Orange County native Helen Marie Quarles worked her whole life so she could retire and travel with her twin grandsons, now 20, who she helped raise.
But just three months before the 65-year-old state probation office employee had planned to slow down and relax, her life ended tragically on her way home from work in a two-vehicle wreck at 5:50 p.m. on March 30 along State Route 3 in Culpeper County.
It involved a local government SUV driven by a high-ranking, on-duty deputy with the Culpeper County Sheriff’s Office who was traveling at 20 miles over the posted speed.
Driving 20 miles or more over the speed limit in Virginia is legally considered reckless driving.
According to the Virginia State Police crash report from the fatal incident, 41-year-old Lt. Ashleigh Baughan was going 75 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone in the left lane when the collision happened.
She was on duty, but not responding to a call at the time of the crash, according to VSP Spokesman Sgt. Brent Coffey.
Quarles, commuting from Manassas, died from her injuries at the scene of the four-lane divided highway, about 10 miles from her home near the Locust Grove Walmart, where she also worked, part-time with her grandsons.
The local grandmother’s only child, Lee Braxton, soon after, contacted the Star-Exponent with the crash report because he wanted to set the record straight about Baughan’s speed at the time of the crash.
An initial March 31 news release about the fatality from Virginia State Police, in charge of the ongoing investigation, stated Baughan was unable to avoid hitting Quarles, who was stopped in a center median in a 2012 Nissan Altima trying to make a left to head east.
The report stated Quarles pulled out in front of the 2016 Chevy Tahoe, heading west toward Culpeper, but did not mention the sheriff’s office-issued SUV’s speed or position in the left lane.
Braxton referenced the VSP crash diagram in the report in stating it appears Baughan may not have struck his mother if the lieutenant had been driving in the right travel lane.
It’s been made to look entirely like the crash was his mother’s fault, he said in a recent sit-down interview.
“I just don’t want my mom’s name smeared, that’s all she had. It’s messing my mom’s name up, and I want justice,” Braxton said.
Calling for accountability
A local building contractor from the town of Orange, Braxton feels the lieutenant should be held accountable for her possible part in the wreck due to her going 20 miles over the speed limit. He said he felt bad for Baughan.
She is an experienced officer with the CCSO since 2013 and one of few female members of the agency SWAT team. Baughan formerly worked with Prince William County PD, according to a 2016 profile about her in the Culpeper Times.
“I know it’s probably destroying her right now because she didn’t want that to happen, but it happened, but you were doing something you probably shouldn’t have been doing,” Braxton said. “If it was anybody else—you have to pay for your mistakes.”
The Star-Exponent reached out to the sheriff’s office on Thursday to contact Baughan for anything she wanted to say about the crash, but did not hear back.
CCSO Spokesman Lt. Les Tyler, in communication with Sheriff Scott Jenkins, referred questions to the state police, where he formerly worked as a public information officer and sergeant. Tyler was sympathetic about the loss of life.
“Right off the bat, we called the state police to do the investigation. The sheriff requested that due to the severity of the crash. They are doing the complete investigation,” Tyler said.
Once complete, he added, the CCSO will do an internal review of its administrative policies to make sure all procedures were followed.
Braxton said the sheriff reached out to him and they met in his office two days after the crash to discuss what happened. The local man left the meeting unsatisfied. He feels the officer should at least get a speeding ticket.
“If it was me or you, would get reckless driving, if it was my mom and the lieutenant was killed, my mom would have been in jail that day,” Braxton said.
State Police responds
The sheriff handed the crash investigation over to state police, which has not yet concluded its official probe.
Once complete, investigative files will be turned over to Culpeper County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for the prosecution team there to decide on any charges in the fatal crash.
Asked why he didn’t release the speed or position of Baughan in the March 31 news release, Coffey, a VSP public information officer for the past two years, said that’s not something he usually includes.
Exact vehicular speed has typically not been included when Coffey sends out information on the many fatal crashes and other emergency incidences he covers for the large Culpeper Field Office region.
