No one in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, was surprised when Eric Thomas, a popular young doctor, sued the Ford Motor Company for the wrongful death of his pregnant wife, Tracy, after a minor accident involving their powerful Explorer. Backed by the medical examiner's findings, the lawsuit claimed that the Explorer's air bag inflated improperly, causing injuries that resulted in Tracy's suffocation.
But this seemingly simple product-liability case soon evolved into something far darker and more complex . . .
After an exhaustive investigation, Ford turned the tables, alleging that Tracy Thomas did not die from injuries resulting from a defective air bag. She died because of manual strangulation. Now, it was the defendant, the giant automaker Ford, who became a de facto prosecutor, with plaintiff Eric Thomas, a passenger in the Explorer, accused of murdering his wife . . .
In his latest, Schiller, who has previously written bestsellers on the JonBenet Ramsey and O.J. Simpson cases (American Tragedy, etc.), offers a no-frills narrative: no character development, no background and no resolution. It's a just-the-facts account that, nevertheless, keeps the pages turning. The question of whether or not a crime has actually been committed drives the narrative. Late one winter night in 1997, Eric Thomas, a dentist, and his wife, Tracy, were found in a car crash on a New Jersey highway; Tracy, pregnant, was dead in the driver's seat. The medical examiner determined that the airbag in the Ford Explorer caused her death, and Thomas brought a suit against Ford. But there are some disturbing questions: Why, before going on a vacation with her husband, had Tracy told her mother, "if anything happens to me," her mother should take Tracy's daughter, Alix, to her home? Why did Thomas go on several unexplained trips after his wife's death? And there were no prior cases on record of air-bag asphyxiation. Based on the report of its own forensic expert, Dr. Michael Bader, and their discovery that Thomas had been having an affair just before the accident, Ford accused Thomas of strangling his wife to death. Was this, as Thomas's lawyers claimed, a case of a huge corporation throwing its weight against a bereaved individual? Or was it, as Ford's lawyers said, a case of murder disguised as an accident? Much of the narrative consists of legal battles over discovery and pretrial motions and extracts from Thomas's and others' depositions, and it is compelling, though Thomas (who did not grant Schiller interviews) remains a frustrating cipher.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 28, 2003
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Excerpt from Cape May Court House by Lawrence Schiller
Earlier in the evening a light snow had fallen in the small town of Cape May Court House, New Jersey. Some nights, even in the coldest winters, the sea air from the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay warms the barrier islands and the entire cape, so that slush seldom freezes. Tonight, Saturday, February 8, 1997, slush had not frozen.
Dr. Robert Fitzpatrick, a local veterinarian, was just returning home from a party in Wildwood. At forty-five, Fitzpatrick was a strong man with rough hands capable of subduing a rottweiler. On that night, alone in his Chevy Astro, he stopped at the local Wawa convenience store, where he bought a bottle of Gatorade. The time was 1:45 a.m. As he drove away, he noticed that all the other local businesses were closed. Even the volunteer ambulance service building was dark and deserted.
Dr. Fitzpatrick then turned west from North Main Street onto Hand Avenue, the route he usually took to his house. A few seconds later he stopped at a traffic light on the corner of Dias Creek Road and Hand. The night was unusually dark. He noticed that he had the road to himself.
After passing a few houses set in the woods, Fitzpatrick saw some white and red lights up ahead. He thought an SUV had pulled over onto the berm on the other side of the road. As he came closer, however, the odd angle of the vehicle made him take a second look. That was when he noticed some sagging electric wires. Just then a battered white pickup truck approached from the opposite direction and stopped. While Fitzpatrick pulled his own car to a stop, a man got out of the pickup, walked to the SUV, and tried unsuccessfully to open the driver's door. As Fitzpatrick rolled down his window, the man yelled back to him, "There's people in there."
Instantly, Fitzpatrick reached for his cell phone, punched in 911, and got out of his car. As he reported his location he saw that part of a utility pole was hanging from its wires. That's when he realized the SUV, a Ford Explorer, was in a ditch.
"An officer will be there in minutes," the 911 dispatcher told him as he ran across the road toward the accident. When he reached the rear of the car, the driver of the pickup asked if he had called the police.
Before he could say another word, the driver said, "Then I'm getting out of here." And within seconds was gone.
The Explorer's left headlight was broken, but the fog lights were still on. Fitzpatrick tried the driver's door. It wouldn't budge, but the rear passenger door on that side opened easily, and the dome light came on. There, staring at him from the backseat, were the wide eyes of a baby, still strapped in its padded car seat. Almost immediately, the baby started to cry. Fitzpatrick then saw a driver and a passenger in the front seats. Neither was moving. The driver's head slumped toward the window, and the passenger's head hung down to the side. Fitzpatrick saw no blood.
Brushing his hand against the baby's face, Fitzpatrick took hold of one of the child's hands. The baby's cheek and fingers were cold. Then he noticed that the air inside the truck was not as cold as the outside air. As he leaned forward between the front seats, he saw that the driver and passenger were, like the baby, African American.
"Hello? Hello?" Fitzpatrick said. He repeated it a third time, and even louder. Neither person moved.
He could tell that the air bags were now deflated and the seat belts were still drawn tightly around the passengers. The man in the passenger seat appeared to be unconscious. His skin was cool when Fitzpatrick reached for his neck to find a pulse and determined that the man had a sluggish, rhythmic heartbeat. Next, Fitzpatrick turned to the woman in the driver's seat.