Family mourns much-loved victim of unsolved hit-and-run
Lisa Preston Clark wasn’t surprised to see the CD amid the items recovered from Cole Preston’s crashed car. The disc was all about living life from the heart, and that’s just how Clark’s 22-year-old nephew lived.
“He could see somebody, and whoever they were, whatever walk of life they were from, he would literally see the beauty in that person,” Clark said. “He would see more in that person than they would in themselves.”
Preston was more than an average college kid just learning how to navigate life, Clark said. To her — and to the rest of the Preston gang — he’d always been far older than his age, wise and passionate and driven in a way that went well beyond his 22 years. Now, Clark sighed, she sees why he had to grow up so fast. He didn’t have the time to waste.
“He was a bright light in our family, and we just couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do,” Clark said. “Literally the world was open to him like nobody else.”
He was like a son to Clark, their families tightknit as each of her two daughters were born within six months of either Cole or his younger sister. He was a leader, able to inspire and direct those around him. He was an avid outdoorsman, always rafting or kayaking or just sitting in his vegetable garden, watching the plants grow.
“‘I’m so amazed I’m able to make something grow,’” Clark remembers him telling the family at Easter this year. “He was so connected to his garden and his vegetables.”
Last summer, Preston, who lived in Tryon and studied at Western Carolina University, worked at a ziplining company in Lake Lure, an experience that inspired him beyond the obvious enjoyment stemming from adrenaline-filled time outdoors.
“He had a business plan about creating a zip line for the handicapped, how to bring the outdoors to the handicapped and how to bring the handicapped to the outdoors,” Clark said. “He really was just an extraordinary person in the short time he had.”
His classmates at WCU obviously thought so to, with more than 300 people — many of them in his age bracket — pouring to the funeral and covering his Facebook-page-turned-memorial-site with posts painting a picture of a young man who was loved and admired by all he touched: “I could use some of your wise words now;” “I know we only saw each other every once in a while, Cole, but every time was like we had been friends forever. You put off an amazing energy that words can never express;” “You were the kindest, most influential human being I have ever met in my life.” The posts go on.
But as to what, exactly, happened to put an end to a life so valued, the details are not quite clear.
“There’s not very many people out at this time of night,” said N.C. State Highway Patrol Trooper Jordan Parton, lead investigator on the case. “There’s not very many witness who can tell what happened.”
What Parton does know is that Preston and some friends were out on the town the evening of June 23. They went bowling, stopped by a bar and then parted ways at some point between 1:30 and 3 a.m. on what was at that point June 24. Preston was heading south on N.C. 107 when he ran off the right side of the road and hit a traffic sign. He overcorrected and ran off the road again, this time colliding with a second road sign and eventually hitting a tree.
Preston evidently pulled himself out of the crashed car and collapsed on the road. At least, that’s where a Florida man who called 911 at 3:36 a.m. found him.
“There’s a body laying in the road,” he told dispatch, adding later in the conversation, “I’m hoping I can get there before another car goes by, ‘cause I almost hit him.”
He didn’t make it in time.
The rest of the 911 transcript reads like a suspense novel where everything ends in the worst possible way. The man spots headlights in the northbound lane. He yells, “Get over! Get over! Get over!” as though the driver could possibly hear. “Oh God, he just ran over the guy’s head,” he tells dispatch.
Meanwhile, the man’s two young children have seen everything and are screaming in the car.
“Hurry. I’m shaking like a leaf and I’ve got two kids, a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old that we’ve got in the car,” the transcript reads. “And the car that hit him just kept going, he’s going into Sylva right now. He’s probably out by Lowe’s. He didn’t even stop.”
In the middle of the night, it was completely dark at N.C. 107’s intersection with Old Settlement Road. All the man could say for sure was that the car was a sedan — no tag number or make or model. Security footage hasn’t proven helpful, either. There just wasn’t enough light to see identifying details.
Hope gets dimmer as the days get longer, but investigators are still hoping for that pivotal lead that will take them to the answer. They’re interviewing Preston’s friends, staff at the establishments they’d visited and anyone who calls in with a tip. But so far, that hasn’t been enough.
Hit and runs happen, Parton said, but in her experience this kind of scenario, involving a car crash and separate pedestrian injury, is pretty unusual. Stacy Cox, investigator for Alcohol Law Enforcement, which is collaborating with Highway Patrol on the case, agrees.
“I personally haven’t run into it before,” she said. “I have investigated other situations where people left permitted outlets and were tragically hit in the road, but like this I haven’t seen before.”
Investigators are still waiting on an autopsy, which would include answers as to whether Preston had alcohol in his system, and Preston’s family is still hoping for answers and the closure that comes with them.
They’re also hoping, eventually, to find any good that can come out of a situation that’s left them shaken. Maybe, if they find out what went wrong, they can work to make sure that others don’t find themselves in the same situation. Maybe, they can see that Preston’s loving, encouraging spirit lives on in ways that have nothing to do with the events of June 24.
“I don’t know that the reason will come down to this night, but I’m hoping that honestly more will come from how he lived his life,” Clark said, “and even for us to be sad at this moment, I’m working hard to get over it because he wouldn’t have wanted us to do that. He would have wanted us to find the goodness and find the light.”
Share what you know
If you know anything about the hours leading up to Cole Preston’s death in the early morning hours of June 24 or anything to indicate the identity of the driver who hit him, call:
• N.C. Highway Patrol, 828.627.2851
• Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, 828.586.8901
• CrimeStoppers, 828.631.1125 (anonymous)