GREENFIELD — Inell Carter loved “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Every year at Christmastime, she’d set her children down in front of the black-and-white classic, to watch George Bailey battle the ups and downs of life before finally realizing that even the little things he does matter a great deal, especially to those he holds the most dear.
Carter saw the film as more than a feel-good holiday tradition. It was a lesson in love and loyalty, in positivity and self-awareness and the importance of family — all characteristics she instilled in her children, her sister, Betty Fahnestock said.
After Carter died, Fahnestock found three cassettes of that old movie tucked in various corners around Carter’s little apartment. It was as if she kept extras on hand in case any should break, Fahnestock laughed, her voice trailing off.
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Carter was 75 when a man under the influence of drugs struck her with his car, a crime that sent him to prison. Now, 10 years later nearly to the day, he faces similar charges, and another woman is dead under similar circumstances.
As Carter’s family searches for a way to deal with a bout of pain brought on by the new investigation, local law enforcement officials are expressing their own frustration and concerns. The second crash has left them wondering how the driver – already having taken one life – could have found himself again facing the same allegations that landed him in prison a decade ago, even after years of punishment and monitoring.
Carter died on May 19, 2007, from injuries she suffered when Jason Phelps backed over her with his pickup truck in a Greenfield parking lot. The 42-year-old was convicted of Carter’s death, sent to prison for four years and went back for another two after he violated the terms of his release. In all that time, Carter’s family members tried to deal with their grief and anger. They tried to accept what happened to Carter, to learn to live with the pain of her loss. They tried to remember her — her smile, her laugh, her loving nature — and not just what happened to her.
But any progress they’d made in healing was crushed March 4 — another accident, a familiar name, Fahnestock said.
Reading the headlines, hearing that Phelps had been accused of taking another life while drunk behind the wheel brought back all those old feelings.
All the sadness. All the fear.
Police say Phelps had a blood-alcohol content nearly three times the legal driving limit when he flipped his car in early March, causing fatal injuries to his girlfriend, 45-year-old Dalene Charron.
Phelps was relatively unhurt in the crash, and he disappeared after being treated for minor injuries at an area hospital.
After nearly a month-long manhunt, Phelps was arrested Saturday on a charge of operating while intoxicated causing death. Fahnestock said the arrest brought some relief after weeks of worrying. The second crash, news that Phelps was on the run, kept her up at night, she said.
“Over the years, I’ve come to forgive him because I don’t think he meant to do it,” Fahnestock said. “I don’t think he meant to get up that day and kill someone.”
A few seconds’ difference, and Carter might not have crossed paths with Phelps on the day she died.
She was headed into the Greenfield Big Lots to do some quick shopping.
She’d just moved into a new apartment a few days before the accident, and her family believes she was headed into the store to grab a few things to fill her new place.
Phelps was sitting in his truck in the parking lot of the store, having just run inside to visit his ex-wife and give her some money.
It was just as Carter was walking behind Phelps’ pickup truck that he gunned the engine, leaving skid marks along the pavement and knocking her to the ground.
He later told police his brakes often stuck, and the car needed a bit of a jolt to go.
Phelps jumped from the pickup and ran to Carter. He cradled her body while another bystander called for help, police said.
But Carter was nearly dead when she hit the ground.
She died a few hours later.
Fahnestock still vividly remembers getting the call. She was on her way to Kentucky for vacation, just a few miles away from her destination when she got word of the accident and was told to turn around. Carter died before she could make it home.
Her big sister. Her good friend. Gone.
A tough loss
Carter was the oldest of seven children, and she had a motherly nature from a young age. Whenever a baby came in the family, it was Carter who’d stay for weeks with relatives to help out, an extra pair of hands to whoever needed it.She moved from her hometown in Southern Indiana to Greenfield when she was a teen, newly married with a little one of her own on the way.
Slowly, each of her siblings followed her north, never wanting to be too far away from one other. Over the years, even their spouses came to look at Carter as a matriarch of sorts.
“She was just the kindest lady,” Fahnestock’s husband, Bruce, said. “We all miss her dearly.”
Carter’s three children — David, Darrell and Rita — were her world, Fahnestock said. She fawned over the four grandchildren they gave her the way any grandmother would, helping take care of them whenever their parents were at work, making trips to the park and cooking their favorite foods.
