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Trial begins in hit-run death

LUKE FILE MUG.jpg

Peter Thomas Luke Jr.

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By William F. West
Staff Writer

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

CURRITUCK — A trial got underway Tuesday for a Currituck County man charged with felony hit and run and misdemeanor death by vehicle in the 2014 death of a grocery store worker on the Currituck Outer Banks.

Peter Thomas Luke, 41, is charged with causing the death of Asen Zahariev, 22, of Bulgaria, on Aug. 25, 2014. Zahariev, a foreign exchange student, was killed on N.C. Highway 12 as he walked on the side of the road toward his residence after completing his shift at the Harris Teeter supermarket.

Luke, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, doesn’t deny driving on N.C. 12 the night Zahariev was killed. However, he maintains that he struck a deer.

The state's first witness was Robin Chance, an assistant manager at the Harris Teeter where Zahariev was working and the person who called 911 after his body was discovered near the roadway.

In the summer of 2014, Chance was in charge of the supermarket's bakery and deli. She said she got to know Zahariev, whom she referred to as "Ace" and said enjoyed eating cookies prepared by department.

"My cookie monster, yes," Chance said Assistant District Attorney Emily Davis showed her a photo of Zahariev.

Chance estimated Zahariev left work shortly before 11:30 p.m. the night of Aug. 25, 2014. She said after she arrived for work about 6 a.m. the next day, a worker came running into the supermarket, telling her Zahariev was hurt.

Chance said she got into a car with a co-worker and found Zahariev lying off the east side of N.C. Highway 12. She said his head seemed injured and his body was unresponsive.

Fighting back tears, Chance listened as Davis played for her a recording of Chance’s 911 call following the discovery of Zahariev’s body.

Under questioning by John Parker, Luke's defense attorney, Chance said she wasn't contacted by the District Attorney's Office about the case until Dec. 28 of last year.

The other state witness to take the stand on Tuesday was Tom White, a retired N.C. Highway Patrol sergeant. White, who served with the patrol for about 28 years, testified that he was the first patrolman to arrive at the scene where Zahariev’s body was found lying face down.

White testified he found vehicle debris at the scene. He said he also found a tire impression in a grassy area off the pavement that was near where Zahariev's body was found.

Under questioning by Parker, White testified he didn't see any reflective clothing on Zahariev's body. He also said he saw no evidence Zahariev had been carrying a flashlight or some other illumination device, and he acknowledged there weren't any street lights in the area where the grocery store worker was walking.

White disagreed with Parker’s suggestion, however, that he should have called in a patrol crash reconstruction team to look at the collision that killed Zahariev.

White also testified Tuesday that he removed materials from Luke's vehicle, including hair strands from the windshield.

Parker appeared to take aim at the state’s case against Luke on Tuesday by attacking the credibility of two of the former law enforcement officials who took part in the investigation of Zahariev’s death. 

Parker noted that then-Currituck Sheriff's Deputy Henry Dozier played a key role in securing the collision scene and that then-Trooper B.K. Wayne played a key role in the patrol's probe. In court papers filed prior to the trial, Parker has tried to raise questions about Wayne's credibility as a witness.

White acknowledged Wayne was assigned to the case as the patrol’s primary investigating officer, but he said the trooper didn't collect any evidence at the collision scene. White also noted he had assigned Wayne to complete other parts of the probe.

White, who retired from the patrol in October 2015, told the jury of six men and six women that he didn't know whether Wayne was still employed by the patrol.

Patrol officials said in September 2016 that Wayne had resigned in April of that year.

As for Dozier, a Currituck County Human Resources official told a reporter on Tuesday that Dozier voluntarily resigned from the Currituck Sheriff's Office in July 2016.

The personnel privacy exemptions to the state's Open Records Law don't allow a state or local government agency to disclose to citizens and the press why an employee quits his or her job.

Testimony in Luke’s trial continues today in Currituck Superior Court. Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett is presiding.

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