The family of a woman killed in a crash resulting from a high speed chase filled two rooms of in the Iredell County Superior courtroom Thursday as the man charged in her death entered a plea.
Denzel Hillary pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and fleeing elude arrest in Iredell County Superior Court Thursday afternoon. He received 125-162 months active with credit for 39 months served. Charges pending in Mecklenburg County will be combined with the sentence.
A no contest plea means Hillary does not admit guilt but acknowledges the state’s evidence is strong enough for a conviction.
Rhonda Hambright died at the scene.
Her son-in-law Tim Johnson read a statement from the family during court as the group behind him held hands, wiping their faces with tissues.
“Many lives were ruined or thrown into absolute chaos,” Johnson said.
Johnson described Hambright as a loving, forgiving woman who would help anyone in need.
“She was always one thing. She was there. Now she won’t be,” Johnson said.
“The greatest tragedy of all is the grandkids will probably never remember her,” he said.
The chase that led to Hambright’s death began on Oct. 12, 2016.
Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Floyd said Hillary, 26, of Charlotte, took a white Dodge Durango that morning in Mooresville. The car’s owner had started the car with a button on the fob for it to warm up. The car was reported as stolen.
Hillary’s defense attorney Bradley Smith said Hillary did not think he was stealing the vehicle. He was dating someone who lived in the Mooresville residence and took it to look for her. His girlfriend’s sister reported the stolen vehicle.
Floyd said a Mooresville Police officer recognized the stolen car and attempted to stop it. Hillary stopped, but when the officer left his car, Hillary drove around a daycare into the busy rush hour traffic.
At almost 8 a.m. the Durango hit two other cars before striking Hambright’s vehicle at almost 100 miles per hour at the intersection of U.S. 21, Connector Road and Cornelius Road as she was pulling out to make a left-hand turn.
Hambright, a mother of three and a grandmother of three at the time, was pronounced dead at the scene. She was 49.
After hitting Hambright’s white Nissan, Hillary got out of the Durango and fled the scene. He was apprehended about half a mile from the scene at 10:30 a.m. and was treated for minor injuries.
“The Mooresville Police Department and the (N.C.) Highway Patrol continued to work together. They did an amazing job with this case,” Floyd said. “This was not a case for any of them to do. It certainly has not been an easy case for this family whose mother was simply on her way to work like she did every single day, just passed her 49th birthday. For absolutely positively no reason, is she not here with us today.”
One of those sitting in the row with the Hambright family held up a picture of her.
Hillary’s mother was also in attendance. She acknowledged that words could never be enough, but she apologized for what her son had done and said she prayed for them every day.
Hillary also apologized.
“If my mother was gone, I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t be able to keep on living. I wouldn’t know.” Hillary said, crying. “I want you to know that really, from the deepest part of my heart, I’m sorry.”