A Madison County man will serve two decades behind bars after a February 2018 crash that resulted in the death of a child.
In a packed courtroom Wednesday with several people wearing “Justice for Hannah” shirts, Paul Vernon Welcher, Jr. was sentenced on 18 charges resulting from a February 2018 accident that claimed the life of a 12-year-old Orange County girl. On Feb. 28, 2018, Hannah Marie Ford was ejected from a vehicle being driven by Welcher. She died at the scene of the crash which occurred at approximately 3:40 a.m. on Rt. 230 in the Radiant area of Madison County. Welcher entered guilty pleas to all 18 charges in November.
According to Virginia State Police, Welcher was driving eastbound in a 2000 four-door Lincoln when the car ran off the road to the right and he over-corrected. The vehicle went off the right side of the road again and struck a bank before overturning. His 12-year-old daughter was also riding in the vehicle. She and her father were treated and released at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.
In a statement of facts presented in November by the Commonwealth, Virginia State Police Trooper Taylor Yowell said he observed signs of Welcher’s intoxication, but the defendant claimed a deer had run out in front of him causing the accident. Blood drawn approximately 2.5 hours after the accident revealed a BAC of .168 percent or more than twice the legal limit. Blood drawn two hours later showed a BAC of .117 percent. Hospital records note that Welcher removed his IV and left the hospital without warning around 10:50 a.m. He was arrested that afternoon at his home in Madison.
An investigation revealed that Welcher had picked up his daughter without her legal guardian’s knowledge just prior to 11 p.m. in his Jeep. The two then picked up Ford. In an interview, Welcher’s daughter said both she and Ford had been denied permission to go out. Surveillance footage placed the three at Walmart in Ruckersville in the early morning hours. Cell phone information indicates they then drove back to his trailer in Madison before almost immediately heading to Orange County. The two children were left at the trailer during the Orange County trip before he left with them again in the Lincoln sometime after 3 a.m. According to law enforcement, this trip was to take them back to Orange so they could attend school in the morning.
In a post-crash interview, Welcher’s daughter said she and Ford had consumed alcohol while at the trailer. Blood drawn found alcohol in the daughter’s system, but not Ford’s. At the time of the crash, there was an active child protection order for abuse and neglect against Welcher concerning his daughter. He was to only have contact with her as approved by her custodian and was to refrain from acts of commission or omission which tend to endanger her life, health or normal development. Welcher’s driver’s license was also suspended for failing to pay fines and costs associated with a prior criminal conviction. In addition, the Lincoln begin driver was only in Welcher’s possession so he could perform maintenance on it. The owner did not give him permission to drive it otherwise. Plus, the inspection sticker belonged to another vehicle.
On Wednesday, Virginia State Police Senior Trooper Jason Jones testified that parts of the car were found in nearby trees as high as 15 feet up. He said Ford’s body was approximately 11 feet, six inches from the front of the vehicle. A large Bud Light can was also found at the scene among the debris.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Donald Dillion, who responded to the scene in his capacity as a volunteer with the Madison County Volunteer Fire Company, testified he smelled a strong odor of alcohol on Welcher, who he said was in the middle of the road with his daughter, staring at Ford. Dillion said Welcher’s daughter was hysterically crying, asking for someone to help her friend.
Don Breeden and Jeff Shifflett both arrived on the scene, Breeden after Welcher’s daughter went to his home seeking help and Shifflett after approaching the scene on his way to work. Both testified that they attempted to help the victim, but she was unresponsive.
In a victim impact statement read in court by assistant commonwealth’s attorney Wade Gelbert, Welcher’s daughter said she suffers from PTSD, severe depression and anxiety. She attends counseling twice a week and not only lost her best friend, but has been bullied by both adults and those her age.
“I feel if my dad hadn’t picked me up nothing would have happened,” her statement read. “I asked him to, but he should have been the responsible adult.”
She said her life will never be the same.
Welcher was seen with his head in his hands sobbing during the reading of the statement.
Her grandmother, who has custody of her and her siblings, also provided a statement. In it, she stated that their lives have been forever changed. She said telling her granddaughter that her best friend had died was something she will never forget and that all three children have been cyber bullied, have lost most of their friends and have PTSD. She said they’re embarrassed and have lost their father and that her granddaughter is afraid to go out in public without a close family member.
“The worst part is two 12-year-old girls paid for your mistakes,” she wrote. “They looked to you for guidance and you failed them.”
Hannah’s mother, Jemimah Williams, also submitted a statement. In it, she stated that her daughter was taken not only from her, but also from friends and family. She said she suffers from anxiety and stress and the loss eats her alive every day.
“I had to pick out a casket, flowers, pictures,” she stated. “I never thought I would have to do that.”
She stated that there was no justice that could be had, but that perhaps if Welcher was locked up it would protect other children from the same fate.
Meanwhile, the defense called on Welcher’s grandmother, Frances Snow, and sister, Ashley Welcher, to testify on his behalf.
