Forgiven at last
A story of tragedy, love and restoration
By Kirk Noonan
When Troy Hartman looked up from putting in a compact disc, it was too late. He was going too fast and the mountain road curved too sharply to avoid an accident. When his best friend, Matthew Jones, screamed, “Turn!” Hartman instinctively cranked the steering wheel of the Ford Explorer as hard as he could.
In response, the Explorer fishtailed, then flipped onto its side. Hartman gripped the steering wheel as tightly as he could. The SUV seemed only to gain speed before it sailed off the road clipping trees as it descended to the bottom of a ravine littered with jagged slabs of limestone.
Seconds later, Hartman regained consciousness. He was cut and bruised, but not seriously injured. From where he lay he could see Jones, who had been thrown from the vehicle, a few yards away. Worried for Jones, Hartman pulled himself from the wreckage and crawled to his friend.
“Wake up,” Hartman pleaded. “Come on, man. You’re going to be all right.”
Jones moaned but was motionless. He was still breathing, but Hartman noticed blood coming from his nose and ears. “Come on, Matt, you’re going to be OK,” Hartman said. “You have to wake up.”
Jones moaned again, which gave Hartman hope, but their remote location held little promise of bringing help anytime soon. As Hartman contemplated whether he should stay or leave, he heard a car coming up the road. Believing it might be his only chance for help he scrambled up the densely wooded escarpment he had just plummeted across.
By the time he reached the road, the car had passed. He wanted to go back down to Jones, but realized there was no way anyone could see them. He decided to run to the closest town, which was two miles away.
As he ran the winter’s air burned his lungs, but adrenalin, fear and love for his friend kept him going. “Lord, help Matt,” he prayed aloud. “Let him be OK and please help me.”
Earlier that evening the New Year’s Eve celebration anticipating 2000 had started early. Hartman and his college buddies began drinking beers and playing cards at 6 p.m. For Hartman, who had graduated a few weeks earlier, the night was bittersweet because it marked the last time he’d party with his teammates from the college’s basketball team.
Hartman, his buddies and several of their girlfriends met at Hartman’s basketball coach’s house around 9 p.m. The coach was out of town, but had offered to let the team use his house as a safe place to celebrate. His only requirement was that there be no alcohol.
“He didn’t approve of drinking,” says Hartman, “so we brought the liquor on our own.”
It was a mellow party. Students drank, ate, talked about their pasts and futures and played spades. At 10, Jones arrived after having worked as a server at a local restaurant. “We’d been drinking all evening so when Matt got there he was trying to catch up,” says Hartman.
At 11 p.m. local time, everyone gathered in the living room and watched the ball in New York’s Times Square drop. Afterward, the party disbanded and without discussing who would drive, Hartman got in the driver’s seat of Jones’ Explorer.
“I wish Martin was here,” said Jones of their mutual friend Martin Hodges.
“It would have been cool if he would have come to the party,” said Hartman. “Do you want to wish him happy New Year?”
“Yeah, let’s do it.”
The pair stopped at a gas station and bought more beer before driving to Hodges’ house. At 1:30 they arrived at his house and woke him. For a little more than an hour they talked of their glory years in college, then got loud enough that they feared they would wake Hodges’ parents.
Hartman and Jones were both legally drunk, but still respectful, so they left. Back in the Explorer they listened to music, but said little as they drove toward home.
Hartman hadn’t prayed for a long time, but as he ran a farmhouse came into sight. It was as if God had answered his prayer. With his shirt bloodstained he ran to the front door and pounded on it until a frightened 16-year-old boy answered.
“I need help,” Hartman gasped. “Call 911.”
The boy’s dad came to the door and led Hartman to the phone. He called the police and told them where the accident had taken place and that Jones needed an ambulance. He then asked the homeowner to drive him back to the accident.
When they arrived at the crash site a Missouri Highway Patrol officer and an ambulance crew were on scene. Hartman bolted from the car and scampered down the ravine to where emergency medical technicians were working on Jones. Kneeling beside his friend, Hartman held Jones’ hand and encouraged him.
“Are you the driver?” one of the medics asked.
Hartman nodded, not taking his eyes off his friend.
“The highway patrolman is looking for you.”
Hartman and Jones had made quick work of becoming friends when they met at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout. Both were good-looking, athletic, talented, hardworking and had a penchant for parties. But both had also committed their lives to Christ as teenagers.
“We weren’t living obediently for God, but we talked about Him and how we should be living,” says Hartman. “But bottom line, we wanted to do what we wanted to do.”
If their lives had gone as planned after college Hartman would have been a highway patrol officer. He’d also have wed, raised a family, played city league basketball and maybe even attended church on Sundays. Jones had a similar vision for his life, the only difference being that he wanted a career that had something to do with computers.
Only days before the accident, Jones’ older sister, Jessica, married. Hartman met Jones’ little brothers. Jones celebrated his sister’s wedding by dancing with his mother, Mary.
“Matt said it was the best day of his life,” recalls Hartman. “He was so happy because his sister married a great Christian guy and their entire family was together.”
