Thompson's trial. The judge suggested that Teal take a polygraph exam.
Boyle quickly arranged an appointment, and on May 31, Teal was interviewed for an hour while hooked up to the polygraph. John Swartz has conducted the tests for 15 years. He says he's never been more convinced about a client's veracity.
In August, Swartz's findings were sent to a Harris County grand jury, which was asked to reexamine Thompson's case.
Two and a half months later, Boyle has heard nothing from Judge Harmon or the grand jury. Harmon, however, was willing to speak with the Press: He'd be more inclined to believe Teal, he says, if she signed a statement saying she was willing to assume Thompson's 15-year sentence.
Lately, however, Teal has done nothing to indicate she would be willing to take such a step. According to Boyle, last week Teal hit the road for Florida and is on the run again.
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For the past three months, Jeffery Thompson's grandmother has held a daily vigil in front of the Harris County Criminal Courthouse. Arriving each morning by eight, Ester Forrest passes out fliers proclaiming Thompson's innocence. In the flier, a photo of Thompson shows him dressed in his prison uniform, sporting a sad, goofy smile.
In her three-room trailer in Cloverleaf, Forrest keeps another picture of Thompson taped to the wall. He's wearing his prison whites with a black graduation cap, receiving his General Education Diploma during a prison ceremony. Prison forced him to give up alcohol and allowed him to finish his high-school education.
But he seems no wiser. In prison, a reporter asked whether, if he somehow won his freedom, he'd continue drinking.
"Maybe just in the evenings," Thompson replied.