Her specialty was chocolate pie, Fahnestock said. For years, Carter refused to share the recipe. It was only days before she died that she confessed there was little about the family favorite that was homemade. The secret was the filling — store-bought pudding.
Fahnestock laughed while retelling the story on a recent afternoon. She still wonders why Carter kept such a simple ingredient a secret for all those years.
“I think she just liked to mess with me,” she said.
After Carter died, Phelps was ordered to serve a 16-year sentence, dividing his time between prison and probation.Phelps served four years in the Indiana Department of Correction after pleading guilty to operating while intoxicated causing death, a Class B felony. Inmate treatment records are sealed, but Phelps would have had access to an array of recovery programs while incarcerated, said Stephanie Spoolstra, executive director of addiction recovery for the Indiana Department of Correction.
Inmates who would benefit from substance-abuse therapy are usually identified when they are admitted to the prison based on their offenses and medical history, Spoolstra said. There are certain incentives offered to inmates to participate in treatment and counseling, but the person has to want to get clean, she said. All programs are voluntary.
It’s a similar situation locally, where court-ordered treatment programs are only as effective as the offender makes them, officials said.
While on home detention after his release from prison, Phelps would have met regularly with a probation officer who specializes in substance abuse prevention, a requirement for all offenders like him, said Wayne Addison, the county’s chief probation officer.
Substance-abuse treatment and counseling has always been part of the county’s efforts to rehabilitate offenders — even 10 years ago, when Phelps was first convicted, he said.
Many people who have been paroled from prison are enrolled in treatment programs geared toward helping them overcome substance abuse as they transition back into society, Addison said. The more severe an offender’s addiction, the stricter the program and monitoring, he said.
What the terms were of Phelps’ sentence Addison can’t say for sure; after 10 years, local officials were unable to find his file.
If an offender refuses to participate in a court-ordered treatment program, they go before a judge, who has the option of sending them back to prison to finish out their sentence, Addison said.
Phelps spent three successful years on probation before a judge spent him back to prison for another two years, Addison said. Court records don’t specify what he did to violate his probation.
Courts can order treatment, recommend counselors and specialized therapies, but it’s up to the offender to take recovery seriously, Addison said. In his 35 years with the probation department, many have turned their lives around, desperate not to make another mistake like the one that landed them in such trouble.
And then there are those who fall back into old habits, he said.
“Offenders are offered all kinds of opportunities,” Addison said. “How they take advantage of it is up to them.”
Phelps, who was last released from prison in 2015, is now locked up again, sitting in the Hancock County Jail on a $15,000 cash bond, facing a Level 4 felony. He also has a pending domestic battery case in Shelby County, charges that arose after his release from prison.
Search for justice
For several years after her sister died, Fahnestock found it difficult to talk about Carter. The whole family did, really, she said. It was the way Carter had died, her life being cut short by a stranger, that hurt more than anything else, she said. Now, Fahnestock finds herself wondering about Charron’s family, if they feel the same way.
Charron, a 45-year-old Greenfield native, was buckled into the front seat of Phelps’ car at the time of the wreck on March 4. They were headed home from a bar, police said, and had taken turns driving, neither one feeling too comfortable behind the wheel for long after drinking that night, records state Phelps told police after the crash.
Charron, like Carter, was flown to an Indianapolis hospital because her injuries were so severe. She died a week after the wreck, and Phelps was charged with causing her death.
Coincidentally, Fahnestock met one of Charron’s loved ones not long after she died. She crossed paths with Charron’s brother at a local animal shelter, introduced by a staff member who knew both families.
They talked for a few minutes about their unique connection, shared a few memories, a few tears. Then they went their separate ways.
She thinks of the family often, she said.
Officials say they plan to file a habitual substance offender enhancement against Phelps — a charge he’s faced once before.
A long string of drunken-driving arrests since the 1990s prompted prosecutors to ask a judge for a stricter sentence for Phelps after Carter’s death. It’s a consideration Prosecutor Brent Eaton says he’ll ask for again if Phelps is found guilty in the newest case.
As prosecutors seek justice for Charron’s death, Eaton hopes the case’s outcome brings Carter’s family some peace as well. Local officials haven’t forgotten what happened to her, the family she left behind.
“I hope it helps them with any pain they might still feel,” he said.