Highway Patrol Hunts For Hit And Run Killers

In July 2020, Shelee Murray holds a photograph of her son, Christopher Cooley, who was struck and killed while walking along N.C. Highway 87 on Nov. 30, 2019. Troopers need help to find his killer. Daily Record Photo

By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record

HARNETT COUNTY — Witnesses saw a white passenger car hit 22-year-old Christopher Darren Cooley near the Walmart on N.C. Highway 87 in November 2019. A few months later, a passerby spotted 34-year-old Jesse Torrez Blue 20 feet off the road not far from the intersection of N.C. Highways 24 and 87 heading toward Cameron. The state Highway Patrol identified skid marks leading up to 49-year-old Pedro Tellez’s body found in the middle of Jim Christian Road on July 7, 2020.

Three diverse men of different ages from various backgrounds shared one thing in common: Their killers remain on the loose.

“There is no rhyme or reason to it,” said 1st Sgt. Sharlene Cotton with the N.C. State Highway Patrol’s Troop B, District 8. “We understand that accidents happen. That’s why we’re employed. We’re here to investigate accidents and charge people who commit this.”

Hit and run cases are challenging as the sands of time don’t work in the investigator’s favor. The highway patrol gets three years to solve a fatal hit and run before the case becomes inactive, making access to information vital in the hopes of bringing closure to a victim’s family. The clock is ticking for the families of Cooley, Blue and Tellez.

NC Highway Patrol First Sgt. Sharlene Cotton looks over her case files for three unsolved hit and run fatalities. DAILY RECORD PHOTO/ELIOT DUKE

“We’d love to bring the individuals who did this to justice,” said Cotton. “Most of the time they’re not intentional, but leaving the scene changes it. We had a case not long ago when someone struck someone in the road. They pulled over and called 911 and offered assistance. They weren’t charged, but they still have to live with it.”

Of the three cases, Cooley’s yielded the most evidence. Numerous witnesses attested to seeing a white vehicle strike Cooley and leave the scene. Surveillance video failed to produce anything definitive and Cotton is hoping renewed attention to the case could spark a new lead.

“ was well off the shoulder and it looked like it could be intentional, but we can’t prove that,” Cotton said. “He was definitely hit by a smaller passenger vehicle. We got a lot of tips right after it happened but nothing panned out. We want to continue to put the word out and stay in touch with the family. The mother is very convicted to keeping it fresh.”

Complicating matters for investigators is the location, as Highway 87 stretches for hundreds of miles with access to even larger thoroughfares like Interstate 95. Throw in the military connection to Fort Bragg and Cotton said the overall search grows exponentially.

First responders investigate the death of Pedro Tellez who was found dead along Jim Christian Road near U.S. Highway 421 west of Lillington in July 2020. Daily Record photo by Thomas Honeycutt

“There ain’t no telling,” said Cotton. “That’s why it’s so tough to solve these, especially when it involves pedestrians. There was no evidence left at the scene. We haven’t forgot about him. We’re going to keep trying to find someone and hold them accountable.”

Unusual circumstances shrouded Blue’s death from the beginning. Found with few injuries indicating he was hit by a vehicle, the highway patrol and the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office conducted separate investigations in his death. The state medical examiner eventually determined Blue suffered fatal internal injuries, but little other evidence was available. Cotton said even his time of death is still unknown as he was found less than a mile from home in the middle of the night.

“Nobody saw it,” Cotton said. “We found a few pieces of black plastic at the scene and the family said it found some money, but that’s about it. We logged it all as evidence. We have blood samples of all these victims and will be able to match it with other evidence if we get some.”

Finding skid marks at the scene of Tellez’s death on Jim Christian Road showed that the driver more than likely saw him in the road and tried to stop. Had the person pulled over, called 911 and rendered aid, Cotton said the situation would look a lot different. In her experience, people don’t stop for a reason that turns out to be far less serious than felony hit and run.

The N.C. State Highway Patrol and the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office investigate the death of Jesse Blue, who was found along a Cameron road in June 2020. Daily Record photo by Thomas Honeycutt

“If they had stayed, maybe it’s not their fault,” said Cotton. “There are other factors like driving with no license or alcohol is involved, and they’re afraid. They panic. Instead of a DUI you have something much worse.”

Cotton said the Highway Patrol is interested in any information the public may have regarding the hit and run deaths of Cooley, Blue and Tellez, no matter how insignificant someone may think it is.

Anyone with information is asked to call 910-893-5704.

Cotton would like these men to eventually share another thing in common: Closure.