Did Montana Teen Purposely Crash Car, Kill Mother and Son?

PHOTO: In March 2009, a head-on collision killed Erin Thompson and her son Caden. Justine Winter survived, but with serious injuries. Before the crash, Winter sent distraught text messages to her boyfriend saying she would wreck her car.PlayThompson & Johnson Family/Winter Family
WATCH Accident or Suicide Attempt?

A Montana teenager blamed for a car crash that led to the deaths of a pregnant woman and her 13-year-old son is facing the better part of the next decade in prison. Justine Winter, 18, says she's not responsible for the deaths of Erin Thompson, 35, and her son Caden Odell, but Thompson's family and prosecutors disagree, arguing that text messages Winter sent before the collision prove that she purposely caused the crash in an attempt to commit suicide.

The accident occured on U.S. 93 in the Flathead Valley of northwest Montana in March, 2009. Thompson was driving her son Caden home just after 8 p.m. after watching him perform in a school concert. She was glowing with pride for her teenage son, a talented drummer who was one of three students chosen to play at the concert. But Thompson was also glowing for another reason -- she was four months pregnant with her second child. The expectant father was her husband of almost three years, Jason Thompson.

"I didn't want anything more than just to raise family together and to know that I was going to be with her for the rest of my life," Jason Thompson said.

As Erin Thompson drove north that night, Justine Winter headed down the southbound side of Highway 93. A popular, straight-A student, Winter, then 16, was driving the green Pontiac Grand Am she had gotten as a birthday gift from her father. Friends said Winter was excited to be able to drive, but that particular trip down U.S. 93 was fraught with tension -- Winter had just left her boyfriend's house after an argument. The boyfriend, 17-year-old Ryan Langford, was jealous over something he'd read in her journal about an old boyfriend.

PHOTOS: Erin Thompson, Caden and Justine Winter

As she drove, Winter exchanged a series of frantic text messages with Langford. She believed that he was breaking up with her.

"Goodbye, Ryan… I am telling the truth when I tell you I love you. My last words, I love you Ryan," she wrote in one message.

Ryan responded with a text of his own, writing, "Yeah, whatever you say. You win, I lose."

As she kept driving, Winter's texts turned more hysterical.

"If I won, I would have you, and I wouldn't crash my car," she wrote in a distraught message. Then, in yet another message, she added, "Thats why I am going to wreck my car. …because i am a terrible person. … i want to kill mysself [sic]. good bye ryan. I love you."

As Winter drove down the highway, the emotional texts continued for nearly a half hour. Police say her speedometer climbed to 85 miles per hour as she approached the Stillwater Bridge. Road construction constricted the bridge from four lanes to two. Prosecutors say Winter made no effort to brake as she entered the construction zone.

At the same time, Thompson and Caden were headed in the other way down the highway in Thompson's Subaru Forester. Local resident Richard Poeppel happened to be driving behind them. As they reached the bridge, he watched in horror as Erin Thompson slowed in front of him and then Thompson's and Winter's cars collided head-on.

"It just exploded," Poeppel said.

Poeppel rushed to the wreckage of the car closest to him -- Winter's Pontiac. Inside, he found Winter, looking like she was close to death.

"Her tongue had gone back into her esophagus. I just pulled that out and … then the white foam and the blood came out pretty profusely," he remembered. "I didn't think she was going to make it."

After help arrived for Winter, Poeppel ran to Thompson's car. Thompson was trapped inside. Poeppel said he believed she was struggling to tell him something -- that her son, Caden, was buried in the wreckage next to her.

"I held her hand and I said, 'We got help on the way. Just hang in there.'" Poeppel said. But Thompson couldn't hang on -- both she and Caden died at the scene.

"She just blinked out," Poeppel remembered.

Police soon delivered the devastating news to Erin Thompson's husband, Jason, with a phone call.

"I've never been so wrecked," Jason Thompson said. "It's like, I lost my heart, I lost my life, I lost my entire family."

Winter Recovered, Faced Homicide Charges

But while hope was lost for Thompson and Caden, Justine Winter was still alive. Rescuers pulled her from the wreckage and she was airlifted to a Seattle hospital, with her shaken mother, Mary Winter, by her side.

"I don't know how much blood they pumped into her," Mary Winter said. "They worked on her the whole way there and pumped more blood in her. And I just sat and rubbed her feet. I said, 'We're flying, honey.'"

Back in Montana, Patrol Sgt. Ernie Freebury began the accident investigation. Based on the evidence at the scene, Freebury along with troopers from the Montana Highway Patrol concluded that Winter's car crossed into the northbound lane of the highway and hit Thompson's Subaru. Police, he said, had a lot of questions.

"We didn't know why this happened," he said. "There had to be a reason."

That night, after Freebury questioned Winter's boyfriend, Ryan Langford, and learned of Winter's text messages threatening to crash her car, authorities believed they found that reason.

"She did just exactly what she said she was going to do," Freebury said.

