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.
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.
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.
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.
Until then, cheers. — RR