Photo by Corinne Nicholson
BUFORD -- As night fell on Buford three days before Thanksgiving last year, Taylor Woodall and his best friend were finishing up a pizza dinner at Stevie B's near Ga. Highway 20. Bill settled, they set off north on Interstate 985 toward Hall County -- Woodall on his prized Honda CBR 1000 RR motorcycle, his pal in a Ford Mustang.
Meanwhile, near the Mall of Georgia, retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Michael Rundles and his son, an off-duty Gwinnett police officer, had finished car-shopping and were taking the same route home in separate vehicles, according to police.
Roughly a mile north of Ga. Highway 20, the motorcyclist and the retiree's paths tragically intersected, leaving one friend dead and the other facing substantial prison time.
Police estimate Woodall, a 23-year-old Flowery Branch resident with aspirations of serving the Gwinnett County Fire Department, was flying northbound on the two-lane highway in excess of 100 mph -- a figure that's sternly debated by family members and, soon, will be scrutinized by independent accident reconstruction experts.
Police say Woodall was racing the Mustang when Rundles merged left into his lane. Woodall slammed into the 2008 Toyota Sienna's rear, driver's side window and bumper, was ejected, and came to a final rest in the median, near a cable barrier.
Save a bruise over his left eye, Woodall's injuries were internal, according to his mother.
The ensuing moments have left Woodall's mother -- and the attorney she's retained -- puzzled and irate. The investigation into the 2004 Buford High School graduate's death, they claim, was misdirected from the start. Police contend the ongoing investigation has been thorough and unbiased.
According to a Gwinnett police accident report, Rundles drove his vehicle to an exit at Friendship Road just over the Hall County line -- roughly 4.5 miles from Ga. Highway 20 -- and stopped when he realized there had been a collision, though the van's back windshield was smashed, police said.
Woodall's mother, Patty Terrazas, cried foul.
"Their investigation was never concentrated on the fact that (Rundles) went almost five miles (before stopping)," said Terrazas, a criminal calender clerk for Forsyth Superior Court. "Had that been you or me, we would have gone to jail. That's not going a safe distance before you pull over -- that's going to another county and pulling over."
Terrazas claims police at the scene denied that another vehicle was involved. She was made privy to Rundles' involvement by a family friend who works with Gwinnett's fleet management, she said.
Rundles' son, Officer W. Rundles, trailed behind him and stopped to assist. He transported his father to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville when the elder Rundles complained of an injury, police said this week.
A responding officer noted that alcohol did not appear to have contributed to the incident, but no sobriety tests were administered on scene or at the hospital.
"No tests were done because there was no probable cause to do tests," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli.
Terrazas' attorney, Aubrey Villines, is critical of the story Rundles reportedly offered police. Should the family pursue litigation, Villines said he plans to examine Rundles' hospital and cell phone records the night of the crash.
In the meantime, he's awaiting a finalized accident report, he said.
"It's a basic principal of physics," Villines opined. "If police are right, and (Woodall) was going that fast ... you've got thousands of pounds of force involved. Are you telling me (Rundles) didn't feel that?"
Rundles retired in 2006 as an assistant special agent in charge with the GBI, after logging one day shy of 20 years with the agency, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
Added Bankhead: "Based on my knowing Mike for almost 20 years, any claim that he would not be honest about what happened in this incident is absurd."
A phone message left Monday for Rundles, a Hall County resident, was not returned. Schiralli said his son is actively employed with the force.
Collateral damage from the collision hasn't ended with Woodall's death.
Police arrested his friend in the Mustang, Kyle Reichel, 24, on felony vehicular homicide charges last week for allegedly racing Woodall at speeds flirting with 120 mph. He's since posted $18,200 bond and was released from jail.
Reichel's attorney, Chris McClurg, wouldn't comment on the alleged speed until independent experts can reconstruct the accident, he said.
"It's tragic," McClurg said. "(Reichel) was extremely close to Taylor. Certainly, he's devastated by (the) loss."
Terrazas recalls her son as a "precious" former football player who beamed over the motorcycle he'd owned only seven weeks. He was in the process of being readmitted to Gwinnett's Fire Academy, based on the adoration of his supervisors, after being booted from contention for tardiness, she said.
More than 600 people attended his funeral, she said.
"I'm not saying that Taylor probably wasn't going fast," she said. "If you hit somebody going that fast -- it's going to make a noise, it's going to make a big noise.
Schiralli, the Gwinnett police spokesman, said claims of a tainted investigation are unfounded. No outside agency is assisting because Gwinnett police have units established for cases of this nature, he said.
"When it's one of our own, we investigate," he said. "We have no qualms about disciplining or firing officers when they're in the wrong. There's not some sort of cover-up. We've got nothing to hide."