TORONTO - Friends today are mourning the loss of two city residents killed in an auto accident on Interstate 70 Saturday morning that also resulted in the death of a Weirton woman and left another individual hospitalized.
Justin Wright, 29, of Toronto and Brittney Lynn Kusic, 26, of Weirton were killed in the accident that occurred near the Highlands.
Steven Carpenter, 20, of Toronto died at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh Monday evening, an official at the hospital confirmed. Carpenter was a passenger in an auto involved in what police are calling a case of road rage.
Wright reportedly was driving the vehicle. According to West Virginia State Police, Wright's vehicle, a Ford Ranger, was intentionally struck by David E. Hancher-Palmer, 22, of Rayland, while traveling the on-ramp to I-70 from the Highlands. The collision sent Wright's vehicle out of control and into the westbound lanes of traffic where it was struck by a tractor-trailer. Hancher-Palmer fled the scene and later turned himself in to police. Hancher-Palmer is being held in the Northern Regional Jail on four counts of malicious assault, leaving the scene of an accident and driving with a suspended license for his alleged involvement in that crash.
A fourth passenger in the Ranger, Ashley Wright of Toronto, remains in fair condition at Ohio Valley Medical Center.
Wright was popular and had many friends in the Toronto area, according to his friend Jeremy Troski.
"Justin's been one of my best friends," said Troski. "There are a lot of misconceptions out there about him. As far as I'm concerned, he was one of the most loyal friends I've ever had. He cared more about his family and friends than anyone I've ever met."
Troski said Wright also was devoted to his two children and was dedicated to being a good father.
"He pretty much spent all his time with his kids," Troski continued, adding Wright had struggled with personal problems. "He was really trying to straighten his life out. He was at the point where he needed to be in life. That's what makes this so sad."
Troski said he also knew Wright's sister Ashley, and "it looks like she's going to pull through."
Another friend, J.C. Joynson, echoed Troski's thoughts about Wright.
"He's been my best friend my whole life," said Joynson, adding the two met while playing football for the Toronto Titans. "He had so many friends. I met so many people through him. He could always make you laugh. He was an extremely loyal friend."
Toronto resident Mike Sloane said Wright was a trusted friend.
"I've known him since we were kids," said Sloane, adding Wright was a guitarist. "We listened to the same kind of music, and we started hanging out."
Sloane, a drummer, said the two played music together for years.
"He was a nice guy, the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back," Sloane said. "He was a really popular guy."
No funeral arrangements had yet been made, according to Wright's friends.
Carpenter was a polite, well-liked employee of the Dollar General store in Toronto, according to Judy Lewis, assistant store manager.
"He was friendly, polite and everyone loved him," said Lewis, adding Carpenter was especially well-liked by customers. "He was one of the nicest kids we ever had working for us. We're having a rough time here (over his death)."
Lewis said she was shocked to hear about the accident from a customer, adding she had no idea Carpenter was involved in the accident.
West Virginia State Police Sgt. Scott Adams said Hancher-Palmer intentionally drove his 1992 Chevrolet Beretta into Wright's truck. Adams said there were reports the two exchanged words from vehicle to vehicle prior to the crash.
According to Adams, Hancher-Palmer and Justin Wright were once friends, but that friendship recently ended. Adams said the events that preceded the deaths are being investigated.
Also on Monday, Ohio County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Drage Flick said Hancher-Palmer's father, David Elmo Palmer, 44, of Bridgeport is wanted on charges that also involve Justin Wright.
Flick said there is a warrant for David Elmo Palmer's arrest on a charge of battery. According to the chief, David Elmo Palmer allegedly assaulted Justin Wright on Jan. 11 at the Wheeling Treatment Clinic, the same location Justin Wright and Hancher-Palmer reportedly left just before the fatal crash.
Flick said evidence indicates David Elmo Palmer and Justin Wright were involved in a financial dispute. Reports indicated Justin Wright was transported to Wheeling Hospital after he allegedly was punched in the face by David Elmo Palmer on Jan. 11. And on Jan. 10, the day before the alleged battery, David Elmo Palmer reportedly threatened Justin Wright with a hammer.
"It appears Justin Wright owed the father money for mechanic work," Flick said. David Elmo Palmer "was dropping his son off for treatment, and they were there at the same time. After he assaulted Mr. Wright, he fled the area before we arrived, and he left his son there."
Adams said Hancher-Palmer fled the scene of the crash Saturday but did turn himself in to authorities later that day. Adams said Hancher-Palmer did not know anyone had died when he was first questioned by investigators. The sergeant noted, however, that statements obtained in the investigation led him to believe that the contact between the vehicles driven by Hancher-Palmer and Justin Wright was no accident.
"He intended to at least hurt them considering their history, witness statements and witnesses near the scene," Adams said. "He was cooperative in coming in. Once he learned about the fatalities, he was visibly upset. I don't know what he knew."
Adams has been a state trooper for 16 years. He said the accident scene was one of the most difficult he has handled and the first "road rage" fatality he has investigated.
"It was horrible," Adams said. "I have spoken to several family members, and just the loss they have gone through is something they'll never get used to. I've seen some pretty bad wrecks. This is right up there."
Funeral services for Kusic are at 11 a.m. Thursday at Mullenbach Funeral Home in Follansbee.
(Miller can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gabe Wells contributed to this story.)