One Very Bad Decision
(“Treading Not So Lightly,” Forensic Files)
The story of Vicky Lyons is heart-rending, about a little girl who survives being hit by a truck but spends the rest of her life beset by the effects of her injuries.
“Treading Not So Lightly,” the Forensic Files episode about the efforts of her mother, Crystal Lyons, to use amateur forensic science to find the driver’s identity, is exciting to watch. And her love for Vicky is beautiful, of course.
Still, the case in a way seems like a search for a villain where none exists. Terrible judgment contributed to the incident, but criminal intent or even ill will was nonexistent. Here’s the story:
No playground. One day in 1980, Crystal Lyons called her boss in the circulation department of the Big Spring Herald newspaper in western Texas to say she wouldn’t be coming into the office because her daughter Vicky’s babysitter was unavailable.
But he threatened her with termination, she said, so she went to work and took Vicky, age 4, with her.
At some point, Crystal’s boss told Vicky to go play outside in the parking lot, according to what both women said on the episode. (It was filmed in 2001 when Vicky was about 25.)
Wrong suspect. By the time Crystal went outside to retrieve Vicky, it was too late. She found her lying unconscious next to the toy dishes she’d been playing with. What looked like a tire track mark ran across her face.
No one saw what happened, but the police arrested and jailed a local fish peddler and minister named J.B. Hardeman who had been seen in the vicinity around the time the accident would have taken place.
Crystal said she never believed Hardeman was the culprit. A grand jury declined to indict him after forensics showed that a suspicious spot of blood on his truck actually came from a fish, not a person.
At some point, the police decided the accident was a civil matter and stopped investigating.
Meanwhile, Vicky lay in a coma for three weeks with severe damage to her skull and one eye. When she awoke, she was unable to walk or speak.
Tire test. Here’s where the suspense starts. Crystal decided to embark on her own investigation. She surreptitiously applied shoe polish to the tires on trucks parked in the Big Springs Herald’s lot, then placed sheets of typing paper on top, rubbed a comb over them to make impressions, and saved them as evidence.
By coincidence, in 1982, Crystal saw a Time magazine story by Pete “Sherlock” McDonald, a former Firestone designer who taught at the FBI Academy and specialized in forensic tire evidence.about
He agreed to help Crystal with her investigation by comparing the tire impressions she had made to pictures of Vicky’s face taken right after the accident.
Laying blame. He determined that the marks on Vicky’s face didn’t match those from Hardeman’s vehicle, but they looked very similar to the Golden Sonic 78 tire patterns on a Ford pickup truck belonging to the Big Spring Herald, according to Mcdonald’s book, Tire Imprint Evidence (the link enables you to view some of the passages about Vicky Lyons for free).
The driver, whom the show never identified, later said that if he hit Vicky, he had no idea at the time. His contention seemed believable.
No one expects to see a tiny child alone in a parking lot. Many a driver in a residential neighborhood — where people are accustomed to watching out for kids — has accidentally hit a tricycle left in a driveway. Sitting down like she was, Vicky may have been even harder to see.
Also, as Forensic Files noted, the parking lot was unpaved and bumpy and the driver could have simply thought he hit a pothole. And the accident wasn’t part of any other crime — it’s not as though the truck was being used as a getaway car or that the man had any malice toward the Lyonses.
That’s why the whodunit aspect of the episode, although interesting to follow, rang a little hollow for me.
Damages award. Crystal sued the newspaper for “not supervising the parking lot properly.” That seem a little odd. The problem wasn’t the parking lot but rather that the supervisor suggested a child go outside and play there.
It reminded me a little of “the IRS brought down Al Capone” syndrome, whereby wrongdoers ultimately receive punishment — but for some ancillary offense rather than the egregious crimes.
Whatever the case, the Lyonses received a $750,000 settlement from the newspaper and used the money for the numerous surgical procedures Vicky needed to alleviate damage to her vision, hearing, and sense of balance.
Feeling vulnerable. Vicky learned to speak and walk again, although her neurological impairments remained apparent. She said having others gawk at her in public was the worst part of her ordeal.
“[Sometimes people] ask me if I’m mentally retarded or if I had a stroke,” Vicky told Forensic Files. “I’d rather they ask me than sit there and stare.”
The episode manages to end on a positive note, revealing that Crystal Lyons, divorced from Vicky’s father, went back to school to study forensic science.
But it takes a chilling turn during the closing credits: They reveal that Vicky died in 2011 at the age of 34.
Epilogue odyssey. So what happened to Vicky in the decade between the Forensic Files interview and her death? Did her impairments continue to lessen to the extent that she felt comfortable getting out and finding more fulfillment in life?
After nosing around on the internet, I came across some information about Vicky’s later years, although a lot of it came from reader comments — hardly a verifiable source of intelligence.
Update: Read Part 2 of the Vicky Lyons story.