A man who came to the U.S. seeking political asylum from the deadly violence in his native Cameroon was sentenced to nearly a year in jail Tuesday for leaving the scene of a crash that fatally injured a 19-year-old Chesterfield County man walking on Old Buckingham Road.
After a sentencing hearing in which Bernard Talla Kamgang, 41, required a French interpreter to testify, Judge Harold W. Burgess Jr. of Chesterfield Circuit Court convicted the Central Africa native of felony hit-and-run driving in the October death of Cody E. Wood, a passionate soccer player and artist.
Burgess, who rejected the defendant's claims that he tried three times in successive days to report the accident at a Richmond police station near his South Richmond home, sentenced Kamgang to a 10-year suspended prison term but ordered him to serve 11 months and 20 days in jail. He also ordered Kamgang to pay Wood's parents, who adopted him when he was 7 years old, $6,020.75 in restitution.
Wood, who at the time was living with friends in the 5500 block of Marsh Light Lane, was struck about 9:40 p.m. Oct. 5. Kamgang said that on that day he picked up his 15-year-old son from a friend's house and was driving in the 12500 block of Old Buckingham Road on his way back home. Wood died eight days later at VCU Medical Center in Richmond.
Kamgang, who testified at length, said he felt something strike his bumper and windshield but didn't know what it was, and when he stopped to check he didn't see anything. Several motorists stopped or turned around after the crash, and Kamgang said because of his cultural background, he feared what those people might do. So he decided to drive away and report the incident at a police station.
Kamgang, a certified nursing assistant who said he came to the U.S. six years ago to escape the bloodshed in Cameroon and eventually earn his citizenship, claimed he stopped at the Richmond Police 2nd Precinct on Belt Boulevard later that night and then again the next two days.
He testified he spent four to six hours over those days outside the precinct but couldn't get anyone to come to the door until the third day, when a woman finally answered, took down his information and notified Chesterfield police.
Defense attorney Keith Hurley said his client stayed at the precinct until police came to arrest him, but prosecutor Kenneth Chitty said Kamgang didn't call police until investigators — after receiving a Crime Solvers tip — arrived in his neighborhood with a search warrant to check his damaged car.
Chitty noted that Kamgang passed a Chesterfield police station and Virginia State Police headquarters on Midlothian Turnpike as he drove home after the wreck but didn't stop at either. Nor did he dial 911 or flag down a police car.
"He had several opportunities to take responsibility," Chitty said. "It doesn't make sense. I think he was worried about charges and being sent back to Cameroon."
But Hurley said Kamgang, as a native of Africa, wasn't fully aware of his legal obligations and that his many friends and supporters in the Richmond area — including fellow parishioners at Crestwood Presbyterian Church — glowingly described him as a trustworthy, caring and respectful man, among other superlatives. The judge received 18 letters on his behalf.
Hurley also noted that several people the night Wood was hit reported to police that a "hazardous person" was walking down Old Buckingham Road in dark clothing.
Kamgang testified he understands the heartbreak of losing a child because his own 9-year-old daughter died four years ago. And Kamgang's pastor, the Rev. Robert Burns, testified that Kamgang has been "consistently remorseful" and racked by great grief in the months since the crash.
The question of Kamgang's sincerity, though, was further muddled when Chitty noted what Kamgang told an officer after his arrest: "I thought about reporting this several times, but I was afraid." Kamgang denied saying that Tuesday.
To Wood's father, Kamgang's actions — or lack thereof — were not understandable. Barry Wood said he bears no hatred toward Kamgang but can't understand how anyone could hit another person with his car then drive away.
"It's an insult to common decency," the father said.
Mark Bowes | Richmond Times-Dispatch