It was every parent’s worst nightmare come true.
A North Carolina father’s frantic phone call to his son confirmed his deepest fear Monday when a highway patrolman answered 18-year-old Jonathan Leonard’s cell phone – and soon told him his son died in a car wreck his father could see just steps from their home.
“It’s like a nightmare you don’t wake up from,” Jeffrey Leonard told WFMY News2 about learning his only child was killed just three days before Thanksgiving.
Sgt. R.C. Abernathy of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol told PEOPLE Jonathan Leonard was riding in the backseat of a car with three friends on their way home from North Davidson County High School when 16-year-old driver Jordan Deal’s car veered off the road, hit several pine trees and flipped over.
Leonard and fellow backseat passenger Kayleigh Campbell, 15, were killed instantly. Campbell’s older brother, Denzel Caige Campbell, 17, was riding in the front passenger seat and remains hospitalized with critical injuries. Deal suffered minor injuries and has been released from the hospital.
Abernathy tells PEOPLE he was the officer who answered Jonathan Leonard’s cell phone at the site of the crash – after hearing the teen’s cell phone ring and viewing his father’s increasingly worried text messages. (Abernathy says the pair were texting back and forth just prior to the crash.)
“Where are you?” read the first message the elder Leonard wrote to his son shortly after the crash, which occurred just one-tenth of a mile from their Lexington home.
Three minutes later, another text came through: “John answer me right now. There has been a very serious car wreck below the church… air care is here now… I want to know it isn’t you.”
After still no response, Jeffrey Leonard called his son, and after the second call Sgt. Abernathy picked up the phone.
“In reading the texts, I could tell the father knew something was wrong,” explains Abernathy. “I picked up more or less to ease the father’s pain of the unknowing.”
After a brief conversation, Abernathy met Jeffrey Leonard and delivered the news that his son had died.
“It’s always difficult to tell a loved one [someone] had passed away. We try our best to do it with sympathy and understanding,” Abernathy explains.
Abernathy says Deal told the N.C. State Highway Patrol he was driving with the window down and his hair blew in his face, which caused him to miss a turn in the road.
He says Deal has been charged with two counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle, careless and reckless driving, a seat belt violation (because his 15-year-old passenger was not wearing a seat belt) and a limited provisional license violation – because North Carolina law states that 16-year-old drivers cannot have more than one unrelated passenger in their car. He is due in court in January to face the charges against him, which are all misdemeanors.
According to WFMY, neither family is blaming Deal for the crash, instead calling it a tragic accident and asking the public to pray for all involved.