As Hartman reached the road he saw the patrol officer measuring skid marks and taking notes. Hartman, an optimist by nature, truly believed Jones would be OK, but he knew he was in trouble. Despite his predicament he thought only of his friend and promised himself that he would be completely honest and plead guilty to any legal charges.
“I’m the driver,” he said to the officer.
“Were you drinking tonight?”
“Yes, and I’ve had too much to be driving.”
The officer gave Hartman a field sobriety and Breathalyzer test before arresting him for driving while intoxicated. Handcuffed and seated in the back of the squad car, Hartman watched as Jones was hauled out of the ravine on a c-spine board and placed in the ambulance.
At the Taney County Courthouse the officer had Hartman fill out forms and officially charged him with driving under the influence. As Hartman did as he was told the phone on the officer’s desk rang. The officer listened more than he spoke.
“I am going to have to charge you with involuntary manslaughter,” the officer said flatly as he hung up the receiver. “Your friend’s heart stopped beating on the way to the hospital. They couldn’t revive him.”
At 5:30 a.m. the phone rang at Charles and Mary Jones’ house in Imperial, Mo., just south of St. Louis. The doctor on the line informed Mary Jones that her 21-year-old son, Matthew, had died in a car accident.
Mary dropped the phone and started crying. She ran down to the room where Jessica and Michael were sleeping (the two were supposed to leave on their honeymoon that morning). Mary collapsed in their arms, sobbing. She told them what had happened. They hugged, cried and prayed for the Lord’s strength and peace.
Though weakened by the tragic news, Mary’s faith and fortitude would help her — and especially Hartman — survive Matthew’s death.
“I didn’t have any anger toward Troy,” says Mary, 56. “I don’t understand it to this day, but the Lord instantly did a work in my heart.”
The next morning at the Taney County Courthouse, Hartman made bail. As he walked out of jail and into the parking lot, where family and friends waited, he wondered if all that he had experienced was just a bad dream. Matt still had to be alive, he thought. But when he saw his family and friends he, too, began sobbing.
“It set in and I knew it was real,” he says. “At that moment I pretty much died inside and hated myself.”
Hartman slept and ate little in the days following the accident. He couldn’t get over the fact that his friend was dead and that he had caused so many people so much pain.
All his life he was the nice guy. He made friends easily. He was the guy other guys admired, maybe even envied, because of his popularity and athletic prowess. Now he had hurt more people than he could count and he was scared like he had never been before.
“I had no hope to live, though I never thought of killing myself,” says Hartman. “But I felt like a 3-year-old kid lost in a mall.”
Mounting worry and fear that haunted his every thought fueled those feelings. Though he had determined he would never forgive himself, he knew he needed to ask the Jones family for forgiveness.
“I’m sorry,” Hartman cried into the phone. “I’m so sorry about Matt.”
“Troy,” Mary Jones said sincerely. “I love you and I forgive you.”
Mary’s words were not what Hartman had expected. He thought she would be angry and disgusted with him. He thought she would tell him she hated him and wished he had died instead of her son.
“Her words were what I needed,” says Hartman, now 27. “They were such undeserved words.”
At the funeral, Mary, who had never met Hartman in person, embraced him like a long-lost relative. So did the rest of the family. It was not the reception Hartman had expected.
“I didn’t want there to be a double tragedy,” Mary says. “It would have availed nothing for another tragedy to come of this. And I know the way I treated Troy is what Matthew would have wanted.”
After the funeral, Hartman said good-bye to the Joneses. But Mary had one more thing she wanted to say to him.
“I don’t know where you stand with the Lord, but the only way to let Him make something good of this and have blessings come from this is to go to Him and ask for forgiveness,” she told him. “Then forgive yourself, Troy. God can make something good come from this tragedy.”
And God has.
A week later Hartman went to the church Martin Hodges’ family attended. It was an evening service and a Southern gospel group was playing. As the group sang “The Pearl of Great Price” Hartman listened intently to the words and cried as he heard how Jesus paid the price to cancel humanity’s sin debt.
“I realized Jesus really did die for me,” says Hartman. “Then I felt the Lord tell me that I couldn’t wait until I figured everything out and got my life in order. He just wanted me to come to Him and accept the price He paid for me.”
That night Hartman went forward and recommitted his life to Christ and began the process of forgiving himself for his friend’s death. “After church I realized how good it was to know that God loved me,” he says. “I knew that all I wanted to do with the rest of my life was live for the Lord.”
Hartman still had many court dates and the possibility of prison time looming. But with the help, prayer and support of his family, friends and even the Joneses, the judge suspended his sentence and gave him five years probation.
In the years since the accident, Hartman has shared his testimony and anti-drinking and driving message at countless school assemblies and church services. He currently serves as youth pastor at North Point Church (Assemblies of God) in Springfield, Mo.
Mary Jones misses her son greatly and still cries when she talks of him. Though no one could ever replace Matthew, she says she considers Troy to be like a son and marvels at how God has used him to minister to countless young people.
“When we have a tragedy like this, our choices can make it more tragic or we can pray that the Lord’s will be done,” she says “I didn’t have any idea how it would all turn out. I just trusted that it would work out for God’s glory — and it really has.”
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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