Snow said she raised the two children from the time when Welcher was 3 years old and his sister just shy of 2. She said the two had a hard life with a physically abusive, alcoholic father. Snow said weeks prior to the accident, Welcher’s wife had left him and she was concerned, asking the Madison County Sheriff’s Office to check on him. After his incarceration, she said she visited nearly every Thursday and that her grandson has said what he did was wrong, was taking classes at the jail and has the capacity to be a responsible person.
Ashley Welcher said her brother was her best friend and all she had left after her dad died. The two had gotten closer with their father toward the end of his life when he was no longer drinking. She said her brother and his wife always appeared happy and she didn’t know anything was wrong until approximately a month before the accident. She said after being incarcerated, her brother had done a 360, becoming very spiritual.
Defense attorney Hannon Wright said his client was a model inmate since his incarceration in 2018 while awaiting trial. He had sought help through a pastor, was attending AA classes and Bible study.
However, in his argument, Gelbert painted a strong juxtaposition between the two versions of Welcher. He said in the eight hours leading up to the accident, Welcher had encouraged his daughter to steal money for beer and gas (a conversation that had taken place via text messages entered into the record); picked up Ford; took the two to Walmart; allowed them access to alcohol; ignored the warnings of a neighbor about drunk driving (also via text); took a vehicle that wasn’t his; drove on a suspended license with a BAC that was more than two times the legal limit two hours after the offense with two children in the car, one of whom he didn’t ensure was properly restrained; was reckless driving; crashed the car killing one and injuring another; all of which occurred on a school night. Gelbert said he pled guilty which showing some acceptance, but had lied to police after the incident, stating a deer was responsible for the crash.
Gelbert asked the court to consider the impact on the victims including Ford, those who miss her and Welcher’s daughter whose life will never be the same. He also asked the court to remember the owner of the vehicle who lost her car as well as the impact on the first responders and good Samaritans who offered aide at the scene of the crash.
“The community as a whole suffers in this,” he said. “A society that cannot protect its children is a society no one wants to live in.”
He asked that every available amount of time be given to Welcher and if any should be suspended, it should be minimal.
Wright agreed that the accident was a public tragedy, affecting the lives of many. However, he said, it has to been in the context of a life spiraling out of control. He said his client had mental health issues from childhood, was watching his mother slowly die from cancer and was in a dark place. He said the tragic accident of his making had made Welcher aware of his shortcomings.
“Is there a path to redemption, peace he can find,” Wright asked.
He said his client stated that coming to jail has saved his life. While behind bars, he’s been a model inmate, attending Bible study and AA all while his family has stood behind him. Wright asked that any sentence fall within the midpoint of what’s allowed in the sentencing guidelines.
“This has to be seen in the full context of his 35 years,” he said. “You can’t judge a man fairly by looking at one moment of his life.
“Can some tiny good come out [of this]?” he asked. “A lot of that will be up to Mr. Welcher.”
Gelbert noted that the case wasn’t about an accident, but rather choices and at any time, if Welcher had chosen to obey the law, Ford would be alive, his daughter would be uninjured and the person’s car would be fine.
“What does it mean to kill a child,” he asked. “What consequences can the community impose?”
Prior to the issuing of his sentence, Welcher said he had pushed his family away and doesn’t blame his wife for leaving. He said he’s hoping he can become a minister to help others in a similar dark situation before they get to where he is now. He said he’d like to make things right.
“If I can keep one person from ending up where I am, Hannah’s death [is not a total loss],” he said.
However, Welcher didn’t ask for forgiveness.
“I don’t ask for forgiveness, because I haven’t quite figured out how to forgive myself yet,” he said.
Following Welcher’s statement, Madison County Circuit Court Judge Dale Durrer said the case is beyond a tragedy and the loss of a young life is horrible in any circumstances. He said the court would be focusing on the eight hours prior to the crash and while the sentencing guidelines are a useful tool, they’re just that—a tool. He said the court disagrees with the idea that a car is not a weapon. He also stated that the entire crash could have been avoided if Welcher had said “no” at any point.
“He didn’t do that,” Durrer said. “He made a series of voluntary choices that will impact the community and Hannah Ford’s family forever.”
Durrer said the court believes deterrence is hard to measure, but if a sentence can be fashioned that deters just one person from making similar choices the work of the court and all those involved in the case won’t be in vain.
With those things in mind, Durrer sentenced Welcher to 18 years in prison and 24 months in jail, all to be served consecutively. Welcher must also be of good behavior for the rest of his life and will be on probation for 10 years, the first five of which will be intensive supervised probation. He also must pay $1,307.20 to the victim’s fund and $1,000 to the owner of the totaled car. He must also complete 300 hours of community service, which Durrer strongly encouraged be done as part of a victim impact panel arranged through Mothers of Drunk Driving (MADD). In addition, Welcher cannot consume alcohol for the rest of his life.