Local Mother Turns Tragedy Into Triumph

Her oldest child came home to Wheeling during her final spring break from West Virginia University to play video games with her two brothers and sister instead of traveling on a trip to Texas with her girlfriends.

The game was Guitar Hero, and that’s the excuse 21-year-old Heather used when explaining why she passed on the young-adult fun college kids have enjoyed for decades during spring break. The truth was she just wanted to come home and be with her favorite people.

Jody Miller talks about Heather a lot. She always has because she’s always been proud of her. This month, though, is that month, and soon it will be that day again for the seventh year. Early in the morning on March 25, 2008, two Ohio County deputies knocked on her front door, waking her, husband Gary, and her two children who were home at the time. Heather and Sarah were not. Sarah had return to West Liberty for school, and after spending some time with her brother, Samuel, earlier that evening, Heather had gone out with friends and planned to stay overnight with one of them.

Jody Miller (seated on the far right) has worked hard to establish the MADD Chapter in the Wheeling area.
Jody Miller (seated on the far right) has worked hard to establish the MADD Chapter in the Wheeling area.

At 12:45 a.m., Jody heard the doorbell, and initially she believed Heather had changed her mind and decided to stay at home.

“They asked me, ‘Are you Heather Miller’s mom?’” the now 53-year-old Miller recalled.

The deputies said there was an accident and that the Millers needed to go to the Ohio Valley Medical Center has soon as they could. On the way there from their Triadelphia home, Gary and Jody traveled Interstate 470 westbound, and that’s when Jody saw the flashing lights known for signaling the scene of a serious car crash at the corner of National Road and Parkview Lane near Springdale.

That’s precisely the moment she knew what she would encounter the moment she walked through those hospital doors. Heather was a passenger in a vehicle operated by Wheeling resident Justin Kearns, then 22 years old. Kearns, who suffered minor injuries in the crash, was later found guilty of reckless operation and speeding and was sentenced to 45 days at the Northern Regional Jail.

“It could have been something completely different, but somehow I knew when I saw it,” she recalled. “I can’t explain it. I guess it was a ‘mom’ thing. But I knew the moment I saw all of the flashing lights and the flares and everything else.

“The deputies couldn’t tell us anything other than what they told us at the front door. That’s the rules, and they did what they were told to do, so our minds were spinning because we didn’t know what to think. What do you think at that moment?” Miller continued. “But I’ll never forget what I saw when I looked over to the right when we were on the interstate. I’ll never forget what that looked like, and I’ll never forget the room they put us in when we got to the hospital. I knew that was a bad room.”

The vehicle in which Heather was traveling at the time of the crash was heavily damaged after flipping over and colliding with a bus shelter before slamming into a hillside.
The vehicle in which Heather was traveling at the time of the crash was heavily damaged after flipping over and colliding with a bus shelter before slamming into a hillside.

After Heather was resuscitated on the way to the hospital, she survived six more days before passing away from a severe head injury on March 31. She had also suffered broken ribs and a few contusions when being partially ejected from the vehicle, but the blunt force trauma she suffered ultimately caused a digression in brain activity during the days following the crash. Organ donorship was an easy decision, but there was also the criminal investigation that necessitated an official autopsy.

The solution, according to Jody, was for there to be a closed casket during the first evening of funeral home visitation.

“Heather wasn’t there the first night. She was still in Morgantown for the autopsy, but you know, that would have been just like Heather – late for her own funeral,” she said with a smile and a laugh.

“That week between the crash and her passing was a roller coaster because there were times when we were given hope. They did a brain activity test in the middle of the week, and she passed that test, and the doctors said she also breathed on her own very well. We had more hope at that point than during that week.

“The second night of visitation, we had an open casket because she was with us at that point, but we had to do what was necessary at that time,” Miller continued. “My daughter was my best friend, and I knew what was important to her. We kind of grew up together, so I was very aware how much organ donation was to her. Like I said, that’s why we did what was necessary.”

And then there was the funeral, then the burial, and then the day after. Jody found her head spinning again.

“It was another one of those moments when I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I could do, but I’ve always been a very curious person who usually found out the answers to my questions,” she said. “The one thing I knew was I wanted to know more about why my daughter died that night. I wanted to know what went into the investigation process. I wanted to know how the court system worked.

