PRESTONSBURG - A Floyd County jury found Tracy Dean Yates, 48, of Little Mud, guilty of manslaughter and other charges stemming from a 2002 hit-and-run car accident.
The jury only needed 30 minutes to come to their decision after two days of testimony. Yates was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter for the death of 2-year-old Stacia Collins, three counts of fourth-degree assault for the injuries that he caused to other Collins family members, one count of fleeing the scene of an accident and one count of driving on a suspended license.
The jury also got to hear more evidence before recommending a sentence for Yates. They heard that he had other been convicted of DUI and also learned that he was involved in an armed robbery in Pikeville that saw him serving five years in prison.
The jury returned with a recommendation of the maximum sentence of 10 years for the manslaughter charge, with concurrent sentences of 12 months on the other charges.
"Certainly we're pleased with the verdict," said Commonwealth's Attorney Brent Turner. "The family of the victim is also happy and this will help mark the anniversary of Stacia's passing next week."
Yates' trial got underway on Monday, nearly two years after the Dec. 12, 2002, incident which saw him charged with manslaughter and fleeing the scene of an accident.
In the accident, a gray Buick driven by Yates collided head-on with a white Dodge Neon that contained the Collins family, which included father Stacy, mother Denise, and their two young children. One child had been crying and was being comforted by the mother when the collision occurred only one mile from their home.
Opening statements began the trial, with Turner going first and outlining the case for the jury. Turner told the jury up front that the case would be upsetting.
"We're here today because a child is dead," Turner said. "She wasn't around long enough to accomplish very much. Her life was important. She was precious to those who knew and loved her."
Turner briefly addressed Yates when he said, "He had no business driving that night. He has refused to take responsibility for this."
Turner went on to outline the case and state what the evidence was going to prove. He said that the jury would hear that Yates was under the influence of prescription drugs on the night of the accident and that he was agitated after having to retrieve his Buick from the Betsy Layne Dollar General Store after his wife got arrested for shoplifting there. Turner went on to note that the jury would hear from Yates' daughter, who would testify that Yates had been on drugs that night and had come home that evening and told her that he's had a wreck, but to tell anyone who asked that he was home all night.
The Commonwealth also stated that a witness would come forward who recognized the car that Yates drove leaving the scene of the accident on Route 2030. That would be followed by evidence from the state trooper who went to Yates' house to discover that the Buick had a tarp over its front end, obscuring damage from an accident. That trooper was told by Yates that friends borrowed the car, wrecked it, and then returned it to his home.
Defense attorney Jack Faust kept his comments brief. He said that indeed an accident happened and a tragic one at that. He also asked the jury to not judge Yates for the approach that Faust would take with the parents who, he said, "didn't follow the law" by taking their daughter out of her child seat.
The first witnesses called were Stacy and Denise Collins. Each testified to being in the correct lane when the accident occurred. Each said firmly that they always kept the children in their car seats and only made the one exception that proved tragic. Both said that they didn't get a look at the car that hit them, as they were blinded by the headlights and their vision was also obscured when their air bags deployed sometime around impact.
Denise Collins was hurt by the crash and suffered broken bones and teeth on the left side of her face. Stacy Collins only recalled gathering up his baby and being comforted by a neighbor while he held her knowing but maybe not fully accepting that she was gone.
A neighborhood boy testified next and said that he saw the gray Buick leave the scene and recognized the car as being Yates' vehicle. He helped Denise Collins get out of the vehicle and to a neighbor's home. He recalled the moment saying, "He [Stacy] was screaming, 'Please help me,' and there wa blood all over the place." He couldn't tell the extent of Denise Collins' injuries, saying, "You couldn't see much for the blood."
Neighbor Brad Hunter testified next. He saw Yates' wife getting arrested for shoplifting earlier in the day. He was with a friend, Tate Boyd, who was driving and they stopped at Yates' home to tell him that Bronis Yates had been arrested. Boyd agreed to drive Tracy Yates to the store to get his car.
Boyd testified to the same events and noted that while Yates was following them on the way back, his driving was erratic and he tailgated them on several occasions.
Ernest Hunter, neighbor and father of Brad, testified that Yates used their phone on occasion and did so that night as well as borrowing $9 to bail out his wife.
Faust cross-examined Ernest Hunter, trying to get Hunter to say that Yates was there at the time the accident happened (between 8 and 8:30 pm), but Hunter could not commit to a time, saying, "I never looked at the time. I was watching the wrestling."
Ernest Hunter's other son, Michael, also testified that Yates used their phone that night and that he never mentioned someone borrowing and wrecking his car. He also noted that Yates came back hours later to use the phone again and was driving his second car, a blue Thunderbird which wasn't normally driven since its tags had expired.
State Trooper Johnny Slone testified next. He was originally called in to investigate a hit-and-run and began to do so. Later, Det. Byron Hanson would be brought in when the daughter was pronounced dead by the Pike County coroner.
Slone said he heard from a witness who recognized Yates' car leaving the scene so he proceeded to Yates' home. There he found a gray Buick with a blue tarp draped over its front end. He removed the tarp and saw that the front was damaged. He also noted that the hood was warm, indicating it had been driven recently. He asked Yates about it and Yates told him that two men had borrowed the car. They came and covered up the damage but then came into his house and told him that there was damage to the vehicle. Slone asked why would they cover it up and then confess, but Yates had no response.
Tuesday kicked off with testimony by Hanson, who recounted his interviews with Yates as well as followup interviews with witnesses which eventually led to charging Yates with the crimes.
The most moving testimony came from Yates' daughter. The adolescent testified to being home when Yates returned from the accident and slammed his car into their house. He told the teen and her friend, who was at the residence, that he had been in a wreck and someone may be hurt. He further told them that if anyone came by that they should be told that he was home all night. The girl further said that Yates then turned off all of the lights and asked them to remain quiet.
The girl also testified that Yates had been on prescription drugs since 1997 and often would go through a month's prescription of Xanax, Valium or Lortab in 3-to-5 days. It was further noted that he behaved differently under the influence and that on the night of the accident it was apparent to the witness that he was under the influence.
The testimony also included a harrowing account of what happened later that night when the mother was bailed out of jail and returned home. She listened to the story and sat down with her child, saying that they would all have to stick to the story and then proceeded to threaten the child with death if there was any deviation from the plan.
Three months later, with both parents in jail, the teen told the true account to Det. Hanson. Now the children are living with relatives in Pike County.
The last witnesses were brief but gave compelling testimony. The former Pike County coroner related that the child was dead on arrival to the hospital and was most likely killed by the airbag deploying. He noted that the windshield of the car was not a factor and that it had no blood or cracks after the wreck.
A Value Med pharmacy technician also testified and stated that Tracy Yates had bought a one-month prescription for Valium on the morning of Dec. 12.
An officer from the department of transportation was the last witness called and she stated that Yates had lost his license prior to the the accident for a DUI offense.
The Commonwealth rested after calling 14 witnesses. The defense chose not to call any witnesses.
Closing remarks began with the defense going first. Faust dropped a shocking admission early in his argument when he said that Yates had been in the car. This meant that most counts of the indictment were true, including fleeing the scene and driving without a valid license. But he went on to say that there was no proof that Yates had been on drugs. He went on to accuse Kentucky State Police of not doing its job by never having Yates tested.
Turner spoke last and could not resist reminding the jurors that Faust had admitted his client drove the vehicle. Turner pointed out that this statement overturned arguments from Faust's opening remarks. He asked the jury to recall when Faust said that the accident happened while Yates was at the home of the Hunters.
Formal sentencing for Yates will take place on Jan. 21.