ATTLEBORO - When a Jeep crashed into a tree two years ago, killing Attleboro High School junior Rebeckha Lynn Whitefield and critically injuring schoolmate Nathan Birch, authorities were confronted with a mystery as to who was driving on that rainy night.
Both of the victims were thrown from the vehicle - one was dead and the other suffered traumatic head injuries - and the evidence at hand seemed as twisted as the wreckage.
Investigators initially believed Whitefield, 17, was behind the wheel of her Jeep, but state and local law enforcement authorities kept quietly investigating the May 16, 2008, fatality on Oakhill Avenue to determine who was actually driving the vehicle.
Now just days after the anniversary of Whitefield's death, Birch, who was 16 at the time, has been charged with vehicular homicide, driving negligently so as to endanger, speeding, driving without a license and failing to drive within marked lanes, The Sun Chronicle has learned.
Birch, now 18, of Mendon Road, will face the charges in Attleboro Juvenile Court because he was younger than 17 at the time of the crash.
Whitefield, a high school junior active in sports and cheerleading, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident near the Seekonk line.
Birch, a high school freshman at the time, suffered serious head injuries and was hospitalized at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
They were the only occupants of the vehicle and were headed back to Whitefield's home on Pioneer Circle at the time of the 11 p.m. crash.
Gregg Miliote, spokesman for Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, confirmed Thursday that charges were lodged against a person in the accident who was 16 at the time, but would not identify the defendant because the person was a juvenile at the time.
This past Sunday, family and friends gathered at the Briggs Corner Pizzeria, where Rebeckha Whitefield had worked, for a memorial tribute.
Her father, Michael Whitefield, said Thursday his family and his daughter's friends will be relieved that charges have been filed as a result of the accident, and that police now contend she was not behind the wheel.
"I am pleased with the police. They worked hard on this. I'm really thankful that they put so much effort into it. They really did a great job," Whitefield said, praising state police, Attleboro police and the Bristol County District Attorney's Office.
"I'm relieved. I cried, to be honest with you," he said. "It's something Rebeckha's family and friends have known all along - that she wasn't driving. Hopefully, it will be proven."
After his daughter's death, Michael Whitefield founded the Rebeckha Lynn Scholarship Fund to raise money for scholarships in his daughter's name and for donations to recreational activities in the Attleboro area.
Miliote said the charges were the result of a lengthy and extensive investigation of the accident, which included a reconstruction of the accident, forensic evidence and DNA testing.
Authorities had to go to the state Supreme Judicial Court to win a court order to obtain a DNA sample from the defendant because he would not voluntarily provide a sample to investigators, Miliote said.
"With the results of the DNA, combined with the accident reconstruction, we feel strongly that we have identified the driver," Miliote said.
The identification of the driver was not immediately known at the time because Whitefield died at the scene and the juvenile was injured.
"The juvenile apparently suffered head injuries in the accident and either could not or would not provide certain information," Miliote said.
The accident was investigated by Assistant District Attorney Raymond Veary, state police Detective Paul Dockrey, the state police collision analysis and reconstruction section and Attleboro police.
Neither Birch nor his parents could be reached for comment Thursday after numerous attempts.