Virginia Beach, Va. - A Virginia Beach mother upset that police were not prosecuting a drinking driver asked NewsChannel 3 to find out why no one was held responsible for her son's death.
Our investigation located online videos showing Chris and his underage friends -- including the driver -- were drinking a lot that night. And we uncovered how police, in the early part to the investigation, likely made a significant mistake, a mistake that gave the teenage driver a big break.
Diane Pardee's son, Chris, died on his 21st birthday, about a week after he somehow fell out of a car. Even though the teenage driver had been drinking, a NewsChannel 3 investigation found police gave her only a ticket, failing to arrest her under a special zero-tolerance law targeting underage drinkers who drive.
Court records show a breath test indicated Alexa Liebig was over the 0.02 limit for drivers younger than 21. Police at first said in an email the case "did not reach the elements of DUI." But when we asked why officers did not use the zero-tolerance law -- police refused several times to respond. But on Wednesday, Police Chief James Cervera admitted he is concerned about how officers initially handled the young driver.
"Why didn't officers charge her right at the scene? That's what we're going to find out," Cervera said.
The chief says he has no tolerance for drinking and driving, and there is an internal investigation underway into whether the first officers mishandled the case.
Chris' mother welcomes that internal investigation because she has always thought officers didn't take the case seriously enough. In court, police dropped the alcohol-possession charge, and she didn't understand why. And she says she's been confused by conflicting stories about how Chris was hurt, from his friends that night, from police records, from medical reports.
Alexa and passenger Nikki Drew posted on Facebook that Chris fell out of Alexa's car. A death certificate says Chris was climbing out of a car window to try a stunt called "car surfing." Medical records say Chris opened the door and fell out. All this happened just blocks from Diane's home, on a 25-mph residential road near Oceana.
But she's convinced Chris' friends aren't telling her the truth.
"I really just want to know what happened," Diane said.
She doubts the stories in part because she says the friends with Chris that night haven't been honest about other things. She said Alexa assured her she was the designated driver and wasn't drinking. Court records show otherwise. And one of the passengers, a young man named Erin Robertson, is accused of taking advantage of the tragedy and stealing Chris' expensive Cannon camera. Police charged him with grand larceny. Robertson has a criminal history including convictions for drugs, alcohol and assault.
Police also told Diane none of the people in the car that night would cooperate with the officers' investigation. And none returned NewsChannel 3's calls or letters.
Diane had hoped police would bring more serious charges, but that never happened. The driver faced no charges at all until Wednesday. On that day, two months after NewsChannel 3 began investigating, police said they were bringing back the alcohol charge against Alexa.
It's not what she hoped for, but even the lesser charge even might mean Diane will find out more about that night. And she does accept that the blame for Chris' death might fall to Chris himself.
"I accept whatever," she said. "I'm fine with that. Because that was Chris. But I just want to make sure that's really, really what happened."
Memorial video courtesy of Adam Parker: