Driver in fatal Allenstown crash violates probation by using opioids

  • Jordan Heath appears for her plea and sentencing hearing on the vehicular assault charge in Merrimack County Superior Court in October 2016.

Monitor staff
Monday, July 10, 2017

The woman at fault for a 2014 crash that killed retired teacher Michael Phelps is headed to jail after violating her probation by using fentanyl.

Jordan Heath, 25, of Concord received a 30-day jail sentence after admitting to the violation of probation charge in Merrimack County Superior Court. Heath tested positive for opioids on April 26, and told her probation officer that she’d used what she believed to be heroin a few days prior, according to court testimony Monday.

Heath will not begin serving her sentence immediately; she must report to the county jail on Aug. 4. The month lapse gives her the chance to coordinate with a methadone clinic to continue to receive treatments while behind bars.

For years, Heath has suffered from substance abuse, her public defender Hanna Kinne said, noting that Heath began going to a methadone clinic in 2012 to try to break her dependence on opioids, and has been up-front about drinking several beers daily.

A judge sentenced Heath in October to one year in jail, all suspended, on conditions of good behavior. As part of a plea deal, Heath admitted to blowing a red light at a busy intersection on June 30, 2014, because she was distracted by a Facebook message on her cellphone.

Phelps, of Allenstown, was traveling east on a Honda VTX motorcycle when the collision occurred about 8 a.m. He suffered life-threatening injuries when he was thrown from the bike. He later died at Concord Hospital.

Family members said he was on his way to the Payson Center at the hospital, where he volunteered every Monday.

Authorities had initially charged Heath with negligent homicide, a felony. However, her May 2016 trial ended in a hung jury, which led prosecutors to consider a plea deal with her as an alternative to a re-trial.

The case against Heath was reopened this spring after the state’s probation and parole office filed the violation of probation charge.

Assistant Merrimack County Attorney George Waldron said in court Monday that Heath had previously admitted to frequent alcohol use, but lied to her probation officer when asked if she’d used opioids. He said she later told the truth after being shown the positive drug test.

Waldron said Heath was given an opportunity to turn her life around after the resolution of the vehicular assault case last year, but she chose not to seize it.

He recommended that Judge Richard McNamara sentence Heath to 90 days at the county jail in Boscawen, while Heath’s attorney recommended community service and a fine in lieu of incarceration.

“Respectfully, I believe that a 90-day sentence is basically punishing her for having a disease that she is trying to cope with,” Kinne said. “This is not a jailable violation.”

Additionally, she said, Heath was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the 2014 crash that took Phelps’s life and continues to have flashbacks today. Kinne said Heath relapsed in April when she was working with the Phelps family on an educational video about the dangers of distracted driving, as ordered by the court last October.

“She was experiencing a lot of anxiety because of that video,” Kinne said.

The six-minute video was completed earlier this year and introduced by Phelps’s son, Todd Phelps, at the state’s Traffic Safety Conference in May. Todd Phelps and other family members make appearances in the film, which also exists in a shorter form for use as a public service announcement.

The defense offered the video to McNamara, but he said the evidence pertained most directly to the vehicular assault case and did not need to be reviewed for purposes of Monday’s hearing.

McNamara told Heath he is concerned about her opioid abuse, and warned her that there could be far greater legal consequences in her future should she continue to use.

“Ms. Heath, this means you have to do better,” McNamara said.

“Yes,” Heath replied through tears.

Although members of the Heath family were not allowed to speak during Monday’s hearing, several were in attendance – just as they’d been throughout the duration of the criminal case.

In a statement after the hearing, Todd Phelps said his family supports the 30-day jail sentence handed down by McNamara.

“We hope that at some point she will be able to turn her life around and be the best contributing member of society that she is capable of,” he said. “We do not wish to see her fail, but continue to hope for her future success.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)