LANCASTER – It took less than two hours Tuesday for a jury to convict Tommie Lee Cole of driving drunk and causing the crash that killed two local Walmart workers nearly two years ago.
Cole, 26, was found guilty of two counts of second degree murder, two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, one count of DUI causing bodily injury, and one count of driving with a .08 percent blood alcohol causing injury. All special allegations were found to be true, including the allegation that the Cole’s blood alcohol level was greater than .15 percent when he caused the collision that killed 26-year-old Beau Fluker and 23-year-old Jeffrey Gilstrap.
“I just started sobbing,” said Jeffrey’s mother, Linda Gilstrap, when asked how she reacted to the verdict. “It’s not a feeling of joyful victory for me; it’s a hollow victory because it doesn’t bring the boys back.”
Gilstrap and Fluker were killed Feb. 26, 2012, when their vehicle collided with Cole’s vehicle at the intersection of Avenue J and 20th Street West in Lancaster. The men had just got off work at the West Lancaster Walmart and were carpooling home, when they were broadsided by Cole’s speeding vehicle.
Cole knew it was dangerous to drink and drive, yet he still got behind the wheel after several hours of drinking, prosecutor Edward Wiley stressed during the two-week trial.
In a passionate closing statement, Wiley asked the jury to compare the two drivers involved in the fatal collision.
Fluker was “stone cold sober,” having just gotten off work, and was driving eastbound on Avenue J at 39.5 miles per hour, Wiley said.
Cole was drunk and “driving a missile on wheels,” when he “punched it” to 69.19 miles per hour on 20th Street West trying to “beat the yellow,” Wiley said.
Cole’s blood alcohol level tested at .21, nearly three times the legal limit, and Cole also admitted to investigators that he drank several beers, a shot of whiskey, and a shot of tequila in the hours leading up to the crash, Wiley said.
Cole was well aware of the dangers of drinking and driving, having been arrested for DUI in 2009 and having completed an alcohol and substance abuse class in 2011, Wiley said.
“He knew the danger and he consciously disregarded it,” Wiley told the jury.
During closing statements, defense attorney Robert Nadler asked jurors to focus on testimony from an “unbiased” civilian eyewitness, who said Fluker was going “really fast.” He also said Cole’s actions, although negligent, did not rise to the level of “conscious disregard for human life.”
“It just seemed like they were taking the facts and slanting them all to serve their purpose,” Gilstrap said. “I was really relieved that the jury was able to see that [Cole] really didn’t have any regard… he knew what he was doing.”
Gilstrap said the past two years have been a “horrible nightmare of a situation,” and she’s thankful justice has been served.
“The only thing that I can hope is that from here going out, this will give people a reason to stop and think ‘I really better call a taxi,’” Gilstrap said.
Cole is scheduled to be sentenced Friday (Feb. 28). He faces a maximum sentence of 30-years-to-life in state prison.
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