It’s Friday evening, March 28, 2014, and two lives are about to collide.
Rachel Anne Morrison is dining at Jake’s in Del Mar. Christopher “Chip” Stockmeyer is drinking at a bar in Encinitas, six miles to the north.
Rachel is a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. A 27-year-old native of Massachusetts, she is considered a scholar of great promise and a popular and admired member of that scientific community.
Stockmeyer, 41, is a construction manager living in La Jolla who this very morning signed his divorce papers, and whose son has leukemia, a condition that Stockmeyer has made it his mission to help overcome.
Rachel’s dinner companion is Rebecca Williams, 31, the wife of Rachel’s colleague at Scripps, project scientist Gareth (sic) Williams, Ph.D., 34. The two women share a love of long distance running.
They’re discussing a chapter for Rachel’s doctoral dissertation on results from a field trip she'd done in the South Pacific looking at the effects of fishing on coral reefs. No doubt the two are also talking about running and the guys in their lives.
Rachel is preparing to run the Boston Marathon alongside her father in three weeks. She is also engaged to marry. A young achiever with her plate full of delicious entrees.
Stockmeyer starts by drinking beer with some buddies, but as the evening wears on they depart for home. He stays, drinking alone. He wanders down the street to a second bar and switches to the hard stuff. He drinks and half-watches TV, still alone.
Rachel and Rebecca linger at their table. They each have one glass of wine during the evening. Rebecca gets a call from Gareth who was going to join them but is briefly delayed by work. The women decide to walk the half-mile to the Williamses’ house.
At about 10 p.m., Rebecca and Rachel pay their bill and leave.
So does Stockmeyer.
They are 15 minutes from each other.
The women stroll eastward down the curve of Coast Boulevard, a residential street that crosses the main road, Camino Del Mar, a quarter-mile south of Dog Beach. At about 10:15 they come to the intersection. There is a crosswalk protected by stop signs in both directions. The speed limit is 30 mph. Traffic is light as they look both ways. To the north, toward Encinitas, they see headlights quite a ways down the road. They make that everyday pedestrian mental computation—distance of cars, speed limit, crosswalk, stop signs--and then start to cross the street with Rebecca a half-step ahead.
Suddenly! With a freezing shock, monster headlights leap upon them, hot and bright as the sun. No time to fear. No time to scream. No time to pray.
Rebecca manages a small jump and feels a rush of air pressure as the car passes inches from her. She sees Rachel thrown into the air like a flimsy doll. Deputies later say she was thrown about 120 feet across the road. They calculate the car’s speed as 60 mph.
Gareth is driving home when he sees people gathered and cars pulled over along Camino Del Mar, very close to his house. As he pulls to the side, tension boils in his mind as he fears something has happened to his wife or friend. No concrete reason to think that, but no one can outthink a premonition.
“I caught a glimpse of somebody lying on the ground, then I saw my wife standing on the side of the road. That was when I realized that it had to be Rachel on the ground. I quickly checked that Rebecca was okay. She was being held by a neighbor and beset by shock. She just said, ‘They didn't stop. Rachel's been hit by a car.’
“I ran to Rachel. There was a gentleman trying to perform CPR.
I have training, so I took over and quickly realized that she had been hit extremely hard. I could tell just from starting chest compressions that she was completely fractured everywhere. I tried to deliver the first breath and found her lungs were flooded with blood.
“She wasn't responding. I had to try to clean her airway and deliver another breath, but she already had refilled. She had huge internal hemorrhaging.”
Deputies and an ambulance arrive, take charge, and rush Rachel to the emergency room. Gareth learned later that a medical team worked on her for 45 minutes, but he believes she was dead shortly after impact. The cause was a broken neck at the top of the spine and also at the bottom of the brain stem.
Rachel has been gone almost a year as Gareth sits at a family room table talking about his friend. He’s tall and slim with burnished red hair. His soft Oxfordian English does not hide his emotion. The night we are here to discuss will never gray out in his memory.
It is difficult for him to talk about the killing of Rachel. The terrible event was unspeakable. His wife, Rebecca, who lived through it, needs to leave it that way—unspeakable--as do Rachel’s parents.
Gareth is an understated man not given to gushing. “We sometimes try to glorify victims, but she was one of the nicest people I've ever met; very personable and a great communicator. Rachel was going to become somebody who could inspire the public to care about marine conservation; a public face for science.
“It was never about Rachel. Even the Boston Marathon she was training for. Even that was not for her. She knew her dad wanted to run a marathon with his daughter.”
(Her father, John Morrison, completed the 2014 marathon—alone, but thinking of his daughter every step.)
When the news of the hit-and-run reached campus, Gareth says Scripps Institute put the school on pause and arranged a memorial service for Rachel.
“I have never seen such an outpouring of grief and love,” he says. “It reminded everybody that Rachel was a beautiful person.”
A website recorded the feelings of those who attended and contributed to her memory:
“Rachel was as driven, tenacious, brilliant as a scientist as she was humble, kind, funny and generous as a person. I was lucky to have known her. Rest in peace, sweet Rachel.” --Michael Navarro, friend and colleague.
