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Hit-and-run driver who killed Orchid man sentenced to 15 years

Photo: Orchid Island winter resident Peter Meyer

The woman who killed Orchid Island winter resident Peter Meyer in a hit-and-run incident two years ago in Savannah, Ga., was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison.

After an emotional, 90-minute hearing at which Darcia Lavonde Hymon changed her plea to guilty, Superior Court Judge James Bass Jr. imposed the maximum penalty allowed under Georgia law for vehicular homicide.

The 52-year-old Jacksonville woman has been held without bond in the Chatham County Jail since her November 2015 arrest and, even with credit for time served, could spend the next 13 years in prison.

According to the website, most parole-eligible convicts must serve at least one-third of their sentence before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles will consider their cases.

"I'm an attorney, so I know it's a legal system and not a justice system," said Meyer's daughter Sue Ross, who, along with her sister and niece, testified at the hearing about the impact of her father's tragic death. "She was punished to the fullest extent of the law. That's the most we, as a family, could hope for.

"But it wasn't justice," she added. "There can't be justice for what she did to my dad and the heinous way in which he was killed."

In addition to speaking on her own behalf, Ross, who traveled to the hearing from her home in Brookline, Mass., read letters from her three children. Meyer's other daughter, Deb Cohen of Oakton, Va., also addressed the judge, as did Cohen's daughter.

Meyer's high school sweetheart and wife of 50 years, Phyllis, did not attend the hearing.

"It would've been too traumatic for her," Ross said, "but she did write a letter to the judge and expressed her thoughts and feelings."

The judge also received about 40 letters – victim impact statements – from Meyer's friends and other family members.

One of those letters was written by Orchid Island resident Pat Walsh, who drove nearly six hours to Savannah with his wife, Margaret, to attend the hearing. They sat in the back of the courtroom and did not ask to address the judge.

"It was all very sad," said Walsh, who described Meyer, whom he first met when both were in training at Merrill Lynch, as his golf buddy and best friend in Florida. "I don't think there was anyone sitting in that courtroom who didn't . . . come close to crying.

"It was very tough," he added. "It was heartbreaking."

Meyer, 72, was driving to Orchid Island from his summer home in Quechee, Vt., on Jan. 4, 2015, when he stopped for the night in Savannah. Traveling with his beloved Yorkshire terrier, Chili, he checked into the midtown Residence Inn.

Meyer walked across Abercorn Street to have dinner at the Bonefish Grill, near the Twelve Oaks Shopping Center, and was struck by an SUV as he waited in the crosswalk to return to his hotel. The impact knocked his body into some roadside bushes and, in the darkness, it was an hour before the body was discovered.

Police and the coroner told his family that Meyer, a West Point graduate who won a Bronze Star serving in Vietnam before embarking on a successful, 31-year business career, was killed instantly.

The case went unsolved for 10 months – until the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department's Crimestoppers hotline received a call from an anonymous tipster who identified Hymon as the hit-and-run driver who killed Meyer.

Police investigators drove to Jacksonville on Nov. 5, 2015, to interview Hymon at her home. Four days later, they questioned her again, this time in Savannah, where they say she "confessed to the fatal accident."

Police charged Hymon, who used the name Wilson when she was arrested, with one count of leaving the scene of an accident involving injury or death. She was booked into the Chatham County Jail.

After examining the evidence, which included DNA-matched samples of Meyer's skin and hair found on Hymon's vehicle, Assistant District Attorney Frank Pennington opted to take the case to a grand jury. The panel promptly handed down an indictment for vehicular homicide in February 2016, and she was arraigned on that charge in April.

"She told a bunch of lies," Walsh said, recalling the prosecutor's account of the incident. "First, she said she didn't know she had hit someone. Then she said she thought she hit something but didn't know what it was. And then she said she panicked, which completely contradicted what she had said earlier.

"She even called her insurance company and said her car had been vandalized."

When Hymon testified at the hearing, Walsh reported, she said: "I'm not a monster. I'm not a bad person. I'd do anything to go back and reverse what happened that night. I never meant to do any harm."

Though the incident occurred at night, Pennington argued the area was well-lit, Meyer was standing in the crosswalk, and there was no evidence Hymon hit her brakes before the impact.

The prosecutor also refuted Hymon's claim that, after she realized she had hit something, she turned right at the next intersection and circled back to see what it was. Apparently, the trail of debris from her SUV after the collision continued straight along Abercorn Street.

It's what Hymon didn't say at the hearing – or to police, or in any other court appearance – that haunts Meyer's family and friends.

"She didn't say why she didn't stop," Ross said, "even after pleading guilty."

In pushing for the stiffest penalty, Pennington raised the possibility that Hymon didn't stop because she was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident. The woman's attorney immediately and successfully objected, arguing that there was no evidence the driver was impaired.

According to Walsh, the prosecutor replied: "The reason we don't have any evidence is because she fled the scene."

After Hymon was arrested, Ross said she found the woman's Facebook page, which showed post-accident photographs of her "smiling and partying," not looking at all worried.

"She had moved on," Ross said. "She had no intention of turning herself in until she got caught, and even then she told several different stories to the police."

Before police received the tip, Walsh had organized a campaign that raised $117,000 in reward money for information leading to the conviction of the person who killed Meyer.

That money – 13 of the 44 contributors were Meyer's Orchid Island neighbors or friends in the Vero Beach area; the others were Merrill Lynch co-workers and longtime friends – was not affiliated with the $10,000 reward Meyer's family offered through the Crimestoppers program.

The family's $10,000 was paid to the anonymous tipster. The Walsh-raised money remains unclaimed and continues to sit in an escrow account.

"We were told by Crimestoppers they couldn't offer us any help at all in identifying the person who provided the tip, so I don't see any way we can pay out the money," Walsh said. "Nobody has claimed the reward, but even if someone comes forward, I don't know how the person could prove they were the one who tipped off the police.

"I'd love to know who it was and pay the reward," he added. "That's why we raised the money. But I'm not going to write a check if there's no way I can verify we have the right person."

Walsh said he's exploring the possibility of donating the money to West Point.

"The girls seemed excited about that," Walsh said, "especially if we can get something up there named in his honor."

Meyer's family has sold the Orchid Island home and Walsh said he misses his longtime neighbors. But he understands why Meyer's widow doesn't want to return.

"This whole thing is so sad, so random," Walsh said. "Peter was such a great guy. They were such a wonderful couple. Why couldn't he have crossed the street 20 seconds later?"

Ross said her father is sorely missed and remains in everyone's memories, but the family, though jarred by the loss, has slowly and steadily moved forward.

"The hearing stirred up a lot of those painful feelings, but it also allowed us to put this chapter behind us," Ross said. "I wouldn't call it closure, because we'll never forget what happened, but now we go back to our new normal.

"We'll always miss him," she added. "But the response and support we've received from so many of dad's friends – people he went to grade school with, went to college with, worked with – was very special. It was obvious that he was consistently, throughout his life, the same caring, generous, honest and fun guy we've always known.