Cape May Court House: A Death in the Nightby Lawrence Schiller
No one in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, was surprised when Eric Thomas, a popular young doctor, sued the Ford Motor Company for the wrongful death of his pregnant wife, Tracy, after a minor accident involving their powerful Explorer. Backed by the medical examiner's findings, the lawsuit claimed that the Explorer's air bag inflated improperly, causing injuries… See more details below
No one in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, was surprised when Eric Thomas, a popular young doctor, sued the Ford Motor Company for the wrongful death of his pregnant wife, Tracy, after a minor accident involving their powerful Explorer. Backed by the medical examiner's findings, the lawsuit claimed that the Explorer's air bag inflated improperly, causing injuries that resulted in Tracy's suffocation.
But this seemingly simple product-liability case soon evolved into something far darker and more complex . . .
After an exhaustive investigation, Ford turned the tables, alleging that Tracy Thomas did not die from injuries resulting from a defective air bag. She died because of manual strangulation. Now, it was the defendant, the giant automaker Ford, who became a de facto prosecutor, with plaintiff Eric Thomas, a passenger in the Explorer, accused of murdering his wife . . .
A Ford Explorer drives off the road and hits a telephone pole on a snowy winter night. Estimated speed at impact was 10-15 mph, but the driver, a pregnant, 37-year-old mother of one, is dead behind the wheel by the time EMS personnel arrive. Her husband is unconscious next to her, and their infant daughter is unharmed in the backseat. The husband, Eric Thomas, is a dentist in the town, Cape May Court House, New Jersey, and it is not long before he brings a wrongful-death suit against Ford, alleging that a faulty airbag killed his wife. Ford unleashes their formidable legal team to investigate and, lo, doubts about the good doctor start spawning like tadpoles. The most dreadful is that he may have strangled his wife: The nature of the bruises on her neck are suggestive, as is the affair he’s having at the time of the accident with the woman he will soon afterward marry, not to mention a timely increase in life insurance. Schiller starts the story as if he’s switching the ignition on a racing car, but then the engine turns over and over and never catches—lots of up-front energy that gradually wanes and disappears. Right when Ford’s lawyer is about to let the suspicion-of-murder assertion out of the bag—not even half way through this account—Schiller admits that the lawyer "knew he’d better be right before he mounted such a defense, but in truth, he had no idea what had happened that night between the Thomases." Talk about the air being let out of the bag. After that point, the story is alot of legal maneuvering, posturing, and delaying. Finally, everyone just goes home.
A federal lawsuit is in the wings. Schiller should have waited.
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Read an Excerpt
Earlier in the evening a light snow had fallen in the small town of Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Some nights, even in the coldest winters, the sea air from the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay warms the barrier islands and the entire cape, so that slush seldom freezes. Tonight, Saturday, February 8, 1997, slush had not frozen.
Dr. Robert Fitzpatrick, a local veterinarian, was just returning home from a party in Wildwood. At forty-five, Fitzpatrick was a strong man with rough hands capable of subduing a rottweiler. On that night, alone in his Chevy Astro, he stopped at the local Wawa convenience store, where he bought a bottle of Gatorade. The time was 1:45 a.m. As he drove away, he noticed that all the other local businesses were closed. Even the volunteer ambulance service building was dark and deserted.
Dr. Fitzpatrick then turned west from North Main Street onto Hand Avenue, the route he usually took to his house. A few seconds later he stopped at a traffic light on the corner of Dias Creek Road and Hand. The night was unusually dark. He noticed that he had the road to himself.
After passing a few houses set in the woods, Fitzpatrick saw some white and red lights up ahead. He thought an SUV had pulled over onto the berm on the other side of the road. As he came closer, however, the odd angle of the vehicle made him take a second look. That was when he noticed some sagging electric wires. Just then a battered white pickup truck approached from the opposite direction and stopped. While Fitzpatrick pulled his own car to a stop, a man got out of the pickup, walked to the SUV, and tried unsuccessfully to openthe driver's door. As Fitzpatrick rolled down his window, the man yelled back to him, "There's people in there."
