Thomas Druce 2: Classism Is In

When a Mover and Shaker Hits and Runs
“Capitol Crimes,” Forensic Files

Last week’s post looked at the car accident that killed a former Marine and damaged the political career of the driver.

Thomas Druce walking to court in 2004
Thomas Druce walking to court in 2004

Pennyslvania lawmaker Thomas W. Druce plowed his SUV into Kenneth Cains on a Harrisburg street and then sped off into the night on July 27, 1999.

The original charges against Druce, then 38, included homicide by vehicle — a third-degree felony with a mandatory minimum of three years — in addition to lesser charges such as tampering with evidence and insurance fraud.

Struggling vet. But Druce got a plea deal that eliminated the vehicular homicide charge. Along with a tongue-lashing about how Druce “lacked character” and “betrayed the public trust,” Judge Joseph H. Kleinfelter handed him a two- to four-year sentence in 2000. He ended up serving just two years before winning parole.

Thus a well-to-do, influential white man paid a small price for fleeing the scene of an accident that killed a poor, down-on-his-luck black man.

Cains, 42, was a Vietnam veteran with a severe drinking problem. He lived in a rooming house in a dodgy section of Harrisburg and had no spouse or children.

Druce had a wife, Amy Schreiber Druce, to cry for him during court proceedings as well as three small sons at home. His family and friends paid $600,000 to bail him out of jail (while awaiting sentencing) in time for Christmas in 2000.

Defer, defer. Druce even had the top Pennsylvania government official in his corner. “This story is a tragedy,” then-Governor Tom Ridge said. “I have known Tom Druce to be a man of honor, integrity, kindness, and compassion. Like others who know him, I have been shocked by this news, and I have hoped that it is untrue.”

A young Kenneth Cains during his service in the Marines
A young Kenneth Cains during his service in the Marine Corps

Once sentenced, Druce filed various motions that delayed his imprisonment for four years, during which time he went “on vacation at the Jersey Shore, visited New York and Washington, attended parties and sporting events, and traveled to Harrisburg, where he worked as a political consultant,” a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial noted.

For this week’s post, I’d like to concentrate on how race and class factored into the Druce affair.

With the scenario reversed, a car driven by a Kenneth Cains striking a Thomas Druce — his suit-and-tie clad body hitting the side-view mirror, then bouncing off the windshield and landing beside the road — you can bet Cains’ sentence would have dwarfed the two years Druce got.

According to research gathered by the ACLU for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2014, black male defendants receive longer sentences than whites arrested for the same offenses and with comparable criminal histories.

NAACP weighs in. The ACLU report noted a differential of 20 percent, but I can’t help but envision a much, much more severe punishment than what Druce received. And Cains would have been denounced as an “animal,” to be sure.

As a 2001 Morning Call editorial noted:

“If anything, Mr. Druce, who is white, has received preferential treatment from the moment his car hit his African-American victim, as Paula Hess, executive director of the Harrisburg branch of the NAACP, has asserted. Eight weeks behind bars [prior to sentencing], followed by electronic monitoring — is that the price Mr. Cains would have paid if he had been the driver in a fatal hit-and-run?”

Consider another relevant scenario: an affluent African American office holder committing a hit and run against a heavily intoxicated, socially insignificant poor white man. I tend to think the driver would use his financial wherewithal to wring every ounce of leniency possible, just as Druce did.

In the real crime, classism seemed to play a larger role than racism.

Surviving memebers of Kenneth Cains, including brother Louis Cains and sister Delores Williams, who said
Surviving members of Kenneth Cains’ family, including brother Louis Cains Jr. and sister Delores Williams, who said Kenneth was a beloved uncle to her daughters.

Kid gloves. In his Forensic Files appearance, Louis Cains Jr., the brother of victim Kenneth Cains, expressed frustration over the consequences for Druce — but he didn’t pinpoint race.

As a 2004 Pocono Record story reported:

Louis Cains Jr. has criticized the courts for giving Druce what he viewed as special treatment during his drawn-out appeal, but said at a news conference Thursday that he was satisfied with the outcome. ‘I knew in my heart he was going to have to do that time,’ the 51-year-old manufacturing worker said.”

Indeed, Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Kirland, chairman of the legislative black caucus, pointed to class rather than race in decrying Druce’s short sentence and subsequent parole.

“Poor folk end up in jail, sometimes for the rest of their life for such a crime,” Kirland said, as reported by Tom Infield in a 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer story.

Not a fan. Likewise, Rep. Bill DeWeese, Druce’s colleague in the Pennsylvania House, implicated economic status. “If the down-and-out U.S. Marine had run helter-skelter over an Oxford-cloth, striped-tie, preppy legislator, that poor old salt would have been in the slammer until the cows came home,” DeWeese was quoted as saying in the 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Incidentally, DeWeese himself ended up on the wrong side of the law a few years later. In 2012, he earned himself a two- to five-year sentence for misuse of state resources for campaign purposes.

And why did DeWeese get a longer sentence for finance-related misbehavior than Druce did for a fatal hit and run?

Rep. Bill DeWeese said Thomas Druce got off too easy

Perhaps ageism, or just plain age. Druce, the younger, fresher rising star may have been judged more worthy of redemption than DeWeese, who was past 60 and presumably had more years to accumulate enemies in the state capital.

Next week’s post will provide an epilogue for Thomas Druce as well as some of those interviewed on the “Capitol Crimes” episode of Forensic Files. Until then, cheers. RR

Update: Read Part 3 of the Thomas Druce story.

