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Coeburn woman gets 25-plus years in 2016 fatal head-on collision

Mike Still • Aug 6, 2019 at 9:30 PM

WISE — A Coeburn woman was sentenced to 25 years and 9 months in prison Tuesday for her role in the death of a North Carolina woman and injuries to her two daughters.

Samantha Rae Dennis, 39, sat through most of her sentencing hearing in Wise County Circuit Court with her head down as deputies, a state trooper, and the husband and parents of Rebecca Williams Starling, 32, testified before Judge Chadwick Dotson.

Dennis pleaded guilty in August 2018 to second-degree murder and assault and battery stemming from the Dec. 23, 2016 incident, when she turned across U.S. Alternate Route 58 near the Banner community to avoid a traffic sobriety checkpoint.

Wise County Deputy Sgt. Zachary Clifton, one of the officers at the checkpoint that day, told the court he saw Dennis’ Chevy SUV turn into oncoming traffic before he chased her in a mile-long pursuit that reached speeds around 90 mph.

Dennis continued looking down silently as prosecutors showed parts of Clifton’s dashboard camera video containing the moment that Dennis’ vehicle collided head-on with Starling’s vehicle.

Clifton also looked down, at one point wiping his eyes, as assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Newberry played parts of Clifton’s body camera video as he stopped and ran to Starling’s vehicle. Starling’s daughters could be heard screaming on the clip, and Clifton was also visibly upset as he ran to Dennis’ car to handcuff and arrest her.

“She’s dead because you were driving on the wrong side of the road,” Clifton yelled at Dennis on the video.

“She died on impact?” Dennis asked.

Another video clip from the rear compartment of Clifton’s patrol SUV showed Starling’s husband, Wesley Starling II, trying to comfort the couple’s youngest daughter, Michelle, then 2, and trying to keep her awake at the request of rescue squad personnel.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Wesley told the child in the video.

Clifton testified that Rebecca Starling had died at the scene and that her daughters Michelle and Clarice, then 5, were trapped in the partially crushed vehicle.

Virginia State Police Senior Trooper Jimmy Serrac testified that he arrived a few minutes after Clifton and other officers. Serrac arrested Dennis and followed an ambulance taking her to Mountain View Hospital in Norton.

“She was talking about some injuries,” Serrac said. While a doctor at the hospital wanted to send Dennis to Holston Valley Medical Center for further treatment, Serrac said she refused and he arrested and took her to the Wise County Justice center.

“The biggest thing was she just wanted to go home,” Serrac said. “She never asked about the well-being of others.”

After Serrac talked with Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp III about charges, Dennis faced a magistrate for charges of murder, involuntary manslaughter, assault and battery and abduction in connection with a passenger in her vehicle when the crash happened.

Starling’s husband testified that his wife had just been promoted to a biotech scientist position in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the couple and their daughters were on the last of four trips to move into a house there.

Wesley said he was driving a pickup about 1 ½ miles behind her vehicle and talking with her by cell phone.

“I heard her scream on the phone, a bang, and heard the girls screaming,” Wesley said. “I snatched my headphones off and stomped it.”

After arriving at the crash scene and stopping, Wesley said he ran to his wife’s vehicle and tried to check her condition.

“Her eyes were open and she wasn’t responding and I checked her pulse,” he said.

Wesley said he managed to get the family’s dogs out of the front of the vehicle, so Deputy Bobby Potter would not get bitten as he tried to get the girls out of the backseat.

Michelle suffered a scrape on her head and bruising on her body from her car seat straps. Clarice, who was seated behind her mother, suffered a compound right arm fracture and a deep facial gash. Clarice was flown to Johnson City Medical Center for surgery, while Michelle was taken to Norton Community Hospital.

“We had Christmas in the hospital,” Wesley said.

When asked by Slemp what outcome he wanted Tuesday, Wesley said, “Justice for my wife and family … to keep it from happening again.”

Slemp asked Wesley if he understood that Dennis could get a maximum 42-year prison sentence.

“Becky would probably have lived those 42 years if this hadn’t happened,” Wesley replied.

Rebecca’s parents also testified about their daughter’s childhood and her life as a mother and wife.

Dotson, in sentencing Dennis, gave a 42-year sentence and suspended 16 years and 3 months. Dennis also faces an indefinite probation term upon her release.

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