Driver to be charged in fatal Thomasville crash


Melissa Jean Smith (Submitted by her sister)

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THOMASVILLE, N.C. -- The driver who allegedly caused a fatal crash on N.C. 109 in Thomasville Sunday afternoon is expected to face criminal charges, according to Thomasville police.

Barbara Johnson Lankford, 37, of Lexington, has not been formally charged, but police say we will face a charge of driving with a suspended license at the time of the crash.

The wreck happened around 3 p.m. when a Toyota Tacoma, driven  Lankford, crossed the double yellow lines and traveled left of center into the southbound lanes, hitting a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt, driven by 21-year-old Melissa Jean Smith, head-on.

Police say Smith was killed instantly.

Lankford is still listed in critical condition in the ICU. Her passenger, and two other people whose car was hit in the crash, have been treated and released from the hospital.

​Crash reconstruction crews shut down part of N.C. 109 on Tuesday afternoon to continue investigating the crash. They're trying to figure out what caused Lankford to cross into the other lane and they say that answer could determine what criminal charges she faces.

Two days later, only oil on the road and debris from smashed cars mark the place where Smith was killed.​

"She had her whole life ahead of her," said Sgt. John Elgin, a Thomasville police officer who's investigating this crash.

Elgin says the crash happened so quickly, Smith didn't have time to react or evade the crash.

"Melissa never had a chance," he said.

FOX8 has been in touch with Smith's family this week. They didn't want to talk on camera while they were grieving.

"There's so many emotions and dreams that's been shattered," Elgin said.

Elgin says he's struggling to find words to talk about this crash too, since he says it could have been completely prevented.

"She should have never been behind the wheel in the first place" he said. "Her license was suspended. By law, she had no right to be behind the wheel."

Since 2011, three other people have been killed on this same stretch of road.

"All three incidents resulted in death, all three incidents had some type of human error," Elgin said.

Police think this case will likely follow that pattern. ​They're still investigating what caused Lankford to shift -- impairment, distracted driving, drowsiness, speeding or something else.

Police are waiting on blood work to find out if Lankford was impaired at the time of the crash. That will affect the charges she will face. They could include misdemeanor or felony death by motor vehicle, vehicular homicide or even second-degree murder.

"That lady survived this crash. Her passenger survived this crash. Two other people survived this crash, but Melissa didn't," Elgin said. "I wonder if it weighs on her mind, 'If I had never gotten behind the wheel, cause my license was revoked, maybe this would have never happened?'"

Officers hope to have a preliminary report available on Thursday that should include details such as how fast Lankford was driving when she hit Smith's car.

The results of the blood work could take a couple weeks to get back.

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