Thomas Druce: Pennsylvania’s Not Proud

 Worlds Collide, Tragedy Ensues
Capitol Crimes,” Forensic Files

The last four posts told the story of Mark Winger, whose crimes fascinated the public because of their unlikelihood and the intricate planning they entailed.

Thomas W. Druce before his fall from grace.

The actions of hit-and-run driver Thomas W. Druce, on the other hand, involved no diabolical blueprint. The Pennsylvania legislator’s decision to leave Kenneth Cains dying next to the road was born of common self-preservation instinct.

Literally. Although I don’t think many of us are callous enough to replicate all of Druce’s actions, everyone can relate to the way desperation dissolves morality.

Capitol Crimes,” the Forensic Files episode about Druce’s offenses, was absorbing because of the predictable way it unfolded, confirming what viewers would pretty much suspect all along.

The deadly clash of two men worlds apart in socio-economic status (both of whom drank inadvisably) was something of a real-life Bonfire of the Vanities.

Hasty decision. It starts on July 27, 1999, when Thomas Druce, a 38-year-old member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was driving home after having drinks with co-workers in Harrisburg, the state capital.

Druce hit and mortally wounded pedestrian Kenneth Cains, a former Marine who worked as a day laborer.

Investigators determined that Cains had a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent, twice what’s considered impaired, which possibly contributed to his stepping into traffic on Cameron Street.

Whether or not Cains, 42, was walking in a careless fashion didn’t matter once Druce fled the scene without checking on the injured man or calling 911. The politician instantly turned himself into a criminal.

Another driver witnessed the accident and summoned the authorities. He had seen the brake lights go on right before the vehicle zipped away but couldn’t determine its make or model. Paramedics pronounced Kenneth Cains dead at the scene.

Carded. By taping together fragments found near the scene, police officer Raymond Lyda uncovered a Chrysler logo and concluded that the car was a 1996 or 1997 Jeep Cherokee.

Victim Kenneth Cains of Harrisburg.
Kenneth Cains

The leads stopped there until the police received an anonymous Christmas card a few months later. It suggested they investigate Rep. Thomas Druce because he had taken in his state-provided black Jeep Cherokee for repairs and traded in the vehicle shortly after Kenneth Cains’ killing.

The story unspooled pretty quickly from there. Druce told investigators what just about any criminal trying to cover up a deadly hit and run would — that he didn’t stop because he thought he struck an object (a traffic barrel), not a person.

He also lied by asserting the accident took place on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Then, he explained, he had the cracked windshield fixed and traded the car in because he wanted a vehicle with lower mileage.

Druce claimed that a stop he made at the state capital building happened before the accident and that he did so to pick up some files.

Once investigators obtained the ID of the Jeep, they traced it to an unsuspecting consumer who had purchased it from a car dealership.

Questionable malfunction. Despite the repairs and many washings, the car held a cache of evidence. Glass lodged in Cains’ elbow and paint on his clothing matched those of the Jeep. Investigators recovered a hair in the seam of the side-view mirror and determined it had come from Cains’ arm.

The police suspected Druce made the visit to his office after the accident, to assess the damage. The video camera at the gate Druce entered that night had mysteriously stopped working, and the “capital cop” — the complex has its own police force — who witnessed the car enter the parking lot retired shortly after the incident.

Investigators discovered that, on his insurance claim, Druce had said he hit a sign, not a traffic barrel.

Thomas Druce (center) heading to court
Thomas Druce (center) heading to court

On March 16, 2000, Druce was arrested and charged with numerous crimes, including homicide by vehicle.

A Philadelphia Inquirer story by Glen Justice and Rena Singer described Druce at his court date:

“Druce, in a wrinkled blue suit, chewed gum and appeared nervous at his arraignment, where he also was charged with leaving the scene of an accident — which carries a mandatory jail sentence. The eyes of Druce’s wife, Amy, filled with tears as District Justice Joseph S. Solomon rejected the 38-year-old lawmaker’s attempt to pay 10 percent of his $20,000 bail with a personal check.”

Money buys time. In September 2000, Druce pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, evidence tampering, and insurance fraud. He resigned from office, got a sentence of two to four years, and paid a civil fine of $100,000 to Cains’ brother and two sisters.

Thanks to various legal maneuvers, Druce didn’t go to jail until 2004. (His attorneys argued unsuccessfully that the time Druce spent with an electronic monitoring device on his ankle and an evening curfew should be substracted from his jail sentence.)

After serving two years of his sentence, Druce was paroled and exited Somerset, Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands prison on March 13, 2006, his political career destroyed.

In a statement, Druce came close to admitting what he’d denied for years: that he knew his car struck a person, not an object:

“Although the state police ruled the accident was ‘unavoidable’ since Mr. Cains stepped onto the roadway and into the path of my car,” Druce said, “I have no excuse for not stopping near the scene and reporting the accident to the police.”

Indeed, calling 911 after the accident and giving an honest account might have gotten Druce off with a DUI plea — or nothing if his blood-alcohol level tested below 0.10 percent, Pennsylvania’s generous legal limit before Act 24 in 2003.

Druce “might well have fled the scene of his innocence,” as then-columnist Dennis Roddy put it in a January 2000 Pittsburgh Post Gazette piece.

More important, reporting the accident would have spared Kenneth Cains’ family the anguish of knowing the driver of the car that killed their brother didn’t care enough to stop.

Upcoming posts will contemplate the role race or class, or both, played in the handling of the tragedy and give a post-conviction epilogue for those involved.

Until then, cheers. RR

Update: Read Part 2  or Part 3 of the Thomas Druce story.