LANCASTER — A judge on Wednesday recused himself from the case against a Richmond man accused of manslaughter in a boating crash that killed 31-year-old Graham McCormick on a Lancaster County creek in August 2017.

On the day that defendant John Randolph “Rand” Hooper had been scheduled to enter a plea in the case, Judge R. Michael McKenney told a full courtroom that he was recusing himself, stunning members of the families involved in the case along with attorneys and detectives.

McKenney said he was doing so because a letter written to the judge had contained the impression that he already had made up his mind and told the prosecutor that a plea agreement was the best way to resolve the case.

“This is not correct,” McKenney told the courtroom. The judge said that he never was involved in discussions about the plea with Commonwealth’s Attorney Jan Smith — and that Smith should not have given that impression.

McKenney read one sentence from the letter he received from Benjamin M. “Chip” Woodson, who owns the land where McCormick’s body was found on the morning of Aug. 11, 2017:

“I was shocked when the Commonwealth Attorney told me that you and he had determined that there was not enough relevant information to convict Mr. Rand Hooper in a jury trial, and therefore, a plea agreement was reached,” Woodson’s letter said.

The victim’s father, Burke McCormick, said in an interview after Wednesday’s hearing that Smith had given him the same impression of the judge’s approval of the plea deal when the prosecutor pressured the family into accepting the agreement that they didn’t believe contained a harsh enough sentence. The family had been told Hooper was going to enter a plea to a manslaughter charge and to failure to render aid to a boating accident victim, and would serve one year of a 15-year sentence.

“It’s just been a nightmare,” Burke McCormick said after Wednesday’s hearing. “We’d hoped to have some resolution to this today.”

Gary Hooper, the defendant’s father, declined to comment after the hearing, as did defense attorney Craig Cooley.

During the hearing, the judge said he was transferring the case to Judge Herbert M. Hewitt. On July 12, a date will be set for a hearing on the case before Hewitt.

Smith, the commonwealth’s attorney, declined to discuss in detail the judge’s decision to recuse himself, saying in an interview at his home, “Let the judge’s words speak for themselves.”

Referring to the case, Smith added: “We’ll leave it to the new judge.”

Burke McCormick said the family in the past has asked Smith to appoint a special prosecutor to assist him in the case and he has refused.

McKenney, who was described as a “well-prepared judge” and “a consummate professional” by local law enforcement officials , was emotional and frustrated in court, saying he believed not only that the criminal justice system’s integrity was being questioned, but also his own.

“I’m sorry that we’re at this juncture,” McKenney said. “I understand and accept your disappointment and anger. I’m sure everyone wished for a resolution today. I hope in doing this today that it returns some integrity to the system and that I can regain my own.”

Though McKenney didn’t admonish Smith directly on Wednesday, he has done so numerous times in the past, according to Sheriff Patrick McCranie and the detectives in the case, who recently wrote a letter to the editor in the local paper criticizing Smith’s handling of other cases.

“It’s nothing we’re not used to,” Detective Johnny M. Smithart said. “The commonwealth’s attorney usually blames. But it was shocking to hear that he’d put words in someone else’s mouth involving the judge.”

As McKenney was addressing the courtroom, he specifically apologized to the family of Graham McCormick.

Several family members, including Graham McCormick’s mother, Sallie, and brother, Gordon, said they thought the judge did the honorable thing.

“We just want justice for Graham,” Sallie Graham said.

Gordon McCormick thanked Woodson for writing the letter to the judge. He’s hoping the case will now go to trial so “all the gruesome details come out that need to be told.”

Woodson on Wednesday spoke with part of the McCormick family on the slip of land where Graham McCormick’s body was recovered — where a Hampden-Sydney College flag now flies. Hampden-Sydney was McCormick’s alma mater, and Woodson said the flag just appeared at the spot one day. He was in court Wednesday and said “it gave me a start” when the judge said his name.

Discovering the body affected him greatly, Woodson said. He didn’t know Graham McCormick, but he did know his mother before the incident. A neighbor first called Woodson about the body that was partially floating between some pilings and rocks at the property’s edge. By the time he’d arrived to open the chain that blocks road access to the property, detectives had showed up.

“It made an impression,” he said.

Graham McCormick was fully dressed, like he’d just left the house, Woodson said. His shirt was tucked in. His shoes were on and his arms were crossed over his chest.

“He was rather peaceful,” Woodson said.

Graham McCormick, a former Richmonder, was found dead in Carter Creek off the Rappahannock River around 11:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, 2017. The state medical examiner found that McCormick’s death was caused by drowning, but that blunt-force trauma — he had a cut and scratches to the left side of his head and face — was a contributing factor in his death.

The corporate finance analyst was employed by SunTrust Bank in Atlanta when he died.

The county sheriff’s office was first alerted that something was amiss about an hour before the body was recovered, when McCormick was reported missing from Hooper’s parents’ Irvington home, where he had been visiting friends. The person who called said McCormick was last seen by a dock near the home and that he might have fallen off.

Detectives spotted damage to a 1999 Boston Whaler docked at the Hoopers’ property during a visit three days later, on Aug. 14. The boat, registered to Gary Hooper, was seized through a search warrant.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries reconstructed the crash and concluded that the vessel struck a bulkhead jutting out of the water near where McCormick’s body was found.

In November 2017, McCormick’s family filed a civil lawsuit — which was settled in April 2018 for $4 million — saying that Hooper was intoxicated while driving the boat when it crashed.

The lawsuit alleged that Hooper, fearing the consequences of the crash, fled the scene and left his friend behind. The suit also accused Hooper and his parents, Gary and Lucy Hooper, of covering up the crash. All three denied the accusations.

The civil complaint claimed Rand Hooper “feigned surprise” when McCormick wasn’t in his room the next morning. He’d even made a tee time at a local golf club the morning the body was found, the lawsuit said. The Hooper parents, who were traveling in South Africa at the time, were accused in the suit of remotely erasing surveillance video from cameras at their estate.

Hooper’s court records show a history of illegal behavior while drinking. In 2005, about a week before his 19th birthday, he was charged in Goochland County with underage possession of alcohol. He has convictions for DUIs in 2009 and 2015 in Prince Edward County and Richmond, respectively.

Rand Hooper was convicted of brandishing a firearm in connection with a July 2011 incident outside a Richmond bar where he allegedly shot someone. He’s served 12 days total for the four misdemeanors, according to online court records.

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arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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