CHRISTIANSBURG — A Pulaski County man who ran head-on into an off-duty sheriff’s deputy and killed him pleaded guilty Wednesday as part of an agreement to avoid a murder charge.
Michael Dominic Morris, 26, was convicted of aggravated vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated. The pleas and verdict came at a hearing in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, where Judge Robert Turk had been selected as a substitute judge to oversee the case.
The Jan. 14 crash in Pulaski County, north of Dublin on U.S. 11, killed Sgt. Perry Hodge, 49, who was off-duty and on his way to an early morning workout.
With a dozen officers and others watching, Morris was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, the result of injuries sustained in the crash. He made his pleas with no recommendation for sentencing and faces a maximum punishment of 21 years behind bars.
Turk said that he was finding Morris guilty and scheduled a Nov. 10 hearing to set his sentence.
Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith summarized the evidence that would have been presented if the case had gone trial, saying Morris told officers that before the crash he had taken a bar of Xanax, which he thought might have also contained fentanyl. Lab tests found that Morris’ blood contained chemical traces that indicated recent heroin use, Griffith said.
Witnesses placed Morris at a string of drug-oriented gatherings that began Jan. 13, starting around 3 p.m. at a Pulaski County house where a woman overdosed on opioids and Morris “Narcaned her back to life,” Griffith said.
Rescue squad members who came to take the woman to a hospital noticed that Morris was under the influence of something, Griffith said.
Over the next nine hours or so, until the collision with Hodge, Morris was in motion, with at least a half-dozen or so more people noting his intoxication, Griffith said. At one point, Morris went to LewisGale Hospital Pulaski to check on the woman who had overdosed. At another point he was picked up from the Volvo Trucks North America plant parking lot by people who knew he had drugs and was taken to another gathering, Griffith said.
Morris was at a house in Pulaski and at a residence in Riverbend Apartments in Radford, Griffith said.
By 4 a.m., Morris was at the wheel of a 2011 Chevrolet pickup truck, the vehicle that had picked him up from the Volvo parking lot, and was driving south on U.S. 11, Griffith said.
The prosecutor had to pause several times to collect himself as he recounted the details of the crash.
According to Virginia State Police accounts, at about 4:09 a.m. Morris crossed into the northbound lanes, where Hodge was in a 1998 Ford pickup.
Hodge had worked more than 15 years for the sheriff’s office and supervised school resource officers.
In a search warrant, investigators wrote that as Morris came toward him, Hodge moved as far to the right as he could and brought his vehicle to a stop.
Equipment in the truck that Morris drove showed it was traveling at 55 mph and did not slow down in the moments before he ran head-on into the officer, Griffith said.
Hodge died at the scene, Griffith said. Later, Morris would ask officers if someone had run into him while he was stopped at a traffic light, the prosecutor added.
Neither driver was wearing a seat belt, state police said in January.
Morris had a lengthy history of traffic- and vehicle-related violations in Pulaski County, including 25 citations for which he was found guilty during 2019 and 2020. These include speeding, improper driving and failing to maintain control of a vehicle. At an earlier hearing, Griffith said Morris’ past violations included running into a school bus.
On Wednesday, Griffith said that Morris was driving on a suspended license when he killed Hodge.
After the hearing, defense attorney Rob Dean of Salem noted that the prosecution dropped a felony murder charge and grand larceny of a vehicle charge in exchange for Morris pleading guilty and waiving his right to a preliminary hearing. A felony murder charge is an allegation that a death occurred accidentally during the commission of a felony.
Morris is “deeply remorseful and lives with the physical and emotional scars of his actions. He is so sorry” for what he did, Dean said.