“I promise that Rachel’s life, her passion for marine science and ocean conservation, her legacy as a generous and giving friend, will live on here in my lab…We love you, Rachel.”
--Professor Jennifer Smith.
Then, of course, we have those fancifully named website-reader comments that spare not wrath and spare not words for the man who killed Rachel:
“What a (SOB).[cq] I hope they throw the book at him, actually, the whole library.”—Nite shade
“I hope they take him to the courthouse steps and hang him high.”—Sirdork.
Deputies going over the crime scene quickly come upon an Audi hood emblem and a license plate broken off during impact.
For investigators, it was evidence under the Christmas tree. Within an hour or so, they are ringing Stockmeyer’s doorbell. He answers in a haze. He is reported to have told deputies that he “may have hit something,” but isn’t sure. He denies being aware of hitting Rachel. He says he just wanted to get home and go to sleep.
Stockmeyer is given a field sobriety test which he fails. He is then arrested. His blood is drawn several hours later. The Sheriff’s Department calculates that at the time of the crash, his blood alcohol was 0.24, three times the legal limit.
The front end of Stockmeyer’s Audi is badly dented and the driver’s side windshield is shattered; not just spider-webbed, but smashed in a way that leaves visibility a guesswork.
Gareth Williams isn’t buying Stockmeyer’s story for one minute that he wasn’t aware he hit Rachel.
“The airbag had deployed, his windshield was smashed. He would have had to drive 12 miles to his apartment with his head out the side window. To do that would take calculated decisions. From the moment Stockmeyer struck Rachel, it became 100 percent about self-preservation.”
Prosecutor Keith Watanabe says, “He would have had to know he was in a crash. This was a callous disregard for the victim’s life.”
Gareth says, “I was always brought up to face your actions and be a man about it. He was a coward. I don't have respect for cowards.
“At the time I was extremely angry, now I just feel sad that he left my friend on the side of the road to die.”
In his whole life, Christopher “Chip” Stockmeyer had never been told he was a bad man, much less a killer. Did he drink too much? Yes. But a killer? My God!
But here he sits in the prisoner’s dock behind a wall of glass in Judge Michael Popkins’ Vista courtroom on this day of June 20, 2014. He is facing a group of people seated a few feet away in the spectator section who loathe him. He has pleaded guilty to killing a person they loved. He broke her neck. His weapon was a car of almost two tons driven at high speed. His motive? None. He was deeply drunk.
The judge is about to sentence him to a prison term of 11 years—6 years for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, and 5 years for hit and run.
But first, Stockmeyer wants to speak. He stands up behind the glass. He glances out and sees eight stone-faced persons rising with him in unison. They each hold a photo of a pretty, smiling young woman: Rachel Anne Morrison, the daughter-sister-fiancé whose life he took.
Stockmeyer has a sheet of paper to read from, but as he starts, he begins to sob. As best he can, he begins: “To Rachel, her family, and my own family: I am eternally sorry for what I have done. I am horrified that my unintentional actions caused this absolutely horrible tragedy….I took Rachel away. I am repentant to God. I will think about Rachel every day….There is a black hole on my soul.”
It’s now eight months later and Stockmeyer walks into the interview with the carriage of the purposeful businessman he had been for a couple of decades. At age 42, he’s trim and fit, and offers a firm handshake with a smile and direct look. He’s dressed in blue pants and shirt.
Those are survival skills. The blue clothing is prison issue. He’s just another inmate at Chino state prison, but he’s trying to make the best of it. He’s obviously bright and a crisp speaker. He’s motivated to get out of this place as soon as possible.
He’s approaching his sentence almost like a business plan. It’s for 11 years, but by law he’ll be released in October 2019. He’s already climbed to the top of the inmate heap. He’s been given a job as a mental health clerk, and is trying to get assigned to the fire camp. If he succeeds, he might be eligible for release in early 2018.
If the prison were filled with inmates like him, it would only need maybe two or three guards. He will be a model prisoner and give absolutely no trouble.
The only bars that give him trouble also have stools.
Coming in, he was terrified at all the horror stories he heard about prison. “I've seen some stuff that I didn't want to see, that I didn't want to know about. I've seen some bad fights. I saw a guy hang himself. You know, you're housed with uneducated, drug-addled thugs.”
He says he’s learned to avoid the racial gangs and the bad guys by developing an antenna for their scams and staying aloof without offending.
He shares a tiny cell with a lifer-burglar he gets along with. He’s burrowed in. This is a resourceful man.
Stockmeyer says he’s never gotten mixed up with street drugs, but he more than made up for it with liquor. He started drinking at 16, and was probably a functional alcoholic early on: Not the type that craved a drink, but one that couldn’t turn a drink down.
What’s Stockmeyer’s version of what happened that night? (He doesn’t have to ask, “What night?”)
“I was meeting a couple of other guys there (in the first bar). They soon left and went home to their wives. So, why didn't I just leave with them, and say I don't need to be here any longer?
“I was drinking beer at the first place. When I got to the second place, I started drinking cocktails. From there, I remember waking up at my house with knocking on the door. And in between, I really have no idea.”