For veteran Flathead County attorney Ed Corrigan, the findings of the police investigation were enough to indict Winter as an adult on two counts of deliberate homicide, the highest charge available.

"She purposely went into that wrong way in a traffic, ran into that car … and had to know, or should have known that by doing so, she was going to kill the occupants in that other vehicle," Corrigan said.

Winter, meanwhile, was recovering from serious injuries. After nearly seven weeks in an intensive care unit and multiple operations, she came home wearing a neck brace. Later, at age 16, she was fitted with a court-ordered ankle bracelet.

But Winter didn't remember the accident and her family strongly disagreed with the authorities' determination of the cause of the crash.

Mary Winter said that deep in her heart she knows the crash was an accident. Winter family friend DeLisa Willis told "20/20," "Justine would never hurt another human being and she would never hurt herself."

In the summer of 2010, confident that she didn't cause the fatal crash, Winter and her father sued Erin Thompson's estate, claiming that Thompson was the one who caused the crash. The Winters also sued three companies involved in the roadwork on U.S. 93, alleging that they failed to maintain lighting and proper traffic markings at the construction site.

The lawsuit unleashed a wave of anger in the tight knit Montana community of Kalispell, where the crash took place. Some posted enraged messages on the website of the local newspaper.

"We expect people to be honest and upfront," said Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher. "And when we feel like people are not taking responsibility for their actions and are blaming others, that's when the affront begins."

But others came to Justine Winter's defense.

High school counselor Laurel Eckern worked closely with Winter when she went back to class.

"You cannot define Justine Winter by what happened on March 19," Eckern said. "She's passionate, driven, caring. She's a good kid, and I can tell you right now, it's exactly what she is -- she's a kid."

Almost two years after the wreck, this past January, Winter's homicide trial began. A state crash investigator testified that Winter's car "encroached" on the northbound lane of the highway, striking Thompson's car. The road construction, she said, meant Thompson had no room to swerve to safety as Winter careened toward her at 85 miles per hour. Thompson's car, at the time of the crash, the investigator said, was traveling 31 miles per hour.

"As Justine was accelerating full throttle at 85 miles an hour, my wife had been trying to slow down and wasn't able to get off the road," Jason Thompson told "20/20." "(It) was one of those thoughts I just can just try to push out of my mind. And I could only imagine how terrified she was, for her baby and for Caden."

Watch and read Jason Thompson's statement in court.

But Winter's defense lawyers argued that it was Erin Thompson who caused the crash. A crash expert for the defense testified it was Thompson's Subaru that crossed over into the wrong lane and collided with Winter's car.

"It was a construction area and I do believe it was a plain and simple accident that took place," DeLisa Willis told "20/20." "I don't think that they did proper investigating at the time and they went back and tried to cover their tracks."

Defense lawyers also contested the prosecution's claim that Winter's text messages to her boyfriend showed that she wanted to crash her car to kill herself. If she wanted to commit suicide, they said, she could have easily used one of her father's guns. Her father, Randy Winter, also testified that his daughter never appeared depressed and did well in school.

"It was kind of like she was the model kid that you didn't have to worry a lot about," he said. "She wasn't into drugs, she wasn't into alcohol, anything like that."

Defense psychologist Scott Poland, a national expert on teen suicide, examined Winter's text messages. He too agreed that she wasn't suicidal.

"I suspect that all the adults here would be quite surprised to know how many times young people talk about death, suicide, killing each other, and we have to be careful not to take it out of context," he said.

But the prosecution persisted with the suicide argument, introducing another text message from Winter, to show how dependent she was on Langford.

"You're the only thing holding me together," she wrote to her boyfriend of three months. "The only reason my parents won't get a divorce and move to an apartment or whatever is 'cause of me. So I live with them basically hating each other and me. You make me know that at least one person cares."

In February, after a nine-day trial, the jury began their deliberations. It would take them just four hours to unanimously decide that Winter was guilty of both counts of deliberate homicide.

Four months later, a judge sentenced Winter to 30 years in prison, with 15 years suspended. She will be eligible for parole after 7 and a half years, when she's 25.

During her sentencing hearing, Winter told the family of Erin Thompson and Caden that she was sorry for their loss, but said she would never intentionally hurt anyone and that "no one will ever know…what actually happened" the night of the crash. That wasn't enough for Dianna Johnson, Erin's mother and Caden's grandmother to forgive Winter. Johnson told "20/20" "I think to really forgive her would take her being sorry. Even if she doesn't remember that night, she would still have to own it that this was her."

Read and watch Justine Winter's statement at her sentencing hearing here.

Though Winter and her father dropped their lawsuit against the Thompson estate, Winter is appealing her conviction to the Montana Supreme Court. Her lawyer filed a notice of appeal last month.

Thompson's family, meanwhile, says they are waiting for an apology from Winter for causing the accident -- one that might never come.

Watch the full story on the latest episode of "20/20" online.