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HILLSVILLE — Three reckless driving convictions against a 47-year-old Pilot Mountain, N.C., man were the legal conclusion on Tuesday in his preliminary hearing in connection with a March 22 wreck that killed three people instantly on Interstate 77.
Virginia State Police had charged Gary Edward Hicinbothem with driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving and three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the crash not far from the Fancy Gap exit in Carroll County.
At the time, Hicinbothem had been driving a 2002 Chevy Silverado in the southbound lanes, which crossed the median and struck head-on a Toyota RAV4 going northbound.
The collision instantly killed Isa Eidson Dollyhigh, 45, an opera singer who lived in Greensboro; as well as her mother, Coleen Huffman Dollyhigh, 75, of Surry County; and Jorge Alberto Guerra, 45, Isa Dollyhigh's husband.
Authorities at the scene considered alcohol a factor, after seeing beer in Hicinbothem's Chevy and smelling a strong odor of alcohol at the scene.
However, when Hicinbothem appeared in Carroll County General District Court Tuesday for a preliminary hearing, Karen Ousley Boyer, assistant commonwealth's attorney, submitted the results of an analysis that found zero alcohol evident in the defendant's blood stream.
The report from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science also noted that testing revealed there were no opiates, methamphetamine, barbiturates, cocaine or other controlled substances considered to be "psycho-active" in Hicinbothem's system, either.
Testing did uncover small amounts of Benzoylecgonine, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Carboxylic Acid, the certificate of analysis notes.
These findings resulted in the driving under the influence and the initial reckless driving charges being dismissed under an agreement between the prosecution, Hicinbothem and his attorneys, Nathan Lyons and David White.
Judge E.M. Turner III affirmed the agreement.
Without a DUI charge against Hicinbothem, the commonwealth could not prosecute the three counts of involuntary manslaughter. Boyer asked the court to reduce those three charges to three counts of reckless driving.
Lyons noted that Hicinbothem was entering a "no contest" plea on these counts, while stipulating the facts in the case before the court.
As part of the agreement, Hicinbothem got six months to serve consecutively for each reckless driving count, for a total of 18 months at the New River Valley Regional Jail.
Hicinbothem started serving his jail sentence after the hearing Tuesday.
Three sisters and one brother from the Dollyhigh family stood with Boyer during the hearing, and Turner expressed his sympathy to them for their family's losses.
After accepting the plea, the judge said he respected Hicinbothem's decision to take responsibility for his actions.
The Dollyhigh family, while visibly upset, maintained their composure throughout the hearing.
"It's just tragic, but I think they were at peace with the decision," Boyer told The Gazette after the hearing.
Prosecutors needed to prove driving under the influence to prove involuntary manslaughter, according to the Code of Virginia, Boyer explained. Failing to find either psychoactive drugs or alcohol in Hicinbothem's system, there would be insufficient evidence to prove the case in court.
But some states recognize the substances that were found in Hicinbothem's system when prosecuting cases involving drugs and driving under the influence, Boyer said. These states note that Benzoylecgonine is a "cocaine metabolite," or something that would show up in a subject's testing after using cocaine. Similarly, THC would indicate use of marijuana.
Virginia law, however, does not accept these substances as evidence in criminal cases, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors could have tried to get an involuntary manslaughter conviction based on criminal negligence, but they didn't have evidence of the Silverado weaving or speeding before the crash.
The 18 months in jail was consistent with what Hicinbothem could have received if found guilty of an involuntary manslaughter charge, Boyer said.