“If a reporter calls me and asks the speed, that’s something I have to provide, but I don’t usually put it in there, that’s not the way I was taught,” Coffey said in a phone conversation.
He was asked about his statement that Baughan could not avoid hitting Quarles, if it precluded completion of the investigation. Coffey responded he has worked several recent cases involving right-of-way vehicular wrecks and fatalities and there have not been any charges brought.
“I try to do the best I can with the press releases. That’s why we involve the commonwealth’s attorney—let them make the decision,” said Coffey.
He was sympathetic toward Braxton losing his mother and said he was not sure when the crash investigation would be complete.
“There are several of us working on it,” Coffey said, mentioning other factors in the crash under consideration.
The crash report completed by Trooper CW Campbell notes Baughan exceeded the speed limit and that Quarles did not have the right of way. Driver vision for both women was not obscured, the police report stated and there were no driver distractions, the report stated.
Baughan was not under the influence of alcohol, the report stated, while it said “unknown” for Ms. Quarles. DUI tests were not administered at the scene, the report stated.
The sheriff’s office lieutenant did not request EMS transport to the hospital at the scene of the wreck, according to the crash report.
Both vehicles were totaled in the daylight crash that happened under blue skies and without adverse weather conditions or slick roads.
Incidentally, March 30 was Special Election day in Culpeper County for filling an unexpired term in the circuit court clerk’s office and when the accident happened polling locations were still open.
Be blessed: ‘the last thing she said to me’
The crash site where Quarles died is a hilly, straight stretch of road east of Stevensburg surrounded on both sides by farm fields.
Quarles traveled that road every day five days a week for her work in probation in northern Virginia and previously worked in records at Coffeewood Correctional Center, the state prison in Culpeper, said her son.
Quarles grew up in the area known as Cemetery Hill, along Route 20 in the town of Orange, and graduated OCHS in 1973. She had her son at age 20 and went to work on the manufacturing line at the old Bluebell jean factory in Madison County.
She also did a stint at the old Doubleday book factory in Orange County before getting her associate’s degree from National Business College in Charlottesville. The education led to her 20 years as a state employee as well as a time at the Dept. of the Navy in Crystal City.
In between, Quarles helped raised her grandsons, Rae’kwaun and Ka’Shawn, both college students.
“She was a second mom,” said Rae’kwaun Braxton, studying business at Germanna Community College, in the interview with his father. “I was a bad kid, I got whooped a lot, but she took it the easiest on my brother and I.”
He was close with his grandmother: “After we went to church every Sunday, me, my brother and cousin, she would take us to 7-Eleven, get us Slurpees. Every time we came she would cook for us.”
Rae’kwaun last spoke with his grandmother on March 26 while he was working at Shenandoah Crossings: “She always called to check on me. She was like, you still got my number, right? She was just seeing how I was doing.”
Lee Braxton said his mother lived a clean life.
“A few speeding tickets, doesn’t drive at night, drives below the speed limit, never had a DUI or been arrested,” Braxton said.
He added, “She was going to retire on June 3. She was planning to take them on a trip to Florida. She figured she had enough in retirement she could be comfortable. She could stop working now because I could take care of my family. She was at peace because I was on the right track.”
Quarles was close with her sister, Marilyn, and active at Mount Cavalry Baptist in Nasons, where she rests. She shouldn’t be gone, said Braxton, adding she was his best friend. The two spoke every day.
“My mom doesn’t have a title in front of her name, but she was a good woman, too. I know that woman didn’t go out to hurt somebody that day. It was an accident, but it seems like everything I read was my mom’s fault,” he said. “It could have been avoided … You should be held more accountable to the law.”
Braxton has a legal advisor and plans to host a protest 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesday, May 5, outside of state police headquarters in Culpeper, seeking accountability in his mother’s death. From 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the protest will move to the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office on West Davis Street, Braxton said: “Her life mattered.”
He talked to Quarles for the last time on the morning she died as she made her way to work.
“She pulled over to talk to me, sent an emoji back, have a blessed day, be blessed was the last thing she said to me,” Braxton said.