Ray Charles Wooden Jr. remembers what they did that afternoon.
Wooden met his girlfriend, Lukisha Thomas, and their 2-year-old son for lunch at a York Street restaurant on March 30, 2013. They had their meal and left, walking on the sidewalk of York Street toward Hampton Avenue. They never made it home.
Wooden and Thomas were struck by an SUV driven by Aiken attorney Thomas Woodruff Jr. They were taken to Georgia Regents Medical Center, where Thomas, 29, died during surgery. Wooden was critically injured and in a coma, and woke up 17 days later in the hospital.
'It just happened'
Wooden has lived in Aiken his whole life and met Thomas the day after Thanksgiving in 2004. He'd been out driving the first time he saw her.
“I'd never seen this girl before,” he said. “Where she was walking, I said, 'She ain't from around here.' The next day, I seen her again and said, 'I'm gonna find out who that girl is.'”
It turned out, a friend of Wooden's was romantically involved with a relative of Thomas. They introduced the two to each other.
“It just happened,” Wooden recalled them hitting it off. Thomas already had two children, and she and Wooden would soon have three children together.
“We did everything together,” he said. “She was a good-hearted person.”
'Something ain't right'
Thomas called Wooden the afternoon of March 30, telling him she wanted to get some lunch. He met her and their then 2-year-old son at Popeye's on York Street.
“We sat down and ate. The next thing I know, I'm in the hospital,” Wooden said. He remembers nothing from the accident, except passing McKinney Tire Service, in front of which the accident took place.
“When I came to, I just saw white stuff. I was strapped down to the bed. The TV had a sign on it saying, 'Sports Only,'” he said. A nurse came in and asked Wooden if he knew where he was or how long he'd been there, and told him he'd been there for 17 days.
“I said, 'What happened?'” he recalled, to which she responded, “You got hit by a car.”
Wooden said he asked where Thomas was but didn't receive an answer. A day or so later, his sister came to visit and he asked her about Thomas.
“She said, 'She's on the third floor. She got hit too,'” he said. He asked his sister to get Thomas to call his room, but she told him that Thomas couldn't talk.
“Something ain't right,” he said. “And then they finally told me.”
Dealing with the aftermath
Wooden was in a coma when Thomas' funeral was held. He ended up staying in the hospital for more than a month. He is unable to work due to his injuries, and uses a cane to help him walk.
“The most painful thing is, I can't be around my kids,” he said.
Thomas' sister petitioned for custody of her five children and is now their guardian. Wooden is frustrated he wasn't given custody of his children, and said that reports after the accident referred to him as “a friend of the family.”
“I was seeing my kids every day, and now it's a time limit and this and that,” he said. “How does she get more power than me? I've never abused my kids. My kids have never been hungry or homeless.”
The accident and ensuing investigation stirred questions – and outcry – from the public as to why the driver, Woodruff, wasn't charged on the scene, and why it took investigators so long to charge him with careless driving, which many said was too lenient a charge.
Wooden said he's never met or spoken with Woodruff.
“It wasn't a punishment. Period,” he said of the charge against Woodruff. “That man can go home and see his kids, his grandkids and talk.”
Thomas' sister has filed a civil suit against Woodruff as the representative of her sister's estate. Wooden said he is trying to get custody of his children.