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“And since then I have wanted to make people realize what a dumb decision it is to drink and drive,” Miller said. “Alcohol was suspected as one of the reasons for the crash, and I don’t care what the results in court were, it’s something I know I have to do. That’s why I have done everything so far, and why I plan to keep doing it. If I stop – if I quit mourning my daughter’s death – it would be like I don’t care anymore, and that will never be true.”

Each year since Heather's tragic death, Jody and Gary Miller have staged an alcohol-free golf scramble that benefits West Virginia University's Nursing Foundation to provide scholarships for local students.
Each year since Heather’s tragic death, Jody and Gary Miller have staged an alcohol-free golf scramble that benefits West Virginia University’s Nursing Foundation to provide scholarships for local students.

The family began the Heather Miller Memorial Golf Scramble only a few months following the fatal crash, and the event continues to provide scholarships for local students attending the WVU School of Nursing. Miller also attended the Wheeling Police Department’s Citizens Policy Academy, and the classes necessary for her to volunteer at DUI checkpoints.

The sudden death of Lt. William Goldbaugh, a veteran police officer who was in the process of retiring while on a family vacation in Florida, shook Miller again. Goldbaugh was traveling on Interstate 95 when a drunken driver struck the vehicle the officer was driving on July 18, 2010.

“I’ve never seen someone with so much passion for what he did for a living. It was more than for him than just a job,” Miller said. “Bill was the investigator for Heather’s crash, and he was with our family every step of the way.

“After Bill was killed, I knew we had to do more to raise awareness about drunken driving because there really wasn’t any awareness out there,” she continued. “That’s when I and (Wheeling police officer) Josh Sanders decided to make an attempt to get a MADD Chapter started here.”

The process of establishing the Wheeling Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization that has successfully pushed for a reformed set of laws and penalties for driving while intoxicated since the 1980s, was a long one. Not only did it involve a mountain of paperwork, but Miller and Saunders also needed to prove the interest was present in this area.

“I guess you can call it a never-ending process, but we proved it was needed here,” Miller said. “And MADD is still something new in this area, and I think it’s one of those things around here that has to impact people before they choose to get involved, so I’m hoping people realize it’s something you should get involved with before something like that impacts their lives.

“We all learn as we go, and that’s something I have most definitely learned; people need to get involved with organizations like MADD so we can do what we can to reduce the problem that it is,” she said. “I’ve had the chance to meet some of the offenders, and I just have to believe that we’re helping to save lives.”

Heather Miller passed away on March 31, 2008.
Heather Miller passed away on March 31, 2008.

She sheds a lot of tears when she discusses her oldest child no matter what day of any month it may be, and that’s mostly because she just plain misses her firstborn. They shared everything – everything – and she knows Heather’s final trip home really had nothing to do with playing video games with Sarah, Samuel, and Nathan.

“She was only a couple of months from graduating and looking for a job, so she needed her family more than ever. She needed to feel that foundation because I think the job-real-life thing was hitting her,” Miller said. “It was Easter weekend when she came home, and I can remember just looking around at family that Sunday and realizing just how lucky I was. I don’t know; call it hindsight at this point.”

Tomorrow evening Jody Miller will speak at the Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner at Straub Automotive. Miller has long-dreaded public speaking, but it’s become part of this calling of hers, and now that she knows what these officers are asked to do on a daily basis, Miller formed the partnership with the dealership to stage this annual event.

“Public speaking is not something I ever saw myself agreeing to do because I’ve always been the blend-in-type of person, but now – thank you Heather – it’s something I have to do for these folks that do what they do,” she said. “I have spoken with the officers who were at my daughter’s crash scene, and I have talked with the officer who held Heather’s hand when she was trapped in that vehicle.

“People thank me for what I’ve been doing and that has let me know that there are some who are getting the message. That means a lot to me,” she added. “Heather was not only my daughter; she was my best friend, and through all of this I have become empowered somehow. I see it as another part of her. She saved lives by donating her organs, and now she’s trying to save lives through me and her family.”

Heather was killed in the car crash along National Road near Park View Avenue just two months before she was set to graduate from WVU.
Heather was killed in the car crash along National Road near Parkview Avenue just two months before she was set to graduate from WVU.

(Photos provided by the Miller family)