HERNDON, Va. — A Northern Virginia family wants laws changed after a distracted driver caused an accident that killed an 86-year-old grandfather and war veteran. The driver walked away from court with just a small fine and not a single day of jail time.
“We were confused. We were hurt. We were angry,” said Callie Williams.
William Glass was dedicated to family. And country. A retired member of the CIA, Glass met his wife Phairak while serving in the Vietnam War.
“We've been married for 55 years,” she said. “We never had one fight.”
“He is the one that kept our family together,” said Williams, who is Glass’s granddaughter.
“Anything we needed he was there.”
When Glass died as the result of a distracted driving crash last year, the family said Fairfax County failed them all.
Glass was driving his wife to a doctor’s appointment on Fairfax County Parkway in Herndon on April 4, 2022. They were stopped at a red light when a 35-year-old man named Leonel Alvarado slammed his small dump truck into the back of the couple’s minivan.
>Watch the first part of this story below:
Through a translator, Alvarado initially told investigators his truck suffered a mechanical failure.
WUSA9 reviewed Fairfax County Police body cam video which captured the exchange.
“There was a flaw with the breaks, apparently,” the translator said to investigators speaking for Alvarado. “I tried to stop the car, and I press the breaks with my feet but it wouldn’t respond.”
Minutes later the police body cam shows investigators spotting another man standing on the side of the road, identified in court documents as Melvin Alvarado Lopez. Lopez also spoke through a translator, telling police he was a passenger in Alvarado’s truck. And, that a break failure was not the problem.
“OK, so was the looking at his phone when the accident happened?” the police officer is heard asking Lopez on the body cam video.
Lopez answered Alvarado was searching for an address in Google looking down at his phone just before impact.
Glass’s family believes the 86-year-old leaned over to protect his wife just before impact.
“His right leg was completely broken in half,” Glass’s granddaughter said.
“His spine was broken in three different places. His diaphragm was turned upside down over his lungs so that he couldn't breathe on his own.”
The war veteran clung to life in his hospital bed for four months.
“And he said 'I will try,'” Williams said breaking down in tears. “I'm gonna try to fight. I’m gonna try. And he hold his fist up. I’m gonna try.”
As hard as he fought. William Glass passed away on Aug. 3, 2022.
“The whole family was there,” said Williams. “We were all there together.”
At first Fairfax County Police called it a case of “Reckless Driving” which can carry jail time. The officer at the scene can be heard telling another officer he was going to start the paperwork right there at the scene.
“I’ll start writing it out reckless on this guy,” the officer says on the body camera video.
But after police consulted with the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, the charge was downgraded to holding a phone while operating a vehicle, and driving without a license since Alvarado only had his learners permit at the time of the accident.
In court, William Glass’s family expected a trial. They didn’t get it.
“It wasn't even a case,” Williams said. “There was no case. It was just the driver getting charged with his traffic infractions. And that was it. There was nothing said about him killing somebody else because he was on the phone. There was nothing said about anything. Yeah, it was just this is what you're being charged with. And that's it.
Williams said the court proceeding lasted less than five minutes.
What happened next shattered the Glass family. All over again. Alvarado walked out of court with a $125 fine. The citation totaling $192 with court fees.
That $125 fine for distracted driving, the only penalty the driver would face as a first-time offender. The driving without a license charge was dropped because Alvarado passed his full drivers test in the months leading up to court.
“There's no justice, no nothing,” Williams said. “What's going to stop [someone] from doing it again? What's going to stop someone else from doing it again? When there's nothing.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descacno called the case a “tragic situation” but said prosecutors’ hands were tied.
“The Commonwealth’s Attorney takes traffic fatalities seriously;” wrote a spokesperson. “However, Virginia’s current distracted driving laws impose a high legal bar to prosecute traffic fatalities as criminal cases, and the substantial evidence required to ethically charge a defendant for reckless driving or manslaughter is rarely available.”
But distracted driving advocates say that wasn’t the only problem with the way authorities handled the investigation.
Fairfax County Police failed to do a forensic exam of the driver’s cellphone which could have provided digital proof of what Alvarado was doing on his phone at the time of the accident.
“How do they know that person was only on GPS when they were holding their phone?” said Jennifer Smith, CEO of Stopdistractions.org.
In a statement, Fairfax County Police told WUSA9, “A forensic examination of the phone was not necessary due to the witness placing the phone in [Alvarado’s] hand and an admission that the driver was looking at his GPS.”
But with that witness now gone, and the body cam also seemingly not enough proof for prosecutors, Smith said a forensic exam could have provided an additional layer of evidence Alvarado was on his cellphone at the time of the accident.
“For the Fairfax PD to not do a forensic analysis – so you they just take someone's word on it? They should have done that analysis,” Smith said.
Fairfax County Police maintain the forensic exam on Alvarado’s cellphone would not have made a difference in a separate statement to WUSA9.
“Detectives worked with the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office to obtain these charges, which did not rise to the level of reckless driving,” a police spokesperson wrote. “The facts and circumstances of the crash support the charges as presented. The Fairfax County Police Department feels for the family of Mr. Glass and routinely stresses the importance of safe driving.”
The Glass family said that’s not good enough.
“You can’t just take somebody’s life and then walk away because of your bad judgement,” Williams said.
Fairfax County Police are now disputing the statement WUSA9 received from prosecutors about the importance of that missing witness.
In an email, police said “The prosecutorial decision to not pursue additional and more serious charges in this case has nothing to do with witness testimony. Their statement seems to imply it does. It doesn’t.”
In 2019, a distracted driver in Chesterfield County, Virginia was charged with involuntary manslaughter for a distracted driving crash that killed 56-year-old Karen Giles. The driver, Samuel Allebaugh, was texting at the time of the accident. He served an eight-month prison sentence and later became a spokesperson against distracted driving.
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