Eight months ago, a family of five was killed in an accident along Pear Street on a rainy April night. Today, despite a civil lawsuit and increased calls from residents to improve safety at the site, a roadside memorial stands as the only change at the scene.
The drainage ditch that the family fell into still overflows with water anytime there is heavy rain, yet there are no signs that warn of the danger or guardrails to protect drivers.
While looking into why safety measures aren’t in place, News-Press NOW came upon new information from that night, including a wrongful death lawsuit from the families of the victims.
The following account is based on recently obtained police records, videos of the crash and court documents.
What was thought to be a two-car accident, actually involved a third vehicle.
Amy Morse, driving a Chevrolet Malibu, was eastbound on Pear Street. It was dark and raining as she came up over a hill, according to a report from the St. Joseph Police Department. Adam Dowell, in an Oldsmobile, was headed toward her, westbound on Pear Street, the report said.
This is when the third vehicle — initially unknown to police — came into play. Brock McMichael, was leaving a house party and had pulled to the end of the driveway but never entered Pear Street. As Morse approached, video shows her moving into the other lane seconds before the crash.
“You can clearly see that she thinks that vehicle is pulling out when it never did actually get to the roadway,” said Sgt. James Tonn with the St. Joseph Police Department. “But you come over that hill and you see it and you think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hit it.’ Well, unfortunately, at that very moment, there’s an oncoming car.”
After Morse collided with Dowell, both cars spun counterclockwise. Dowell and his passenger, Teresa Morris, had minor injuries when their car came to a rest after hitting McMichael’s vehicle, the police report said. Morse and her family were less fortunate. Her car overturned onto its roof after it skidded into the drainage ditch and trapped everyone inside. The vehicle quickly filled with water.
McMichael left the scene, later telling police he didn’t think he was hit and didn’t notice the car in the ditch.
Mark Larson, whose house McMichael left from, came out to see what had happened. He noticed the car in the ditch and went to get his Bobcat as first responders arrived. Larson used the front bucket of the Bobcat to partially lift the back of the car out of the water and allow firefighters and policemen to break the windows.
First responders pulled out the three kids and began performing CPR. Morse, who was in the driver’s seat, was unresponsive.
Twelve days after the crash, a family member of Morse was visiting the memorial in the ditch. While there, she saw the body of a previously unknown fifth victim, Cody Grace, the father of two of the children who had died.
According to later police reports, Grace was the front passenger in the vehicle at the time of the accident. His seat belt was buckled but “tight against the seat,” implying that someone was sitting on top of it.
On the night of the accident, Harley Garrett, an employee with All City Tow, arrived and ran into the water to hook up the car. While he was in “chin-deep water” on the passenger side, “he felt something on his leg that he knew to be a person,” a police report said.
He told first responders on the scene what he felt. A fireman then got into the water and briefly checked, “walking a cross pattern only one time.”
“Besides that hiccup, and that’s terrible,” Tonn said of not finding Grace until 12 days later, “if we can call it what it is, it didn’t change the outcome, but it is embarrassing.”
Amy Morse and daughters Anastasia Grace and Rosalie Morse were pronounced dead that night. Son Braxtin Grace was taken to the hospital and died the following morning. Cody Grace was found in the ditch on April 21, but it is believed he died the night of the accident, police said.
The victims’ families have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against James Hawk, Penny Hawk and Hawk Truck Leasing, the people and company that own the property where the drainage ditch is located. The suit also includes the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission — the six-member board that governs the Missouri Department of Transportation.
When it rains in St. Joseph, residents of the area, those driving by and the family of the victims are reminded of the tragedy from April as the drainage ditch fills. Residents have taken to social media and asked for the ditch to be fixed, a guardrail to be added or signs put up warning of the drop-off. But who’s responsible for making those changes?
“I definitely don’t understand what it takes to fix that, but now we know it can happen and something’s got to be done,” Tonn said. “Guardrail? Fix the drain? I don’t know what it is. I don’t have the answers, but it is hard to see that it’s still like that.
“There was a time when I know that there were complaints made before the crash because I said something could happen,” Tonn said. “Well, now it has happened and in the most terrible way.”
Tina Brant was one of the people who complained to the Missouri Department of Transportation. For four years, she called and said something needed to be done to the drainage ditch. She said each time no action was taken.
“Nobody wants to claim responsibility because nobody wants to be financially responsible,” Brant said. “So the trucking company doesn’t want to touch it because then they’ll be responsible. MoDOT doesn’t want to touch it because they’ll be responsible.”
Officials with the city of St. Joseph are frustrated, too. Pear Street is a state highway, so it’s under the jurisdiction of MoDOT. But city officials still want to see something done.
“I bring up the situation with just getting some guardrail up there, just a little safety factor, and I just keep getting brushed off,” said City Councilman Kent O’Dell. “Nothing’s happened. (MoDOT) just keeps moving me aside and moving on and ignoring what I’m saying.”
MoDOT declined to comment on “pending litigation.”
Most people in the community believe there should be a guardrail and a new culvert that actually drains the ditch.
This is why Hawk Truck Leasing is being sued. The families’ lawyer said the company “recklessly and negligently failed to assure that their property met a reasonable standard of safety, specifically allowing a 6-foot-deep ditch capable of holding large volumes of water to remain on their property.”
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is being sued for not maintaining the road in a “reasonably safe condition, free of defects and dangerous conditions” and for not warning the public of those “defective and dangerous conditions,” like a “drop-off excessive in height and angle.”
Both Hawk Truck Leasing and the commission deny the allegations and say that the accident, injuries and damages “occurred due to the conduct and sole cause of Amy Morse” and the other drivers and that the accident “arose as a result of an Act of God, including without limitation any rainstorm and subsequent ponding of water.”
With a jury trial in the civil lawsuit scheduled for Nov. 14, 2022, it is unlikely residents will see changes to the ditch or the road anytime soon.
“Litigation or not, the hazards are there,” O’Dell said. “We just lost an entire family there. Hopefully, we don’t end up losing another family due to the heavy rain or what have you. But a guardrail doesn’t cost that much to put up. It’ll add in the safety feature of anybody ever sliding into that hole again.”