When his grades started dropping, Zach switched to a part-time schedule. He put off plans for college.
Ben Patton—whose brother Bobby is a Young Life leader who helped pull the teens from the car—told Zach he wouldn’t bring honor to anybody by letting the tragedy destroy him. He needed to go on.
“That was one of the struggles,” says Patton, a father of seven. “How does a 17-year-old boy do that without having the appearance that he doesn’t care?”
People in town recognized Zach when he was out. At school, he felt peers were whispering. “Oh, that’s Zach Kimble,” he imagined them saying. “He’s the one who crashed that car on Hawkins Creamery Road.”
Brittany came home from Kennedy Krieger just before Christmas weighing 97 pounds. Her hair hadn’t grown out, and her head looked flat on one side.
She was scheduled to have the bone in the right side of her skull repaired in December, but an infection postponed the surgery for three months. At home she wore a foam helmet to protect her head. Sometimes her baby brother didn’t recognize her.
Brittany couldn’t be left alone. She wasn’t able to stand for more than a few seconds because she couldn’t keep her balance. She’d laugh for no reason. “When you would talk to Brittany, her mentality was that of about a ten-year-old,” says Tammy.
She’d eat a big dinner, lie down to go to sleep, and tell Tammy she was starving—she didn’t know when she was full. She hardly spoke.
Before the crash, Brittany had been a teen who only wanted to wear Hollister and Abercrombie. She and Tammy would sit in the car and sing along to the radio or just talk. Not anymore.
“For the first three months, she would just sit in the back seat and stare out the window,” Tammy says.
She and Joe bought bed rails and a chair for the shower so Tammy could bathe Brittany. When one of them went to help her get up from the couch, Logan would run and open the bathroom door and come back to help push the wheelchair.
Tammy had planned to work part-time after Logan was born, but now she was caring for a toddler and a teen.
When Tammy was driving Brittany to physical therapy one day, she started thinking about Zach. He should be here, Tammy thought. It’s not fair that he’s off at school or a football game and I’m helping Brittany deal with the life she’s been given because of his mistake.
Ryan’s family wanted Zach charged with vehicular manslaughter. They wanted to see charges brought against his parents for allowing him to drive without insurance and violating the terms of his provisional license.
“His parents handed him the loaded gun, and he pulled the trigger,” Ryan’s sister, Kara, says.
Zach’s mother didn’t realize that her son wasn’t allowed to drive other teens. They’d moved from New York two years earlier. “We did not know the laws, and we should’ve known them,” she says.
Brittany’s parents wanted Zach’s family punished. Her stepfather had a friend who’d been killed by a drunk driver and, at the request of the victim’s parents, the judge had made the man send a $1 check to the mother every week. On it he had to write: “This is for killing your son.”
Assistant state’s attorney Paul Zmuda struggled with the decision. To charge Zach with vehicular manslaughter—which for juveniles carries a range of penalties including probation, placement in substance-abuse treatment, or up to 12 months in a juvenile detention center—Zmuda would have to prove that he’d been driving in a grossly negligent manner.
In Maryland, gross negligence is defined as “a wanton and willful disregard for human life,” and in rare cases excessive speed alone can qualify. But there’s a high standard for gross negligence—drivers charged with manslaughter have often been drinking or have broken multiple traffic laws, such as running a red light and hitting a pedestrian while speeding through a school zone.
According to Werts’s police report, the Volvo was going at least 55 miles an hour.
“At what point does speed become ‘excessive’?” says Zmuda. “Case law doesn’t exactly say that if you were going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit, that is excessive. You need to look at the environment they’re in.”
A driver going 30 miles an hour over the speed limit on the Beltway might not face the same charges as someone driving that fast on a city street or in a school zone. Zmuda had to consider other factors, such as the curve in the road.
Zmuda and state’s attorney John McCarthy met with Werts and other members of the collision-reconstruction team five months after the crash. Werts laid out his case. They talked about the driver of the oncoming car, who’d said Zach was going faster than 55.
“It’s tough to determine the speed of another car if you’re going the opposite way, so we need to rely on the expertise of the collision reconstructionist,” Zmuda says. “If there were additional factors—if they’d been drinking, if they’d been drag racing—it would’ve tipped the scales towards prosecution.”
Zmuda didn’t think he had enough evidence to charge Zach with vehicular manslaughter. He says the case might have met the standard for a lesser charge of negligent homicide—death caused by an act of negligence—but Maryland doesn’t have that statute. The District has a negligent-homicide charge; Virginia does not.
Maryland has two levels of charges for sober drivers who cause a death: traffic citations and vehicular manslaughter.
“There is far too big a gap,” Zmuda says. The Maryland State’s Attorneys’ Association has been lobbying for more than a decade to make negligent homicide a charge.
“I couldn’t imagine a situation where my wife, son, or daughter got killed and the person’s getting traffic tickets,” Zmuda says. “But many times that’s the situation we are in, given the laws that we have.”
Zach had to pay $710 in fines for his tickets. He never appeared in court, and his driver’s license wasn’t revoked. Because Zach was never charged with a crime, police say, it would have been up to the MVA to take his license away.
“This was not a depraved-heart act. This was not a reckless-endangering act,” says Zach’s attorney, Tom Heeney. “I give credit to the police and to the prosecutor’s office for not making more of this case than it really was—a tragic death, but not as a result of any criminal activities.”
Ryan’s sister, Kara, says she knows kids with drunk-driving convictions who didn’t hurt anybody but are in more trouble than Zach. “It’s just made to look like a joke,” she says. “You go over the speed limit on a windy road and kill someone? Don’t worry about it—just pay $710.”
Damascus High School sponsored a walkathon in May to help Brittany’s family with medical costs. They owed thousands in hospital copays, and their insurance wouldn’t pay for all of Brittany’s therapy. Because Zach was excluded from his parents’ policy at the time of the crash, GEICO wouldn’t cover any of the other passengers’ medical claims. The families had to rely on their uninsured-motorist coverage.
A friend of Tammy’s organized a T-shirt sale; the design was based on Brittany’s favorite Bible verse, Philippians 4:13—I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Doctors had replaced the bone in Brittany’s skull in March, and she’d started talking more. Soon she took her first steps on her own. A month later, she went back to school for a few classes a day. At night, she hid in her room.
On a Facebook page dedicated to Ryan, she wrote: “last night i read all the newspaper clippings and stuff and cried hysterically. its so hard walking through the halls and not seeing you. your just not there and its so hard to deal with. and esp knowing i was there i coulda done something . . .”
Hundreds turned out for the fundraiser, held at the school track. Brittany walked with Kirstin. “I walked a mile—it was the farthest I’d walked,” Brittany says.
Kara was talking with Brittany and other friends on a platform near the track, wearing Ryan’s jersey, when she saw Zach walking toward her. Kara jumped off the other side of the platform.
“He killed my brother,” says Kara. “It’s in the first six months that he really had to stand up for what he did—and he didn’t.”