Grieving mother seeks answers in son’s fatal car accident northeast of Lawrence

A memorial for Dalton Hess sits at the site of the road in the 1600 block of North 1650 Road just northeast of Lawrence.

The grieving mother of Dalton Eugene Hess says she has unanswered questions nine days after her son was killed in an accident just northeast of Lawrence.

She doesn’t know whether her son was driving the car, she says, or how the accident even happened. She hasn’t been allowed to see the crashed car except from a distance.

“As a mom, I would like to be able to see it and take whatever my son left inside,” she said.

Dalton Eugene Hess

Elizabeth Shelby confirmed to the Journal-World Tuesday that it was her 15-year-old son, Dalton, who died in a Hyundai Sonata that a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy found crashed and burning shortly after 9 p.m. July 2 in the 1600 block of North 1650 Road.

Although the teen’s funeral will be Thursday, the sheriff’s office has not yet released the name of the victim in the crash.

Sgt. Kristen Channel said the sheriff’s office was waiting for the coroner’s report before releasing a name. She declined further comment about the accident, saying only that it remained under investigation.

The sheriff’s office has also not identified the second person in the Sonata at the time of the wreck. In a July 5 news release, Channel wrote that a teenager was taken from the crash scene to an area hospital with nonlife-threatening injuries but gave no other details.

Shelby said she doesn’t know if her son was behind the wheel of the car, which belonged to her, when it crashed into an unoccupied piece of farm equipment after its driver lost control.

Shelby said her son died just weeks before his 16th birthday on July 24. She and her husband, Kenny Hess, had purchased a car to give him for his birthday, she said. That gift — and a sense of her son’s increasing maturity — played into her decision to allow Dalton and another male teenager to use her car, she said. She drove the teens to her job as a home caregiver in Eudora, then let them take the car with the understanding that they would pick her up when her work shift ended, she said.

Shelby said she has learned that the two teens had a flat tire while in Eudora. An older couple apparently helped them put a temporary spare tire on the car; she speculated that the smaller tire could have made it easier for an inexperienced driver to lose control.

Shelby also has questions about a pickup truck driver who may know something about the accident and whom the sheriff’s office is seeking, she said.

Last week, the sheriff’s office said investigators wanted to talk to the male driver of a red pickup who was “possibly involved in a verbal altercation with two young men” driving the Sonata between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on July 2. Authorities hoped the driver could help establish a timeline of the two teens’ activities the night of the fatal accident. Channel said Tuesday that deputies still wanted to talk with the man but that the sheriff’s office does not think he “has anything to do with the fatality accident.”

Shelby said she got a call from her son shortly before the accident. He was asking how to get to Eudora from rural roads outside of North Lawrence. She said she told Dalton to call his father for help, and that was the last conversation she had with her son.

Dalton would have started his junior year next month at Free State High School. Shelby said he was popular with a broad range of the student body.

“The nerds, the jocks — he was friends with everybody,” she said. “He brought so many friends home to play computer games. That kid didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

That was also the impression that Dalton left on Zach Wormsley. He met Dalton as the two of them grew up in the same East Lawrence neighborhood, he said. Now a personal trainer in Lawrence, Wormsley was Dalton’s coach when he played on a seventh-grade Lawrence Parks and Recreation basketball team.

“He had a good heart,” he said. “He was always helping other kids out with shooting free throws or other skills. He always had a smile on his face. Whenever I saw him riding his bike or hanging out with other kids, he was always laughing and having a good time.”

On Tuesday, the Lawrence school district extended “our deepest sympathies to Dalton’s family and friends” in an emailed statement.

Dalton is survived by his parents and two siblings. An obituary for Dalton appeared Tuesday in the Journal-World.