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.
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."