Recent UT grad charged in triple-fatal hit-and-run; has previous DUI conviction

4:26 AM, Jun 7, 2012   |    comments
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  • Curtis Scott Harper 2012 mugshot taken after hit-and-run charges.
  • Chasity Thornell
  • Nelson Soto
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  • Affidavit seeking search warrant
  • A Middle Tennessee man is now in custody and charged in a Knoxville hit-and-run crash that killed three people.

    According to the Knoxville Police Department, a Knox County grand jury met Wednesday and returned a six-count indictment against Curtis Scott Harper, 22, a recent University of Tennessee graduate.  

    He is charged with three counts of vehicular homicide, and one count each of DUI, tampering with evidence, and reckless endangerment. 

    Harper turned himself in at the Knoxville Police Department at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday. He will be held at the Knox County Detention Center on a $300,000 bond.

    Harper's attorney, James W. Price of Nashville, says he hopes to arrange for his client's release either by paying the bond or having it reduced, considering Harper only recently graduated from UT.

    Price also said Harper will enter a not guilty plea at his arraignment.

    Last Wednesday, just after 1:30 a.m., 24-year-old Chasity Thornell, who was seven months pregnant, and 45-year-old Nelson Soto Sr., were struck and killed while standing alongside Washington Pike. Thornell was there to help a friend who had run out of gas. According to police, when the two were hit while she was giving Soto a hug to say "thank you."

    The vehicle, which police later identified as a 2004 silver Ford Explorer, never stopped. An affidavit seeking a search warrant outlines exactly how the Knoxville Police Department tracked down Harper after the accident.

    One witness told police that he saw a man near Alice Bell Road and Washington Pike examining his vehicle around 1:45 a.m. The witness described the man as a college-aged, tall, slender, white male with a ponytail and wearing a tie-dye shirt. 

    The witness said he offered the man help, but the man waved him away. He added that he saw heavy damage to the front passenger side of the vehicle.

    Later, when he saw the crash reported on the news, he called 911, according to the court document.

    The affidavit also states that Harper had a conversation with his roommate around 2 a.m., just after the crash. Harper told his roommate that he was driving the vehicle when it hit the victims and admitted to having a few drinks, according to the documents. 

    The roommate also noticed the damage to the vehicle, and said that when he returned home later that morning, both Harper and the SUV were gone. He added that Harper later returned driving another vehicle, and at that time, told his roommate that he had hit and killed two people and he thought it was a good idea to "go on a trip."

    The roommate's girlfriend, who also used to date Harper, called police to report what Harper said to his roommate, according to the documents.

    A woman claiming to be the girlfriend called 10News to dispute that, saying an instructor at her school agreed to make the call to police for her.

    KPD tracked the driver of the vehicle that Harper was later seen driving to a home on Gratz Road, where an officer found the 2004 Ford Explorer in the yard. The vehicle was impounded by police as evidence. According to the search warrant, investigators collected blood swabs from the vehicle, as well as samples of hair and paint chips.

    One of the residents from that Gratz Street address told 10News that he was unaware Harper would be leaving the SUV at his home, and when he learned what had happened, he told Harper to turn himself in to authorities. When that didn't happen, the resident told 10News he called the police.

    Harper's previous trouble with the law

    Wednesday's indictment is not the first time Harper has been in trouble with the law. He has numerous traffic incidents on his record, including a drunk-driving charge.

    In January 2011, Harper was arrested in Knox County for possession of drug paraphernalia. That charge was eventually dropped.

    In April 2009, Harper pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Buncombe County, North Carolina. He served two days in jail, a year's probation, and paid fines and court costs. A charge of reckless driving with intent to endanger was dropped.

    In January 2008, Harper pleaded guilty to simple possession of marijuana. He got just less than a year of probation and paid a $250 fine. Four months later, Harper pleaded guilty to theft of under $500, violating his January 2008 charge. He did another two days in jail and paid a $50 fine.

    Recent college graduate

    The University of Tennessee tells 10News Harper graduated Magna Cum Laude in May 2012 with a bachelor of science degree in plant sciences. He was also on the Dean's List for fall 2011.

    Harper is from Franklin, Tennessee, in Williamson County. The 2004 Ford Explorer Harper was driving when he allegedly hit and killed three people, and then fled the scene, is registered to his parents, Herb and Pam Harper. 

    Families dealing with loss

    Both the Soto and Thornell families said their final goodbyes over the weekend.

    Soto, who is survived by his wife, Elvia, four children and a stepson, was laid to rest on Sunday following a Saturday evening visitation and memorial service.

    A memorial fund has been set up at SunTrust Bank for Soto, who did not have life insurance. The family also has hired attorney Greg Isaacs.

    The Thornell family also is struggling to cover some of the unexpected funeral costs. A memorial fund has been set up at TVA Credit Union.

    Thornell's funeral service was Saturday. She leaves behind a daughter, Ava, who turns 2 years old in August. Her unborn child did not survive the crash.

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