Doomed teen: Seemed hyped, non-violent to witness
"I think that boy was gunned down and not given a chance," says a Free Union farmer who may have been the last person to speak with 18-year-old Colby W. Eppard, who perished January 1 after allegedly stealing a Greene County Sheriff's Deputy's cruiser and taking authorities on a three-county chase.
Connie Hicks had pulled her Ford F-350 into Maupin Brothers store on Free Union Road around 1pm on New Year's Day when she noticed a law enforcement vehicle with flashing white sidelights pull in. At first she thought there was trouble at the store, but she realized it was a different kind of trouble when a tattooed young man emerged and began fueling up a car missing its driver-side window.
"He said, 'It's the craziest thing,'" relates Hicks. "'I was in my aunt's truck, and I swerved to miss a puppy, and I wrecked, and this cop comes out of nowhere, and now I'm on the run.'"
Eppard would later go down in hail of boasts and bullets, with NBC29 recording some of his monologue on the police radio. Among his famous last words were "I stalk my f****** prey."
Hicks–- noticing beer, dipping tobacco, and a big black shotgun on the front seat–- urged the young man to get out of the car.
"I leaned in over the broken glass and held both of his hands. And I looked into his eyes and told him, 'God loves you, and people love you.' And he said, 'I know, but they're hunting me.'"
Now leading the investigation, Virginia State Police say that Eppard, a Stanardsville resident, swiped a Greene County deputy's vehicle by smashing the window with a rock after the officer left the car locked but running while the deputy futilely searched on foot for Eppard.
"I'm a good old boy, and now I'm stalking them," Hicks says Eppard told her. "And he was laughing and said, ''The stupid fat bastards. I've got their shotgun and their own damn cop car.'"
Though police say that he died after firing multiple shots at law enforcement officers who surrounded the vehicle on Route 20 in the Red Hill area of Albemarle, Hicks says she saw nothing violent about Eppard.
"He goes in and pays for his gas," says Hicks. "I said, 'Get yourself up out of this car right now.' He said, 'No, no, no–- I can't let them catch me because I have 19 years over my head.'"
A store manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirms the detail about paying for his fuel, and Hicks says that Eppard's next move was to back up the vehicle and take a dip of tobacco.
"Why did he back up and stop? Because I was meant to talk to him," says Hicks, who calls the meeting "really spiritual."
Hicks, whose own plight as a farm-seeking farmer put her on the cover of the Hook last year, had come to the store to put air in the tires of her log-splitter. She wishes that instead of pursuing Eppard, law enforcers had backed off and let the teen be talked out of the situation by his mother.
"I would like to tell her how gentle he was with me and how unthreatening he was to me," says Hicks. "I am a 44-year-old woman with two kids, and I was leaning into the car, and there was the shotgun and a bunch of shells, and I tried to take the shotgun from him, and in no way did I ever feel threatened by him."
The whole topic of police pursuits and whether they incite more danger than they preserve is one that erupted two months ago after an 85mph chase on Rugby Road. Like that case, police say, the Eppard incident began with a possible property crime. Eppard had allegedly improperly taken a family member's vehicle before crashing it in Greene, but Hicks thinks law enforcement over-reacted.
"They should have found him, backed off, and let his mother talk him out of it. I think if I'd had a little longer with him I could have gotten him out of that car."
Hicks says that as she tried to take the keys out of the ignition, Eppard had had enough and accelerated back onto Free Union Road in the direction of Earlysville.
"He was definitely hyped up because he was on a chase, and it seemed to me that he was desperate and needed help, and he was running scared," says Hicks, who now wishes that she'd climbed inside.
"If he'd had a hostage, then maybe they wouldn't have shot him. Right now I'm kicking myself that I didn't get in the car with him," says Hicks.
"You know what's ironic?" says Hicks. "He said, 'All this is happening because I swerved to miss a puppy.'"
However, State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller issued a release January 4 indicating a series of events less flattering to Eppard. These include taking a truck without authorization, speeding, sideswiping another vehicle and then fleeing the scene, wrecking the truck, eluding an officer, stealing a patrol car, wrecking the patrol car, and–- most seriously–- shooting at officers.
–photo of Colby Eppard added at 11:17pm January 4
–story completely rewritten 10:56am after witness interview
–original headline: Doomed teen: 'I stalk my f****** prey'
–original story: A car thief goes down in hail of boasts and bullets, and NBC29 records the famous last words of 18-year-old Stanardsvillian Colby Eppard.
–new paragraph about police release and ribald dialogue integrated into story at 9:20pm January 4