Texas Mother Demands Justice A Year After Daughter Killed in Police-Chase-Turned-Wreck in Tuscaloosa
Anyone traveling down U.S. Highway 82 might see it. Most will very likely drive right past it without a second thought. Between mile marker 65 and 66 anyone can find a small, unassuming cross - one of thousands peppering highways throughout the country remembering someone who lost their life behind the wheel.
However behind that cross is a story of a young woman's life taken too soon, a man on the run from justice and a mother's plea that she feels has gone unheard for over a year.
Veronica Rodriguez lost her daughter, Jada Harris, at the age of 19. Jada was killed in a head-on collision in August of 2020 along U.S. 82. The driver of the other car, Michael Ray Roberts Jr., 36, of Coker, was arrested that night for reckless murder and first-degree theft.
While Jada was pronounced dead at the scene, Roberts is currently unaccounted for. He has not been seen since he failed to appear in court in late October, and Rodriguez is left with more questions than answers on what comes next.
"Jada was a beautiful person inside and out," Rodriguez said. "She was a very hard worker. Ever since she was little, she's always loved to dance. She could dance from morning to night, and she would never complain."
Jada was one of Rodriguez' three children. She grew up in Irving, Texas where she was the captain for her high school dance team. Jada's passion developed into a drive that would lead her to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa.
She earned a scholarship to the school, and became the first freshman captain on Stillman's dance team.
"She was my firstborn," her mother said, holding back tears. "I'm never going to see grand babies from her, I'm never going to see her dance, I'm never going to have those moments with her."
On January 26, she would have been 21 years old.
The crash that took Jada's life occurred the night of August 19, 2020. Rodriguez explained her daughter was on her way back to Tuscaloosa from Montgomery, where she had just tried out for the senior dance team at Alabama State University.
Jada was driving back to stay with her boyfriend, who she lived with. She still had her dance clothes on at the time of the accident.
Rodriguez was on the phone with her daughter for nearly an hour that night. They talked about Jada's day, her plans going forward, and her general excitement. She remembered Jada sounding so positive and full of energy, despite the long drive after an even longer day.
Jada mentioned how dark the roads were, and that it was sprinkling a little that evening.
Below is a transcript of the official police deposition following Roberts' arrest, full and unedited:
On Wednesday August 29, 2020, Mr. Michael Ray Roberts Jr. led Tuscaloosa's County Sheriffs Deputies on a high speed pursuit. Mr. Roberts was driving on the wrong side of the road from Skyland Boulevard onto U.S. Highway 82.
Mr. Roberts Drove down the westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 82 for several miles. Roberts at some point crossed back over to the eastbound lanes. The Tuscaloosa County Deputies discontinued the pursuit.
Roberts then crossed back over in the westbound lanes traveling a very high rate of speed. At approximately 10:49 p.m. Ms. Jada Harris went on U.S. Highway 82 at the 65.4 mile marker. Ms. Jada Harris' vehicle was negotiating a right curve when her vehicle was struck by Mr. Roberts' vehicle head on.
Roberts was operating his vehicle on the wrong side of Highway 82 at the time of the crash. This caused fatal injuries to Ms. Jada Harris, she was pronounced dead at the scene. In addition, Mr. Roberts stated to a first responder that he recently used methamphetamine. Several syringes of an unknown substance were found in Mr. Roberts' vehicle.
Roberts, a Coker resident, was injured with a broken leg in the crash. He was transported to DCH Regional Medical Center.
Rodriguez was notified of the accident at 4:30 that morning when two Irving Police officers showed up at her door. According to the officers, the wreck had occurred just 10 minutes after Jada had gotten off the phone.
Rodriguez waited for several days before she heard anything else from law enforcement officials. She received the detailed crash report from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency that echoed a lot of the same points made public at the time of the crash - albeit with some glaring new revelations.
The first notable detail left out to the public was that the crash had followed an extensive police chase involving Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's deputies assisted by the Tuscaloosa Police Department.
