LANCASTER — A Richmond man pleaded guilty on Monday to involuntary manslaughter and failure to render aid in a boating crash that killed his friend Graham McCormick on a Lancaster County creek in August 2017.
John Randolph “Rand” Hooper, 33, was prepared Monday to begin serving the one-year jail term agreed upon by his team of defense attorneys and Lancaster Commonwealth’s Attorney Jan Smith. But Circuit Judge Herbert M. Hewitt asked for a presentence report instead of imposing the sentence in the plea agreement, which calls for suspending 14 years of a 15-year term.
“I know you all have been living with this all for a while, but I haven’t, and I would like more information before making any decision on sentencing,” said Hewitt, who took over the case after the first judge recused himself in June.
No date was set Monday for the sentencing, but it is expected to take about two months for completion of the presentence report, which will be prepared by a state probation and parole officer and take into account the defendant’s background.
The families of McCormick and Hooper appeared frustrated in court by yet another continuation of the case, but after the hearing, friends of the McCormick family seemed optimistic that the judge was weighing whether the sentence was appropriate. The victim’s family had expressed concern this summer that the plea agreement would not adequately punish Hooper.
After reviewing the presentence report, Hewitt could approve the plea agreement and impose its sentence, or reject it. If rejected, Hooper could withdraw his guilty plea, and decide whether to take the case to trial before another judge or face Hewitt’s sentence outside of the bounds of the plea. The maximum penalty Hooper faces for both felonies totals 15 years — up to 10 years for the involuntary manslaughter charge and up to five years for failure to render aid.
If the judge rejects the deal, it would likely extend the case beyond the November elections in which Smith faces two challengers. McCormick’s parents failed in a bid to have Smith removed from the case last month.
The family declined to comment Monday.
Attorneys for Hooper did not wish to publicly discuss the case.
The case had stalled in June after Judge R. Michael McKenney recused himself on the day that the plea originally had been scheduled.
McKenney stepped away from the case after a witness sent a letter to the court saying that Smith had given the witness the impression that the judge had already made up his mind and told Smith that a plea was the best way to resolve the case. From the bench, McKenney denied having any communication with Smith outside the courtroom about the evidence in the case, saying it would have been wrong.
McKenney appointed Hewitt, who typically presides over cases in King George County. Hewitt dismissed the motion from McCormick’s parents to disqualify Smith.
During the hearing on Monday, Smith laid out the evidence of the case, saying that McCormick had been visiting Hooper and some other friends at Hooper’s parents’ Irvington home. The two were friends from their time at Hampden-Sydney College; Hooper said Monday that he never finished college.
On the night of Aug. 10, 2017, the group consumed a “great deal of alcohol,” Smith said. They had gone to dinner at the Trick Dog Café and returned around 10:30 p.m., when the two women in the group went to bed. The three men, including McCormick and Hooper, went to a dock on the property to play cards and continued to drink. Eventually, McCormick and Hooper were left alone, Smith said.
The next morning around 11:30 a.m., McCormick’s body was found floating in Carter Creek off the Rappahannock River. He was fully dressed, with his shirt tucked in and shoes on, and his arms were crossed over his chest, according to Benjamin M. “Chip” Woodson, who owns the land beside where McCormick’s body was found and is the witness who wrote the letter to Judge McKenney.
The state medical examiner concluded that McCormick’s death was caused by drowning and that blunt-force trauma was a contributing factor in his death. He had a cut and scratches to the left side of his head and face.
“He would not have been conscious” when he drowned, Smith said.
Smith said that at first, Hooper didn’t allow the others staying with him to report McCormick missing the next morning, nor would he allow them to take the 1999 Boston Whaler that belonged to Hooper’s father to look for McCormick. He also initially denied having taken the boat out the night before.
It was initially believed that McCormick had fallen off the dock and floated the 1.49 miles to the spot where he was found.
Three days later, on Aug. 14, detectives seized the boat, which had extensive damage to the hull and propeller. During an interview with detectives, Hooper admitted he remembered the crash but didn’t remember who was driving.
“After the impact, he remembers lifting his left hand to throw the boat into neutral,” Smith said in court, summarizing the interview between Hooper and investigators. Hooper claimed to have looked for McCormick and called his name, but told investigators he had assumed McCormick swam to shore because he believed McCormick was a good swimmer.
Hooper “oriented himself to The Tides Inn and then drove the boat home and went to bed,” Smith said.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reconstructed the crash and concluded that the vessel struck a bulkhead on Woodson’s property that jutted out of the water near where McCormick’s body was found. The Tides Inn is visible across the waterway from Woodson’s property.
The FBI tracked both men’s cellphones from the home downriver, but were able to track only Hooper’s on the return trip.
It wasn’t until July 2018, nearly a year after McCormick’s death, that Hooper was indicted on charges of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, which Smith amended down on Monday, and failure to render aid.
In November 2017, McCormick’s family filed a civil lawsuit that alleged Hooper was under the influence of alcohol while driving the boat when it crashed. The suit was settled five months later for $4 million.