Maria Saxon calls a number in her cell phone, knowing that she won't get an answer.
The number is that of her sister, Lukisha Nicole Thomas, who died after being struck by a vehicle while walking on the sidewalk of York Street on March 30.
“I call her phone and her voicemail is still set up,” Saxon said. “That just still gets me, that I can hear her voice, but I'm not able to talk to her.”
Thomas, 29, was walking on the sidewalk along with her 2-year-old son and a man, Ray Charles Wooden Jr., when a 2006 Jeep reportedly left the roadway and struck them. She later died during surgery.
Thomas' son was treated and released at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. Wooden remains hospitalized.
The driver of the vehicle, Aiken attorney Tom Woodruff, has been charged with careless driving.
Saxon organized an event Saturday that served as a memorial for her sister and a prayer vigil for Wooden. Several dozen people gathered at the accident scene on York Street.
“We were wanting everybody to know that my sister was a person,” Saxon said. “We wanted everybody to know who she was, to put a face with the name that was out there. We want everybody to know that we're here, and we still don't think justice was served. We want the laws to be changed.”
The incident and ensuing investigation stirred questions – and outcry – from the public as to why Woodruff wasn't charged on the scene, and why it took so long to charge him. It also prompted the Aiken branch of the NAACP to hold a heated press conference to “make inquiry” into the process of the investigation.
Saturday's event was much more low-key.
'Reach out to them, encourage them'
In addition to Saxon, who shared a few words about her sister, the event featured Phillip Howell, president of the NAACP's Aiken branch, state Rep. Bill Clyburn and Aiken City Councilwoman Gail Diggs, all of whom called on the community to support Thomas' family and children.
Diggs asked for prayers for the families of Thomas and Wooden.
“Remember also, even though it's hard to forgive – we know how God speaks of forgiveness – Mr. Tom Woodruff,” Diggs said, “who will live with this for the rest of his life.
“He will relive this moment every time he passes this area,” she said, pointing behind her to the passing traffic on York Street. “I also ask that you pray for peace in this community, and pray that all of us not forget Lukisha, not forget Mr. Wooden, not forget these five children and Maria and her husband, who have the responsibility of rearing them. Continuously reach out to them, encourage them, support them.”
Clyburn called for a trust fund to be created to help Saxon with the expenses of raising her sister's children. He implored those in attendance to contact local businesses about making a contribution.
“They have got to get an education, they have got to get college degrees,” he said of Thomas' children.
Saxon is petitioning to get custody of her sister's children, who, along with their aunt, unveiled a wreath with Thomas' portrait in the center on Saturday.
“I love my sister, and my sister knew all the kids should be together,” she said. “I don't think they should be split up. They've always been together and I think they should always stay together. They're brothers and sisters, and I love them.”
Saxon recalled her sister as a generous, smiling person.
“She was always giving, she was always smiling, no matter what was going on,” she said. “Me and my sister, no matter what, we always argued. She'd call me and say, 'I need such and such,' and I told her, 'Well, I ain't gonna do it.' But she knew I'd be right there.”
'A better law – Lukisha's Law'
Howell said the charge levied against Woodruff is unacceptable.
“That careless driving sounds like, 'Dern, don't do that again,'” he said Saturday, slapping his wrist. “After having met yesterday with Chief (Charles) Barranco and Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr., we understand how they charged him. We don't like it. It's the law in South Carolina.”
Howell said the NAACP is dissatisfied with the law, and a legislative solution is in order.
“The particulars of that are gonna be worked out with myself, the family and Bill Clyburn,” he said. “His staff will prepare what we call a better law – Lukisha's Law – with more teeth in it, so nothing like this doesn't happen and (someone) just gets a slap on the wrist.”
Howell said Wooden was moved from ICU to his own hospital room on Saturday morning.
“This morning, for the first time, he will know that his girlfriend Lukisha was killed,” Howell said. “He has not known all this time. ... The family came up to me this morning and said, 'Can you please mention this?'”
Saxon is also on board with an improved law.
“Everybody came together to let everybody know that we're fighting, still, for justice to be served, and this is not right,” she said of Saturday's event. “A community came together today to let us know that they are behind us, for us to push on and do what we have to do for justice to be served, and for these laws to be changed.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.
Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala Aiken City Councilwoman Gail Diggs comforts Maria Saxon, whose sister Lukisha Thomas died March 30 after being struck by a vehicle while walking on the sidewalk on York Street. Saxon organized an event Saturday to remember her sister and to pray for Ray Charles Wooden Jr., who was struck along with Thomas and remains hospitalized.×