Roberts was driving a stolen 2011 Chevy Tahoe at the time of the crash. There was no public report that Roberts confessed to recently using methamphetamine after the crash.
That same information was omitted for members of the media, who were only alerted that a 19-year-old Texas girl had been killed in a head-on collision, and that Roberts had been taken to DCH for treatment.
According to the crash report, Jada was driving 64 mph at the point of impact, just below the posted speed limit of 65 mph. Roberts was driving 78 mph.
Roberts had been wanted since November of 2019 on a first-degree theft of property charged. He was arrested and charged for that on the date of the wreck. At this time, it is unclear if the pursuit was related to the outstanding warrant or the stolen car, if either.
The pursuit was terminated at 10:40 p.m., when officers notified the Bibb County Sheriff's Office that the driver was heading towards their jurisdiction. Police stopped their chase less than 10 minutes before Jada's car was struck, at approximately the same time Rodriguez got off the phone with her daughter.
"They eventually told me that the pursuit had been called off at the time of the accident. I don't understand why the pursuit had been called off if he had not been caught," Rodriguez said. "How did this happen? How did nobody see this man going the wrong way on the highway, enough to alert the other side of traffic to say 'slowdown...' They should've had a cop way ahead coming that way to signal Jada to pull over so she wouldn't get hit."
Rodriguez asked the officers who had called in the accident, and they said no officers involved had called it in. According to Rodriguez, an off-duty officer just so happened to be traveling home when he came across the crash site, and he reported the accident.
She has requested dash cam footage of the pursuit to better establish a timeline, but as of the publishing of this article, she has not received anything.
Lost in Communication
Roberts was arrested on a $215,000 bond, but records from the Tuscaloosa County Jail show that he was bonded out on March 19, 2021, on a significantly lower bond of $150,000.
His attorney also cited his injuries he sustained from the wreck to make him "at risk" should he remain in the Tuscaloosa County Jail awaiting trail.
"I think a criminal like that, one who has an extensive record, and one who has been on Alabama's most wanted list at one point should not be released under any circumstances... I get there's law they must abide by, and he has a bail."
Rodriguez was not notified of his release. In fact, she did not know that he was not in jail until December 2021, two months after he failed to appear at his October 25 call docket that was set to schedule his trial date.
However, that's not to say she hadn't been in frequent communication with law enforcement and the district attorney's office, even at the time of Roberts' release.
In June of 2021, Rodriguez received a letter from the district attorney's office notifying her that a grand jury had returned an indictment as a true bill, meaning Roberts' case would be sent to trial.
In July, she was again notified that his case was being moved up, after it had been pushed back due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In October, Roberts failed to appear in court, and a writ was issued to arrest him. Coming up on three months later, Roberts remains at large.
She told The Thread that she was confused at the fact that the court system was moving forward with a trial with no means of accountability for Roberts.
"I was told he had no ankle monitor or anything... It feels like they're sweeping Jada's case under the rug. They're treating this like it's just another DUI, they're used to this stuff," Rodriguez said. "It's not just another case, I'm a grieving mother who lost her daughter."
Call for Action
What made Rodriguez decide to finally reach out to The Thread was the lack of closure in this case. She admitted she feels stranded in Texas, still trying to fight this fight while being so far removed from the process.
As a grieving mother without a lawyer or any means to approach the judicial system, she feels powerless.
"What else does this man have to do to stay locked up? Now he's on the run, when is he going to be caught again? It will likely be the next time he commits a crime," she said. "It makes me upset because I don't have her anymore. This man can go back to his family and be with them wherever and whenever."
She said her next step is to write a letter to the circuit judge hearing Roberts' case. All she asks is to be reassured steps are being taken to put this case to rest.
"This man took someone very special from this family. She wanted to go places, she wanted to do bigger things, she had a dream, she had a passion," Rodriguez said. "Everyone's life matters, but this was someone who was working hard for her dream. She wasn't a bad kid - she never was."