Message received: Film stemming from tragedy tells drivers to listen, learn, live

  • This photo, taken from a video produced by Tiffany Eddy and Jay Childs, shows the accident scene where Michael Phelps was killed in 2017. Courtesy of / Tiffany Eddy and Jay Childs

  • FAR LEFT: Todd Phelps looks up at the video being presented last week. LEFT: Phelps’ dad, Michael Phelps, was a beloved teacher and coach.

  • ABOVE: Jordan Heath after her guilty plea at Merrimack County Superior Court last year. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Todd Phelps, his mother Alice Phelps, and daughter Alyza Morris at Alice’s home in Allenstown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • COURTESY—Phelps family

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/13/2017 11:11:18 PM

If you don’t change your driving habits after watching a recently released film about the late Michael Phelps, you’re a fool.

The documentary, part of a plea agreement to close the case on Jordan Heath, teaches a hard lesson, giving us all a chance to put our cellphones down while driving, and to live to see another day.

The six-minute public safety announcement, shown at last week’s New Hampshire Traffic Safety Conference, pulls no punches in its attempt to convince drivers to keep their eyes on the road when behind the wheel. Phelps would be alive today if Heath had focused on a road in Allenstown instead of looking at Facebook on her phone.

She ran a red light and crashed into Phelps, who was turning left on his motorcycle. The accident happened on June 30, 2014, and lots of lives have never been the same.

If nothing else, at least the documentary will shake people up. At least that’s the goal. To save lives.

“I’m thrilled with how it came out,” Todd Phelps, Michael’s only son, told me after the film wrapped up the all-day event at the Grappone Conference Center. “It’s a powerful video, and I think it sends a clear message. Anyone I’ve shown it to has been touched by it.”

Todd was the lone member from the Phelps family who attended the conference. Jordan Heath was not there, either.

But everyone was part of the documentary, including Michael’s wife, Alice Phelps, his daughter, Alyza Morris, and a tearful Heath, who avoided jail time through her appearance in the movie.

It tells the story of a single mom, 22 at the time, and a retired school teacher, 66, whose lives intersected at an intersection and will remain intertwined for all time.

Heath, now 25, claimed her brakes had failed during a trial that ended in a hung jury on a felony charge of negligent homicide.

Rather than retry her, Assistant Merrimack County Attorney George Waldron considered a plea deal, telling the court last year, “The state, subsequent to trial, polled the jurors and it seems the issues they struggled with were going to be present in the second trial, as well, and given the nature of their concerns, it seemed the most appropriate way to handle the case.”

The Phelps family agreed, allowing Heath to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of vehicular assault, as long as she admitted texting at the time of the accident, and pledged to appear in the film.

Former WMUR anchor-turned filmmaker Tiffany Eddy produced the film, which will be used in teen driving initiatives and highway safety education classes to send a clear message.

Todd got his message across before the video made it to the screen. He’s an internal affairs investigator for the Department of Corrections, with a shaved head and an upper body that makes you think of a tank.

He told his audience, made up of state troopers and local cops, to close their eyes and keep them shut until he told them otherwise. We opened our eyes 11 seconds later.

“I just want you to keep that in mind as you watch some of the video,” Todd said.

Then we watched. We learned that Heath had looked down at her phone for 11 seconds, telling viewers, “I was distracted and I ran a red light and I hit a motorcycle and the man on the motorcycle died.”

Todd, driving toward the scene, shows where his father turned left onto Allenstown Road, at a green light, when Heath blew through a red light.

When the traffic light is shown above Todd’s vehicle, the screen goes black, then shows a sequence of photos, each accompanied with the sound of a camera clicking.

We see the wrecked motorcycle and scattered debris near the road’s double yellow line.

We see thick, black skid marks and more debris.

We see a close-up of Michael’s red motorcycle lying in the street.

We see Heath’s car in the woods, its front end crumpled, flush against a tree.

Heath returns to the screen after the final camera click and says, “I was looking at my phone. I had updated my status on Facebook, and someone had commented on my Facebook. It was actually my boss at the time, and it sends a message that shows the comment and it scrolls through quite slowly, so I wasn’t aware of how long I was reading that message.

“And when I looked up, I was under the light. It was red, and the bike was right there.”

She wipes a tear, then continues.

“I saw Michael Phelps in the road under the light, his bike a few feet away from him. He had lost one of his legs from the knee down.”

Michael died later that day. Morris was at Santa’s Village with her family when the call came. Alice was at home when a police officer knocked at her door.

“Yes, something very precious was taken from me,” Alice says in the movie. “I can’t give him a hug. He was a good hugger.”

He was also a teacher in the Concord School District for 35 years. He was a football and track coach. He was involved with the drama club. He was a prostate cancer survivor, and in fact was on his way to Concord Hospital, where he volunteered with the cancer program there, when the crash occurred.

After the screening, Douglas Wyman, the police chief in Sandwich, approached Todd and told him his father had taught him at Rundlett Junior High School nearly 30 years ago.

“He was always bigger than life, always willing to help the kids, always around,” Wyman told me. “He was just one of those teachers that even if you didn’t have him, you just remembered him because he was such a great guy.”

I know some of you reading this believe Heath got off too easily. Letters to the editor and comments on our website have shown that. In the film, though, Heath’s tears are real, and she sounds genuinely sorry for what happened.

That’s good enough for Todd, who lives in Loudon and actually sees Heath at the local Dunkin’ Donuts now and then.

“She fulfilled her role and she participated and made the video with us,” Todd said. “As far as I’m concerned, she fulfilled that part of her plea agreement, and I’m happy she did.”

He continued: “With my dad being a teacher, this is what we wanted to do. We wanted to use it to teach others and make sure his death was not in vain. We wanted to make sure that something good could come from it.”

He knows that won’t be easy. He knows some of you will continue to text while driving, read while driving, be foolish while driving.

But if he sees you, you’ll hear about it.

“Unless we can change people’s attitudes, you’re not going to make that behavior go away,” Todd told the audience shortly after the film. “It’s almost become socially acceptable at this point. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve gotten out of the car and yelled at somebody for using their phone.

“Thank you for your time.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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