Patrolman William McGary was the first line-of-duty casualty in the Conway Police Department since Ray Noblitt was murdered by a thief in 1988. McGary was fatally wounded at about 7:15 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2013. He was hit by a Jeep while directing traffic around a crash on Dave Ward Drive. He was 26 years old.
Barry Strickland, then 31, was driving the Jeep that killed McGary. Strickland would have been tried for first-degree battery of a law enforcement officer in December, but he died on Monday in White County. Authorities there have been quiet about his cause of death, other than to say there didn’t seem to be any reason to suspect foul play.
Strickland had been sent home from his job with Union Pacific Railroad the day of the crash. According to his attorney, Frank Shaw, Strickland hadn’t been able to sleep for the previous three days. He had missed days of work because of medical conditions, Shaw said, and "he believed that if he did not go to work he stood a good chance of getting fired." Fatigue is a possible factor in the crash that Shaw won’t get to present to a jury.
Likewise, deputy prosecutors won’t get their chance to try and convince a jury that Strickland’s decisions leading to the fatal crash did, in the language of the law, "manifest extreme indifference to the value of human life" — the highest-level felony when the life in question was that of a law enforcement officer and a deadly weapon (the Jeep) was involved.
If found guilty of first-degree battery, the minimum sentence would have been 10 years; the maximum would have been life in prison.
The defense would have tried to convince the jury that what happened on Jan. 31, 2013, was a tragic accident and a car crash, and that at worst it was the result of ordinary negligence, not "extreme indifference to the value of human life."
That would have been a hard thing for Shaw to do, according to 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland, who said his office was confident they could get a guilty verdict.
"We were prepared to go to trial, so we were very confident in our case and ready to go," Hiland said. "Anytime that you are in that mode and it’s called off… You want some level of closure for the family, some level of justice for the family. Justice is a very poor substitute for the loss of a loved one, but justice is all we can give them. We were ready to present a case to a Faulker county jury that we were confident would have resulted in a conviction."
There was no alcohol in Strickland’s blood at the time of the crash, but he was under the influence of adderall, duloxetine, klonopin and oxymorphone — all drugs that he was prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), two herniated discs in his back, fibromyalgia and early-onset arthritis. The toxicology report showed only the presence of these drugs in Strickland’s blood, and not their quantity.
The prosecution would have argued that the fact that this cocktail of powerful drugs was prescribed by a doctor didn’t make their effect on Strickland’s mind and body any less profound, nor his decision to drive while under their influence any less of a criminal act.
Strickland was a combat veteran; a convoy driver in Iraq. He had seen decapitated bodies, according to his attorney, who said it was "my understanding was it was his duty to haul those bodies off" in addition to driving roads mined with improvised explosive devices.
"Barry witnessed all manner of damage to human bodies," Shaw said. "I think at the time I met him he was a damaged individual because of the things he’d experienced and witnessed."
Strickland was on 50-percent disability. Shaw said this didn’t give him enough to live on, and so he had to get his job with Union Pacific.
McGary was well-liked by his fellow officers and had a wonderful sense of humor. At one point, McGary quietly confided to his circle of close friends at CPD that his girlfriend, a vocally conservative Arizonian, was secretly (and ashamedly) Canadian. McGary let the practical joke play itself out for weeks, waiting for the punchline until finally one of the couple’s police officer friends mentioned McGary’s girlfriend’s Canadian citizenship in front of her. She was angry — for a little while. She didn’t want to be interviewed for this story, but she misses Will every day.
Keith Lunsford has been the Stricklands’ family pastor almost since Barry was born. Because the Strickland family has been especially faithful and active in his church, Lunsford said, he’s been an especially close part of their family. Lunsford officiated Strickland’s funeral on Saturday.
"I’ve known Barry Strickland and his family since 1982," he said. The thing that I want to stress is that I knew Barry before he went to Iraq, and I’ve been with Barry after Iraq, and there was a tremendous difference. When Barry came back, he lived with constant depression, constant anxiety, and just really struggled in the years since he came back from Iraq."
Lunsford said he wanted to emphasize that by "struggled," he didn’t mean that Strickland struggled with lawlessness or "a reckless lifestyle."
"He was not some whacked-out alcoholic or drug addict," he said. "There’s a huge difference between somebody who’s out living recklessly and somebody in Barry’s situation. … "He was a man who did his duty for his country and he paid a horrific price for it.
"I do wish that people could understand that this was a two-sided tragedy," Lunsford said.
"This has had a terrible impact on two communities and countless people, and it all occurred because of one single event that was caused by distraction," Conway Chief of Police A.J. Gary said. "Whether that distraction was through overmedication or taking drugs and driving, sending a text message, driving fatigued… whatever; that’s a decision that somebody made. That individual is responsible for those things, and you can’t blame it on anybody or anything else.
"That is personal responsibility."
Shaw said that in the time he knew Strickland, "Barry was extremely remorseful, extremely sorry, and he bore the guilt of this particular event — and it was a huge burden on his shoulders." Shaw was preparing himself to convince a jury that like most horrible tragedies, it was a series of unfortunate turns of events that put Barry Strickland’s life on the course it took on Jan. 31, 2013.
"If the VA had given Mr. Strickland full disability, as he deserved, this accident would never have happened; if Mr. Strickland’s co-worker, who he usually rode to his job with, hadn’t been re-assigned to another shift, Mr. Strickland would never had been on the road that day and this accident would never have happened; and if Union Pacific hadn’t just kicked Mr. Strickland off the job and put him back on the road, this accident would never have happened."
McGary’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against Union Pacific for their decision to let an person too impaired to work drive himself off the job site. Shaw said it has a good chance of succeeding.
But Hiland said he didn’t expect a jury to be convinced by this line of argument in the criminal trial.
"Almost without exception, criminal defendants have an excuse or blame someone else for personal decision that hurt innocent people," he said. "Barry Strickland’s death is a tragedy for his family, but he made the decision that resulted in the death of Will McGary and for that decision he was being held accountable. He was not, as has been suggested, a victim of society or the system; he was a criminal defendant that was being prosecuted for his crime.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and the Conway Police Department as they continue to live with this tragic loss," Hiland said.
Consolations are hard to find in the stories of Barry Strickland and Will McGary, Shaw said, but one of them is that, under the Constitution, Strickland was innocent until proven guilty.
"I believe in the Constitution, and Barry Strickland wasn’t guilty one day of his life." Shaw said, also saying that Strickland’s family, "says they’re fine with Barry being judged by his creator."