An Anchorage teenager was texting behind the wheel when he ran a red light and killed a 27-year-old mother of two earlier this year in Midtown, prosecutors say.
A grand jury indicted 16-year-old Murphy Madison Gross Thursday on manslaughter, felony texting-while-driving and other charges. The teen is accused of stealing his dad's new SUV, smoking pot with friends and driving without a license the night of the crash.
Nearly half of high school students 16 or older text or email while driving, according to a study published last month in Pediatrics, the journal for the American Academy of Pediatrics. In Alaska, the Legislature explicitly outlawed texting by motorists in 2012.
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Shorey said he believes the charges against Gross mark the first fatal texting-and-driving case since the revised law was enacted.
The Feb. 6 accident killed Catherine Cope, originally of Bethel, as she headed home from Guido's pizza parlor, according to a bail memo filed by prosecutors.
Catherine Cope was riding with her husband, Ryan Cope, who worked at the restaurant. Two of Ryan's co-workers were also in the Jeep Grand Cherokee. A Chevrolet Tahoe driven by Gross "T-boned" the Jeep, Shorey wrote.
"It's just sad," said Dale Cope, Ryan' mother. Dale said she is now helping to raise the couple's daughters, 5-year-old Mary Grace and McKenzie, who will turn 2 years old this month.
Mary Grace remembers telling her mother about her day the night Catherine died, Dale said. The girls were given "memory books" with photos of their mother at the funeral.
"(Gross) has obviously impacted his life as well as a number of other people's lives. Mostly the girls," Dale Cope said.
Gross denied sending text messages just before the crash but admitted to taking his eyes off the road, according to prosecutors. Police seized Gross' cell phone.
The phone shows he sent and received 14 texts and four phone calls in the 32 minutes before the collision, Shorey wrote.
The final text came at 2:36 a.m., about a minute before the estimated time of the accident.
Gross' father, David Gross, declined to be interviewed Monday. The teenager's attorney, John Murtagh, did not return phone messages.
Murphy Gross is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday. Here's what prosecutors say happened on the night of the crash:
Gross told police he took the 2013 Tahoe without permission, leaving the family home about midnight. He drove to a friend's house, where his friends were smoking marijuana, he said.
Gross told police he did not smoke any pot. He drove to McDonald's and, at the time of the crash, was headed to his girlfriend's house, he said, according to prosecutors.
"(Gross) said he looked down while driving but denied he was looking at or using his cell phone and upon looking up the light was red," the bail memo says.
Ryan Cope worked the late shift as a delivery man for Guido's, his mother said. Catherine drove to the restaurant to pick him up. The couple was also giving a ride home to Ryan's co-workers, Michael Bishop and Jasmin O'Neill, she said.
Ryan Cope was driving the 1991 Jeep Cherokee northbound on A Street with Bishop in the passenger seat. The SUV entered the intersection with Northern Lights on a green light, according to prosecutors.
Gross, meantime, approached from the east on Northern Lights. He had a learner's permit but no valid license, Shorey wrote. The Tahoe is equipped with an air bag system that recorded the vehicle's speed and other information in the five seconds before the crash, he wrote.
The data-recorder showed the Tahoe was traveling at 35 mph two seconds before the collision. Gross applied the breaks, slowing to 27 mph at the time of impact.
"It's simple physics: 5,500-pound Tahoe versus a 3,000-pound Jeep," Shorey said in an interview.
Bishop, Ryan Cope's co-worker, told the grand jury his seat "folded like an accordion." He crawled out the driver's side door, Shorey wrote. He could hear Gross talking to 911 dispatchers on the teen's cell phone speaker.
"(Bishop) asked him if he had been drinking, and Michael Gross said, 'No,' " Shorey said.
Bishop then asked Gross if he had been texting. Gross didn't say anything, according to the prosecutor.
A blood sample taken from Gross an hour after the accident tested positive for marijuana, prosecutors wrote.
Catherine Cope's heart stopped beating on the way to Alaska Native Medical Center, Shorey wrote. Doctors resuscitated her, but it was no use. She was declared "brain dead" at 8:42 a.m., six hours after the crash.
The grand jury rejected a second-degree murder charge against Murphy Gross. He is charged with manslaughter, three counts of third-degree assault related to injuries suffered by passengers in the Jeep, driving under the influence, driving without a valid driver's license and use of an electronic device while driving.
Texting-while-driving charges are normally misdemeanors. Gross is charged with a felony because the alleged offense ended in injury or death.
The state Legislature passed a law meant to ban texting while driving in Alaska in 2008, but the law was not clearly written. Lawmakers in 2012 passed a revised statute explicitly outlawing the activity.
The new rules went into effect May 11, 2012. In the following 12 months, prosecutors filed 31 texting-while-driving cases, according to Shorey.