Instantly, Fitzpatrick reached for his cell phone, punched in 911, and got out of his car. As he reported his location he saw that part of a utility pole was hanging from its wires. That's when he realized the SUV, a Ford Explorer, was in a ditch.
"An officer will be there in minutes," the 911 dispatcher told him as he ran across the road toward the accident. When he reached the rear of the car, the driver of the pickup asked if he had called the police.
Before he could say another word, the driver said, "Then I'm getting out of here." And within seconds was gone.
The Explorer's left headlight was broken, but the fog lights were still on. Fitzpatrick tried the driver's door. It wouldn't budge, but the rear passenger door on that side opened easily, and the dome light came on. There, staring at him from the backseat, were the wide eyes of a baby, still strapped in its padded car seat. Almost immediately, the baby started to cry. Fitzpatrick then saw a driver and a passenger in the front seats. Neither was moving. The driver's head slumped toward the window, and the passenger's head hung down to the side. Fitzpatrick saw no blood.
Brushing his hand against the baby's face, Fitzpatrick took hold of one of the child's hands. The baby's cheek and fingers were cold. Then he noticed that the air inside the truck was not as cold as the outside air. As he leaned forward between the front seats, he saw that the driver and passenger were, like the baby, African American.
"Hello? Hello?" Fitzpatrick said. He repeated it a third time, and even louder. Neither person moved.
He could tell that the air bags were now deflated and the seat belts were still drawn tightly around the passengers. The man in the passenger seat appeared to be unconscious. His skin was cool when Fitzpatrick reached for his neck to find a pulse and determined that the man had a sluggish, rhythmic heartbeat. Next, Fitzpatrick turned to the woman in the driver's seat. Her leather jacket was open, her neck was exposed, and her skin was cold to the touch. Fitzpatrick probed for a pulse. Nothing. Again, he pushed hard on the carotid artery. Zero.
He stepped out of the car and redialed 911. "I think she's dead," Fitzpatrick said to the dispatcher. "The police had better hurry -- " Then he went back to the Explorer and reached between the front bucket seats to the dashboard. Though the engine was no longer running, he turned off the ignition, fearing the car might catch fire. He took the child's hands again, and managed to quiet it almost immediately. He continued to murmur to the baby as he stepped back outside the car. As he waited for the police, Fitzgerald fought the urge to remove the baby, who he now realized was a girl. He knew better than to try to remove either of the adults in the front. As he stood there, no cars passed on the deserted road.
At 2:01 A.M., just nine minutes after Fitzpatrick's first 911 call, Medic 9 arrived. As the first paramedics, Lisa Schulthies and James Cline, climbed out of their vehicle, a white police cruiser pulled up, its lights flashing. An officer got out and quickly surveyed the inside of the Explorer through its closed windows and called for another ambulance. Then he removed the baby from the backseat.
Fitzpatrick wanted to help, but the officer told him not to touch anything. Just then a second police car arrived.
Schulthies had difficulty getting to the passenger side of the SUV through the bushes and a gully, which was full of water. The ground was swampy. The male passenger, who was leaning against the window, appeared to be unconscious, and Schulthies decided to enter the vehicle through the same rear door from which the baby had been removed. The baby was checked for injuries by a second set of medics, who had just arrived, and then placed in the ambulance...Cape May Court House. Copyright © by Lawrence Schiller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Lawrence Schiller ranks among our greatest investigative journalists. In addition to his bestselling books, he has written for the New Yorker and other major publications. For many years he has appeared as an on-air consultant for the ABC and NBC networks. He lives in Los Angeles.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Enjoyed this book.
Reading/hearing as much as I had about the case, I was really eager to read the book, but there was nothing really new presented here (maybe my expectations were too high). I do know that the case isn't entirely through with yet, and I think Schiller may have 'jumped the gun' in getting the book written. Maybe he should have waited a little while before having it published...he might have been able to add more to make the book more 'complete.'