Tow truck driver’s murder trial offers closure

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By Mike Hixenbaugh

More than a year and a half has passed since Lynn Corbett’s life unexpectedly crumbled around her. The 3 a.m. phone call. The rush to the hospital. Her son’s motionless body lying on a gurney.

But even now, as she fights to pick up the pieces and prepare for a trial in the wake of her son’s violent murder, Lynn Corbett said sometimes, all she can do is cry.

William “Lee” Corbett, a 24-year-old Rocky Mount tow truck driver, was killed in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2007, outside a gun shop on North Church Street. The parking lot was marked as a tow-away zone and when Corbett tried to move a vehicle, he was confronted by a group of men and shot once in the chest, police said.

Doctors fought to save his life, but he never regained consciousness. He died nine days later at Pitt County Memorial Hospital.

Three days after the shooting, James Taylor Jr., 24, surrendered himself to police and was charged with shooting Corbett. Taylor, accused of first-degree murder, goes to trial Monday.

“I’m very nervous,” Lynn Corbett said of the pending trial. “But I look at things this way; Whatever happens at this trial is not going to make me happy – it’s not going to bring my son back.”

If nothing else, Lynn Corbett said she’s hoping for closure.

‘Miss that smile’

Dozens of framed photos hang on the walls at the Kelly home on Gay Street – Lee Corbett’s great grandmother’s house. Several pictures of Lee and his now 5-year-old daughter, Skyler, are suspended along with photos of Lee as an infant and as a toddler, taking his first steps.

This is where Lynn Corbett receives her therapy – gathering with loved ones under the roof of her childhood to tell stories, sometimes wishing for a way to go back in time. It has become a weekly family tradition of sorts.

Michelle Corbett, Lee’s 20-year-old sister, likes to talk about how good her big brother was at fixing things around the house. He always looked out for her, she said. It wasn’t until he died that she realized how important he was to her.

Lee’s 62-year-old grandmother, Judy Clark, still remembers the way Lee would check on her – the sincerity in his voice each time he called.

“I miss him,” Clark said, pausing to wipe tears from her eyes. “I miss him so bad. I miss hearing that phone ring and hearing him say, ‘I love you grandma.’ Family was very important to Lee.

“And that smile. I miss that smile.”

Lynn Corbett and her family can sit around the coffee table and share stories about her son for hours, and they do from time to time. They tell stories about the trip Lee took with his grandparents to the mountains as a little boy – and how he made more than $80 by collecting change along the way.

And they tell about his love for his job as a tow truck operator. Six months before he was killed, Lee had started his own business and was just beginning to take on a steady workload. That’s why he was out so late that New Year’s Eve.

Lee felt at home behind the wheel of his wrecker truck, his mother said, wiping away tears. That’s something he loved.

“But he didn’t love anything more than his little girl,” she added, quickly.

Her father’s face

The Corbett family doesn’t see much of Lee’s daughter Skyler anymore. She lives with her mother in the western part of Nash County and is rarely, if ever, brought to visit, they said.

Comparing pictures shows that Skyler has her father’s face – his dark eyes, his thick brown hair, his smile. For Lynn, the little girl represents all she has left of her son.

“That’s what’s so hard about this,” Lynn Corbett said. “Not only have I lost my son, but I’ve lost a granddaughter.”

Lynn said she intends to pick up that fight in the future – becoming an advocate for grandparents’ custody rights – but she can only do one thing at a time.

And right now, she’s focused on her son, as is the rest of the family. Lee’s mother, sister, grandparents and father, Buddy Corbett, each intend to be at the trial every day until it’s over.

Judy Clark thinks back to the nine days her grandson was in a coma at the hospital – the nine longest days of her life, she says – and said she hopes this trial will help her move past the frustration and anger. She’d rather focus on happy memories of her grandson.

In the weeks that followed Lee’s death, Lynn Corbett said she rarely got out of bed. She had lost her will to live, she said. For some time after the shooting, she felt bound to her bed – tied down by depression and the feeling of loss. The trial represents the final obstacle to escaping that pain.

“I miss my son everyday,” Lynn said. “Some days I can talk about him and I don’t cry. Then there are days that I wake up and I cry all day. There’s some days that I still get so mad that I get mad at the whole world. But one day, one day, I’ll have him back. I’ll be back with him. And when that day comes, there’s nothing that is going to separate us again.”

No happy ending

Lynn Corbett doesn’t know how her body will react when jury selection for the murder trial begins Monday at the Nash County Courthouse. Will she cry? Will she have the strength to face the man accused of killing her son?

She’ll have to, she said, “for Lee’s sake.”

That’s what these next few days are about for the Corbett family. They’re about honoring Lee’s memory and thanking God for having known him. And they’re about righting the wrong that was committed when he died as a 24-year-old, working hard to make some extra money to care for his young daughter. It’s about seeking sanity in an insane world, Lynn said.

“I know this isn’t going to answer all my prayers,” she said, looking up from a picture of her son, her eyes bloodshot after more than an hour of crying. “Because I know that man (Taylor) has a momma somewhere. And if she doesn’t care, his grandmother or someone else loves him. Whatever happens is not going to give me back my son, it’s not going to bring back my boy. Who’s going to win?

“Nobody who is on this earth who walks out of there Monday is going to be happy,” Lynn continued, shaking her head slowly. “There’s not going to be a happy ending for anyone.”

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