NEWS 2000

Monday, September 25, 2000

Driver who hit King dies at 43

By Deborah Turcotte Seavey, Of the NEWS Staff

The final chapter in the Stephen King accident saga was written over the weekend.

It had a surprise ending.

On Friday night, the driver who nearly killed the author when he hit him with his 1985 Dodge Caravan a little more than a year ago, was found dead in his bed in his Fryeburg trailer.

Bryan E. Smith was 43.

This was not to have been the final chapter in the King-Smith story. The last few pages were supposed to have been written next month, when Smith was scheduled to find out if the state would renew his driver’s license.

Smith’s privileges were revoked for a year last October — six months by the secretary of state and six months in a plea agreement with Oxford County prosecutors — as a penalty for striking King.

In the meantime, the drama-in-real-life was on the shelf, waiting for that last installment. At 6:25 p.m. Friday, some of the characters were reassembled, this time with different scripts.

Smith’s family hadn’t heard from him in three days, and his mother, Dorothy, was concerned. She went to Smith’s trailer, but he did not answer the door.

Smith’s brother Everett, who is a Fryeburg police officer, called the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department and asked if deputies could check on his brother. Deputy Matthew Baker, who was the first on the accident scene last year, and another deputy peered through the windows and saw Smith lying on the bed.

He would not respond to their knocks or shouts, and the doors were locked. Smith’s Rottweilers, Bullet and Pistol, were barking.

The deputies sought help from Capt. James Miclon, who last year oversaw the accident investigation.

The doors on Smith’s trailer were pried open and an animal control officer removed the dogs.

Miclon approached Smith. He was dead.

“I said, ‘Wow,’” Miclon recalled Saturday. “I wasn’t expecting anything like that.”

Smith appeared to be at peace.

“There he was, on his back in bed, covered up,” Miclon said. “He was just laying there, like he went to sleep.”

It was a clear summer’s evening on June 19, 1999, when the lives of the disabled construction worker and one of the world’s most prolific writers became intertwined on a two-lane road in western Maine. Smith, who was trying to control Bullet and had his eyes off the road, swerved and hit King, who was enjoying his usual daily walk alongside state Route 5.

The days that followed were filled with pain and repair for King, who underwent at least five surgeries to fix a broken hip, fractured leg, punctured lung and scalp laceration. Crutches, braces, pins in the leg, pain-relief medication — the unfamiliar for a healthy individual became the familiar for a man who had to learn to walk through the agony of injury.

“It’s God’s grace that he isn’t responsible for my death,” King told the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 27, 1999.

The days afterward also were filled with public scrutiny for Smith, who was not injured in the accident. The spotlight of celebrity became familiar for a man whose life in recent years had become engulfed in depression, disability and a pharmacy chest of pain-relief medications.

There was often a note of self-pity in his comments to the press.

“They don’t look at my handicap,” Smith told the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 22, 1999. “They don’t care if I breathe tomorrow or die the next day.”

On June 19, 1999, Smith joined the ranks of people like the woman who repeatedly broke into talk show host David Letterman’s home.

He became the answer to a likely Trivial Pursuit question, “Can you name that driver who hit author Stephen King?”

That’s how Smith’s death was announced Saturday in news that circulated nationally — “The driver who seriously injured author Stephen King last year was found dead in his home…”

After Smith’s license was revoked, he admitted that he probably would never drive again. This was the end of motorized mobility, something he enjoyed regardless of his extensive record for offenses ranging from driving while intoxicated to reckless driving.

But before the revocation, one thing Smith knew was that he would not be going to jail. His friends in the Fryeburg area told him so, even after a grand jury charged him on Sept. 30 with aggravated assault and driving to endanger, charges that if he was convicted carried more than 10 years in prison.

His fate in the winter months was left to those college-educated people working the justice system, although King and Smith, both with differing points of view, would have dropped the word “justice.”

Smith knew the lawyers could tweak the books, find loopholes in the law, to convince a jury to convict him; to lock him up and throw away the key.

In conversations, he constantly would ask, “Why me?” Others in the state had injured people walking on the side of the road or driving in their cars. In a number of cases, the pedestrians or the motorists were killed and no jail time was imposed on the guilty parties.

He was being singled out because he hurt a beloved celebrity, Smith would say. It wasn’t fair.

“Just because it’s Stephen King,” Smith said on Oct. 1. “He can make up his own laws, his own rules. I’m being used as a guinea pig. I know I hit him. I didn’t mean to. Somebody can’t accept that. Why can’t they accept that it was an accident?”

Smith’s friends were right. He did not go to jail.

King, on the other hand, wanted justice in the form of jail time. He called Smith’s plea agreement — the license suspension and a six-month suspended jail sentence — “irresponsible public business.”

“What he took from me, my time, my peace of mind and my ease of body, are simply gone and no court can bring them back,” King said in a statement read in Oxford County Superior Court on Jan. 4.

King could not be reached for comment about Smith’s death over the weekend.

Smith repeatedly sought sympathy for himself. In his eyes, he, too, was a victim.

In his ramblings of how the system was out to get him, he eventually would come around and say how apologetic he was for hitting King; as if he knew it was obligatory for him to show remorse.

But sometimes, in those rare instances, the sense of duty was erased and a genuine sincerity was demonstrated.

“To be honest with you, I am very deeply sorry,” Smith said on Sept. 1, 1999. “Very deeply sorry.”

Until this weekend, the spotlight was temporarily turned off the King-Smith story. Miclon said Saturday that he was happy it was over. He believed Smith was, too.

“I think he even felt that same way after a while,” Miclon said. “He didn’t tell me that, but I think that’s what he felt. He didn’t like being on those medications.”

“Those medications,” which included Prozac. Valium and a handful of others, will be the focus of an autopsy scheduled for today at the state medical examiner’s office in Augusta. Miclon does not suspect foul play in Smith’s death.

A graveside service for Smith will be conducted at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Riverside Cemetery in North Fryeburg.

Miclon said the postmortem exam is standard procedure, “not necessarily because of who he was, but because of his age.”

The publicity surrounding Smith’s death shouldn’t last too long, Miclon predicts, and again Smith will fade out of the public eye.

Except for the trivia buffs.

Margaret Mary Ray repeatedly broke into Letterman’s home for 10 years, and was convicted in 1998 and released from jail based on time served. She committed suicide later that year in Colorado.

And Bryan E. Smith, son of Dorothy, father of one son and three daughters, and sibling to two brothers and three sisters, hit author Stephen King on June 19, 1999, on Route 5 in North Lovell, Maine.