HILLSBORO — The storage of two blood vials is poised to be a key piece of evidence in the trial of a Fenton man accused of driving drunk and killing a couple and their infant son.
On Friday, the opening day of David Thurby’s DWI trial, a state trooper was grilled by defense lawyer Travis Noble for storing Thurby’s blood samples in an unrefrigerated storage locker for two weeks before the samples could be tested in a lab.
The Missouri Highway Patrol trooper, Austin Leroux, was just a year out of the police academy when he arrested Thurby on April 13, 2021, on suspicion of driving drunk and causing a deadly wreck on Highway 30 in Jefferson County.
The crash killed Lacey K. Newton, 25, her fiancé Cordell S. Williams, 30, and their 4-month-old son. They lived in Bonne Terre.
The grandmother of the couple’s two surviving sons has asked the Missouri Legislature to enact a bill called “Bentley’s Law,” which would require drunken drivers to pay child support if they kill the parents of a minor.
Thurby is charged with three counts of DWI causing the death of others.
Leroux testified at the jury trial that Thurby’s blood was drawn by a nurse at a St. Louis County hospital after the arrest. Leroux said he took the vials and stored them in a patrol car for 14 hours. He then took the vials to the patrol’s Troop C headquarters to keep them refrigerated. But the refrigerators had no room, he said. Leroux said he then decided to put them in a locker.
Noble noted there were multiple police agencies nearby. “Ever think to yourself of maybe calling another law enforcement agency, ‘Hey can I store in your refrigerator?’” Noble asked. Leroux said no.
The vials were moved to a lab for testing April 28, and Noble claims bacteria could have degraded the sample and created a false reading.
Noble said the test showed Thurby’s blood-alcohol level was .179 percent, more than twice the legal limit. A preliminary test revealed that Thurby had a blood-alcohol level of .192 percent, the trooper said in a probable cause statement.
Leroux said he believed it was OK to store blood at room temperature, and he wouldn’t do anything differently if he had the chance.
According to the National Library for Medicine, blood samples do not necessarily need to be kept refrigerated, but they should be stored in a cool place and transported to a laboratory “as soon as possible.”
The Missouri Highway Patrol's policy on storing blood samples says the employee "should protect the specimen from extreme heat and freezing until delivery to the laboratory," Capt. John Hotz, director of the patrol's public Information and education division, told the Post-Dispatch.
A criminalist who ran the test on Thurby’s blood is expected to testify early next week for the prosecution. Jefferson County Circuit Judge Vic Melenbrink has set aside all of next week for the trial. The prosecutor told the jury he plans to have additional officers testify as well as a bartender who served liquor to Thurby.
Assistant prosecutor Thomas Hollingsworth, seemingly exasperated by the defense lawyer’s tactics, asked the trooper if he had “ever been treated like this in your whole life?”
Leroux said Friday was his first time testifying in front of a jury. The prosecutor brought the trooper into court a day early and had him on the stand in private as a dry run.
On Friday, Noble asked Leroux to spit out chewing gum while Leroux was on the stand, but he said the gum calmed his nerves and did not spit it out.
Cecilia Williams, the grandmother of the couple’s two surviving sons, said in an interview later Friday she had faith in the prosecutor and the trooper.
“The trooper was a rookie, and he did his job correctly,” she said.
After hours on the stand, Leroux said he had written two probable cause statements, with conflicting elements about what Thurby told the trooper. In one court record, Leroux quoted Thurby saying, “I had seven shots of Crown and water.” In the second court record, he said Thurby told him he’d had four drinks.
Leroux said he wrote the second affidavit once he had reviewed dash cam footage that picked up the conversations he had with Thurby. The wrong version was based on memory, Leroux said. He made the arrest noting that Thurby’s eyes were watery and bloodshot, and he smelled of liquor, the trooper said.
The prosecutor’s first witness of the day was Byrnes Mill police Sgt. Cody Umfress, who happened upon the fiery crash site and tried to rescue the family. Umfress’s rescue effort was recorded by his body camera. Hollingsworth played the video for the jury. Umfress used a police baton to try to break the window of the car on fire.
“Crawl out to me,” Umfress yells on the video.
Spectators in the courtroom couldn’t see the video the jury saw, but the sounds were so disturbing that Cecilia Williams ran from the courtroom sobbing.
“It was too much,” she said later.
A half-dozen representatives of Mothers Against Drunk Driving were in the courtroom, too, in support of Cecilia Williams and her family. Jen Wamsganz with MADD said, “Our concern is always the families. That’s why we show up.”
The Missouri Highway Patrol said the couple and infant boy who died were in a 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix heading east on Highway 30, west of Upper Byrnes Mill Road. Newton was driving, Williams was in the passenger seat and the baby was in an infant car seat in the back.
Another eastbound vehicle, a 2016 Chevrolet Cruze driven by the 26-year-old Thurby, was behind Newton’s Grand Prix. The patrol said Thurby “failed to keep a proper lookout ahead” and hit the back of the Grand Prix about 10 p.m. Both vehicles ran off the road and hit trees, police said.
Newton’s car caught fire, and police first thought only two adults were dead. They later found the infant’s body inside the burned vehicle.
Thurby, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered minor injuries, police said. He lives in the 400 block of Courtney Estates Drive.