03/28/2006

Troopers didn't alert hospital; suspect allowed to go

MELISSA MANWARE
Charlotte Observer

The N.C. Highway Patrol failed to tell hospital officials that Albert Lamont Pharr had outstanding warrants stemming from a fatal wreck that landed him in the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center, officials said Monday.

So when Pharr was healthy enough, he was allowed to leave the Chapel Hill hospital -- even though he had been charged in the wreck with driving while impaired.

Pharr, 27, wasn't jailed until Saturday, more than five months after troopers say he slammed into the back of a Jeep Cherokee sitting in an Interstate 77 emergency lane while he was drunk and speeding.

Now he is in the Mecklenburg County jail, charged with murder and felony death by vehicle.

Federal regulations prevent the hospital from disclosing Pharr's release date, they said. But family members say he was home in Charlotte for the birth of a daughter in early November and for Christmas the next month.

"That makes me angry," said Debra Willson, whose 32-year- old son James Walter Johnson had been sitting in the Jeep. "He should not have been walking around. They should have had guards posted at his door. They should have locked him up as soon as they could."

Johnson, a Charlotte father of two children, died in the crash.

Lt. Everett Clendenin, a spokesman for the N.C. Highway Patrol, said troopers typically ask hospitals to notify them before a suspect is released. That did not happen in Pharr's case, Clendenin said, likely because he was transferred to the burn center from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

"I'm not making excuses. It should have been up to us to know where he was and where he was transferred to," Clendenin told the Observer on Monday. "These things happen, but they don't happen often."

When Pharr left the hospital he had beencharged with DWI, but not the more serious offenses. Prosecutors did not authorize those until Jan. 30, after Pharr had been released.

The trooper assigned to the case learned about Pharr's release a day afterward and tried to find him, Clendenin said. The Highway Patrol does not have enough staff to post a trooper outside a suspect's hospital room, he added.

At the time of the wreck, Pharr had been out of jail on bond on federal drug and gun charges. Last week, the bond was revoked and U.S. marshals started searching for him.

They found him early Saturday in a closet at a west Charlotte house.

Shirley Tate, Pharr's grandmother, said he was scared and hiding, but had only been on the run since the marshals began looking for him. Before that, she said, authorities could have easily found him.

Tate said she and Pharr's fiance took him to weekly medical appointments in Chapel Hill for nearly two months after his arrest. He stayed at her house the first few weeks, Tate said, because the dressings on his burns needed to be changed frequently.

"He was here with us," she said. "If they had been looking for him, all they had to do was come here." She said authorities didn't contact her looking for him until earlier this month.

Tate said Pharr does not remember the crash and she doesn't believe he had been drinking. Still, she wants Johnson's family to know her family is sorry and hurting for them.

"We are really, really sorry this happened," Tate said. "We are not sticking up for Albert. He has to pay for what he did." * -- Staff Researcher Maria Wygand contributed.*

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