Crossville attorney Jonathan Hamby wonders what would have happened to his children had they been in his vehicle when a woman high on drugs, fleeing from police, smashed into the rear of his vehicle, sending it flying through the air.

Hamby, who escaped life-threatening injuries but was hurt in the crash, was one of the witnesses testifying at sentencing hearing of Nichole LouAnn O’Neal, who also goes by the last name of Atlas. The 31-year-old pleaded guilty in August to aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, felony evading arrest and driving under the influence. The charges were filed after a May traffic crash on E. First St. in the area of Dayton Spur Rd.

Earlier this month, Criminal Court Judge Gary McKenzie ruled that O’Neal will serve five years in prison at 30 %.

Hamby testified he had just left work and was traveling outbound on E. First St., approaching the area of Acme Block, when he first noticed blue lights coming up from behind him. He slowed his vehicle as he looked for a place to pull over.

The next thing he knew, he got hit in the rear. The impact caused his vehicle to leave the roadway airborne, flip over and strike a “pile of rocks,” coming to rest on the roof and in a ditch. With assistance, he was able to crawl out of the wreckage.

“When I got out, I saw two car seats about ten feet outside my mangled vehicle,” Hamby testified. At that moment, he wondered whether his children would have survived had they been with him.

Assistant District Attorney Philip Hatch called Tennessee Department of Corrections Board of Pardons and Parole Officer Christopher Goddard as his first witness. Goddard had prepared the pre-sentence report.

He stated his investigation showed the Crossville Police Department’s first encounter with O’Neal was in the area of County Garage Rd. and Cook Rd. O’Neal was driving a vehicle that fled from police. 

During the pursuit, O’Neal picked up her cellphone and called the E-911 dispatch center, telling an emergency dispatcher that she had no intentions of stopping and that she “liked the pretty lights” on the pursuing patrol cars.

She reached speeds of 85 mph and at one point told the dispatcher that she had done “so much meth she could not be hurt.”

An audio of the E-911 call was played in court. A dispatcher can be heard trying to engage O’Neal in conversation and to stop her vehicle. In the audio recording, O’Neal could be heard laughing and talking incoherently during the expletive-laced call.

The audio ends with the sound of the crash, followed by silence.

Hatch then called Sheriff Casey Cox who testified he had received several text messages from O’Neal after she was released on bond pending the sentencing hearing. In the messages, Cox said O’Neal discussed criminal activity and at one point said she needed to go to jail, “even if it means I have to shoot schools, I will.” Cox said the email was accompanied by a photo of a scantily clothed O’Neal pointing a handgun into the lens of a camera.

The FBI was notified of the threats and the continued threat to shoot up schools. It was then decided Cox should obtain a warrant for felony filing a false report. 

 ”Patrick Hayes represented O’Neal and asked Cox if O’Neal had a plan to shoot up a school. Cox said he did not know of a plan but that he could not take any chances. 

Hayes called O’Neal’s mother, Lou Ellen O’Neal, who testified about her daughter’s mental condition including a diagnosed personality disorder, severe depressions and with her being bi-polar.

Mrs. O’Neal said her daughter had been on and off her medicine for about ten years and added, “I don’t think they got them (medication) right,” referring to those treating O’Neal. “If she is not on her medication, she has a hard time handling anything … she has hallucinations and sees and hears things.”

When Patrick asked Mrs. O’Neal what would be best for her daughter, the mother responded, “To be somewhere where she can take her medication … she did well in a group home in Nashville. I think that would be the best thing for her.

O’Neal then took the witness stand and said she was “just so sorry. I have learned drugs are just horrible.”

Hatch argued to the judge that O’Neal was facing three felonies and got a new charge while out on bond (threat to shoot up schools). He asked for a five-year sentence to not depreciate the seriousness of the offense and to serve as a warning to others.

Hayes countered that O’Neal had no plan to carry out her threat against the schools, but that her thoughts were in a bad place because of not taking her prescribed medication.

He said he felt it more appropriate to give O’Neal a four-year split sentence.

Following state sentencing guidelines, McKenzie reviewed mitigating and enhancing factors and noted O’Neal’s actions were in total disregard for the safety of others. He recognized she suffers from mental health issues and added that he did not know if the email threats against schools “was a cry for help” or something else.

“We are lucky we are not facing a vehicular homicide case,” McKenzie noted. “What the state is asking is reasonable. I am going to sentence you to five years to be served at 30 %. I don’t know where you go from here, but I hope you find a way to cope with your mental health … there just isn’t other options out there.

“We need to send the message, if you are using methamphetamine and driving you are going to have to pay the price.”

Michael Moser may be reached at mmoser@crossville-chronicle.com

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