After a gut-wrenching, 90-minute hearing in Lamar superior court June 7 that brought even the judge to tears, Felicia Giacolone Whatley was sentenced to 12 years in prison followed by three years on probation.
Whatley, 58, entered a guilty plea to one count of vehicular homicide and threw herself upon the mercy of Judge Tommy Wilson. She faced multiple charges in connection with a wrong-way driver crash on Ga. Hwy. 7 March 5, 2021 that mortally injured 38-year-old Nathan Suggs.
Suggs was lifeflighted from the scene to Grady Hospital in Atlanta where he died March 8, 2021. Suggs was a passenger in his truck which was being driven by Jeremy Ryan Knight, 25.
Knight was in the courtroom as were large contingents of family and friends supporting Whatley and the Suggs family.
Many made statements. The account that follows is in the order that events in the courtroom occurred.
Jernigan said Felicia Whatley and her husband Matthew Whatley, both of Thomaston, were at Bank Street Cafe in Griffin where Whatley had six shots of Jackfire whiskey, two at the bar and four more during dinner.
Servers at Bank Street observed her condition but they let her leave because the husband had the car keys. “They had a disagreement and somehow she ended up driving,” Jernigan lamented.
Felicia Whatley started southbound in the northbound lane where Hill Street intersects the four-lane in a 2008 Honda Accord.
“Numerous 911 calls were received about a wrong-way driver moving at a high rate of speed in the wrong direction. One off-duty police officer dodged her and used his lights to try to stop her,” Jernigan said.
Whatley had multiple close calls and ignored multiple other drivers trying to get her attention.
Meanwhile, Suggs and Knight stopped in Milner and changed drivers. One was a mechanic and listening for an odd noise emanating from Suggs 2005 Toyota Tacoma, Jernigan said. They resumed driving north on the four-lane.
Knight topped a hill and Whatley’s Honda was on him. “Jeremy swerved but Whatley clipped the truck which flipped for 500-600 feet due to her high rate of speed. Jeremy tried to help Nathan but he was obviously in very bad shape. He walked up to Whatley’s car and she was inside scrolling on her phone,” Jernigan said.
Dep. Bossie Davis arrived, smelled alcohol on Whatley and noted she was unsteady on her feet. A state trooper arrived and Whatley refused a blood draw. A warrant was issued and EMTS drew her blood three hours later and she was still .120.
“That means she was a lot higher when the crash happened,” Jernigan said.
“That night I got the worst phone call of my life. My brother had severe head trauma and was being cut out of his truck. At the hospital, Nathan had blood and brains coming from his nose. Blood was coming from every orifice.
“The doctor said he had no tools in his toolbox to help Nathan. The impact was so severe, his brain was turned to mush. I realized my brother died on the side of the road,” she testified.
She asked for the maximum penalty to be imposed. ”Words cannot express our family’s pain and anguish. Our family is permanently broken,” she concluded.
He recounted how Nathan had a very successful landscaping business and was a hard worker.
“All of this could and should have been avoided. (Whatley) made the conscious decision to drive,” he said.
Allison noted Whatley came into her place of business recently and was treated like anyone else. Allison did not let her know she was family.
“I do not harbor any hatred for Ms. Whatley. Some of the best lessons in life are learned from consequences. Her family had asked her not to drink and drive to no avail,” she said in calling for the maximum penalty.
Suggs noted her brother had missed many events in her life and would be missing many more. She also asked for the maximum sentence.
“My brother was nothing less than a rock star to me. I have now had two birthdays without him. I held his hand crying in the hospital. I don’t know if he even knew I was there,” she sobbed.
Mrs. Harp’s statement was read by victims’ advocate Allison Howard but was largely inaudible in the courtroom.
“Nancy (Nathan’s mother) saw too much at the scene that night and at the hospital to ever be right. Nathan would want us to extend forgiveness. In the hospital, watching the family realize he wasn’t going to make it, it was heartbreaking,” he said.
Rooks noted she told her son goodbye at about 9:25 p.m. She started hearing sirens soon thereafter.
“I arrived at the scene and my son was in an ambulance. Jeremy was curled up in the fetal position on the side of the road. Nathan was in the back of the ambulance but no one was working on him. I knew then he was gone,” she said
She also recounted Nathan’s condition at the hospital with blood and brain matter seeping from his body.
“Whenever I hear sirens or a helicopter, it all comes back. I miss him so much. He was robbed of his life at age 38. Life will never be the same. If you were in my shoes, you would want justice for your son. I forgive her but I want justice for my son,” she concluded.
He said Felicia Whatley is remorseful. He noted she was a native of Brooklyn, NY and has seven grandchildren. He said she was a longtime teacher in the Upson County school system.
“Felicia has had multiple traumas in her life. You can’t put a number on the teardrops she has shed,”
Fisher said. His client has attended multiple AA meetings, completed a DUI inventory, has worked with MADD and has a therapist, he added.
Whatley said his wife had taught for 25 years and was a gifted teacher.
“I know my words can’t assuage your grief. I was my wife’s designated driver that night. I failed. After our disagreement, I left her alone in a strange place. This never leaves my mind. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for your anguish. I know your sadness is intense. I am sorry. My wife is sorry,” he said.
Hunter also said her mother has experienced many traumas and has “a very fragile side”. Her mother isolated for over a year during COVID and had not been out at night in over a year when the crash happened.
“That was the first time she had driven at night in over two years. She knows she was wrong and she takes full responsibility for her actions,” Hunter said amid deep sobbing.
“All the good our daughter has done has been shattered by this. She lost a son to bacterial meningitis at age two. I had sepsis and was in the hospital for five months. She never left by side,” said Giacolone who was accompanied by her husband Arthur.
“I humbly apologize for my actions for which you are grieving. I accept full responsibility. I take full responsibility for my actions that took Nathan’s life. It was my decision to drink and drive. Mrs. Rooks, I am a mother. I apologize to you and Jeremy for the devastation you both must feel. It is my fault. I wish I could bring him back to you,” she said.
In closing, the defense team argued Felicia Whatley had absolutely no criminal record and asked for confinement of three years.
Jernigan countered that Whatley’s was an aggravated case.
“The six people she ran off the road are victims, too. She was driving insanely fast,” he said.
Jernigan noted that it was a miracle Knight survived the crash.
“She broke so many laws it is incomprehensible. She set in motion the chain of events that lead to the death of this boy. She has to be held responsible. The piper has to be paid,” Jernigan concluded.
Judge Wilson was obviously emotional as he prepared to sentence Whatley.
“I wish Judge Byron Smith were here. He could make you all feel smoothed. I’m not good at that. I hate it but I am going to do what I have to do. Over three counties, we have one of these about every six months. You have a lot of friends here supporting you. Most defendants don’t have a single person who gives a **** about them,” Wilson concluded.