You don't remember a thing?
“I get like little snippets. Like, I think I can remember something wrong with the windshield of my car.”
It was smashed. How did you see out of it?
“I have no idea. Driving blind, I guess. Then, if that's the case, and I was that drunk, how did I even get to my car? Somehow, I (found it) and started it. And when the cops got to my house, the car was parked in my spot. I mean, my spot's not easy to get into. So how did I do all that?”
You told deputies you thought maybe you hit something.
“I know. When they interviewed me, I was half asleep. I was disoriented. I think I was still partially drunk. I remember them asking questions, but I couldn't tell you what the questions were. I couldn't tell you what my answers were. I could have said a lot of things. I don't know how much of (what I said) was really true and accurate or not. I had no idea there was a victim. I thought maybe I had hit, like, a tree, or hit a--I just didn't know. All I knew was I had been out drinking, and I was (now) home.”
He doesn’t back away from what he did, at least up to the impact. He recalls that sentencing hearing in court: “They (the family) all got up and said something. They called me a murderer, called me a monster. And in that moment, yeah, I was a monster.”
Do you feel you've gotten to know Rachel?
“I pray for her every day. I think I know her spiritually. It was a loving, promising person whose life I took.”
Does Rachel ever visit you at night?
“When I talk to God, she's there.”
Does she ever talk to you?
Can you see her face?
“I don't see her face, except for what I saw in the courtroom. I could see the portrait they were holding up. She was a bright light in the world that I took out, out of a stupid, ignorant act of my own. And there's nothing I can do to change it. I will get another chance, you know, but she won’t. So I have to do something with my life.”
Do you sleep well?
I say to him: You don’t act like you’ve got the burden of a woman’s death on your heart.
“I don’t show how I feel. In here, you don’t dare walk around depressed or sad. It’d be a sign of weakness.”
Stockmeyer has two sons, both under 10. The oldest boy has had a tough battle with leukemia and is now in remission. Stockmeyer’s absence from his son in this time of need is a toothache in his soul. When the diagnosis was first made, he jumped in and helped raise money to fight the disease. He can barely finish a paragraph without mentioning his sons.
Both boys now visit him regularly. He tells me he hasn’t talked to them yet about why he is here and not at home because he doesn’t think they’re totally aware of it yet.
As he tells me this, I think—Don’t kid yourself.
When he was drinking in those Encinitas bars before the crime, he had that day received his divorce papers. It since has become final, but the woman who left him still has a hold on his heart. In conversation, he repeatedly refers to her as “my wife,” though she is now his ex.
You still have fond feelings for your ex-wife.
“Oh, yeah. I love her, for sure.”
But she's gone.
“Yeah, she's moved on to another guy.”
He says, candidly, “My wife leaving me wasn't just because I was drinking too much. There was a lot of--there was just anger, there was depression, there was neglect, there was stupidity, there was dishonesty.”
You know, some will say, “Why are you writing about this SOB?” [cq]
“I know that. I might be asking the same,” he says, nodding.
The Morrison family is suing him in civil court for a lot of money, but he’s not worried about it because, he says, “I don't have any money. I'm in debt up to my eyeballs.” Obviously, his insurance company will be the main target.
When he’s released, Stockmeyer should be in better shape to fit back into society than many of his fellow inmates, many of whom have absolutely no chance of ever getting a meaningful job again.
In three or four years, Stockmeyer will be on the street in his mid-40s with a felony record. Not much call for that in the want ads. He has a college degree and a successful record in construction management, not huge but solid. He says he made $120,000 the last year he was working. Also, the construction business across the board is not known to be socially sensitive, so he should find it more conducive to easing back in. He agrees that is true. He also has a myriad of contacts.
On the other hand, it’s a business known for fellows who are well practiced in bending an elbow, so he’s concerned about its effect on his sobriety.
Stockmeyer is a strange fit for a felon. Until a year ago, he was a hard working, son loving, all-around hail-fellow-well-met. The character recommendations that were given the court on his behalf would fill a book. If he were your neighbor, you’d help him hang Christmas lights. But all of that has to be put on hold. For the next few years he’s a convict serving time for a foul deed. He drank and drove and killed and ran.
There’s a saying in prison that everyone is innocent, and everyone lies. Well, Stockmeyer says he’s guilty. The fact is, he didn’t have a lot of choice but to plead guilty, but, nevertheless, he has faced up to it, at least up to the crash. After that, there’s an argument.
On any night on San Diego County roads a variation of this story could be repeated many times when the bars close and the neon goes dark. The roulette ball just happened to land on Stockmeyer’s number. But the ball never stops spinning.
To those who swallow hard and think—“I could be Stockmeyer”…
Well, listen to yourself.
Christopher Stockmeyer alone knows the depth of his remorse. We can hope that he keeps he vow and overcomes alcoholism, and when he returns to his sons and to society, he will be a voice for sobriety. His life will go on.
Rachel Anne Morrison’s will not.
Fred Dickey is a freelance columnist for U-T San Diego. He invites your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org
His website is www.freddickey.net
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