Madison Cawthorn Wasn't Left 'to Die' in Fiery Crash, Says Friend Who Was Driving
On election night last November, Madison Cawthorn gathered with family and friends in anticipation of a victory that would make him one of the youngest congressmen in history and a rapidly rising star in the Republican Party.
Cawthorn, 25, was joined by Brad Ledford, whom he'd known since childhood and whom he introduced to other attendees in effusive terms.
"This is the guy who saved my life," Ledford remembers Cawthorn saying.
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Ledford, now a 24-year-old CEO of his own beverage company, was nervous about how the election would fall for his friend. But ultimately, Ledford tells PEOPLE, he was "proud."
"Him and I have been through so much together," Ledford says.
That is not an understatement. His seesawing friendship with Cawthorn, defined as much by devotion as by the trials that tested it, nearly fell apart in the aftermath of a fiery wreck in 2014, when a 17-year-old Ledford was driving and Cawthorn, then 18 — and his passenger — was left partially paralyzed.
What followed was a years-long battle between Cawthorn and Ledford's father's insurance company, a lawsuit that also exposed raw facets of Cawthorn's recovery and his private feelings of recrimination.
In more recent years, before running for office, Cawthorn gave a speech claiming Ledford left him "to die" in the crash — a story contradicted by Ledford and accounts from Cawthorn's own family.
Outside of the North Carolina community where the wreck had made headlines, the public knew none of this, really. Then a Washington Post report this week spotlighted Cawthorn's disputed version of the crash.
The Post's profile — for which Cawthorn did not comment — recapped a number of misrepresentations in his biography as well as a troubling pattern of sexual misconduct allegations from Cawthorn's time in college, which he denies.
For the first time ever, Ledford also spoke about the 2014 wreck with the Post. While issues with Cawthorn's account of the crash previously circulated, Ledford talking brought it renewed attention.
The accident has been a key part of Cawthorn's biography, blending tribulation and perseverance, grit and optimism.
"This is a time of great adversity for our country, and I know something about adversity," Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, said at last year's Republican National Convention. "I knew I could still make a difference. My accident has given me new eyes to see and new ears to hear," he went on. "God protected my mind and my ability to speak, so I say to people that feel forgotten, ignored and invisible: I see you, I hear you."
Ledford told the Post that Cawthorn was wrong about being left behind in the wreck, as he said in 2017: "It hurt very badly that he would say something as false as that. That is not at all what happened."
In a subsequent interview with PEOPLE, Ledford expanded on what happened immediately after the crash — and how, he says, he and Cawthorn have repaired their bond even as he remains stymied by Cawthorn's refusal to retract his comments.
(Cawthorn's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)
"I guess he hasn't maybe made a public statement yet [about the truth about the crash] because he doesn't want to go back on it or prove that he was falsely speaking before?" Ledford says. "I don't know."
The 2014 Crash: 'Madison Would've Died'
This is what led to Cawthorn's paralysis:
He and Ledford had been returning to North Carolina from a spring break trip in Florida in April 2014 when, as Ledford later told police, Ledford started "dozing off" and then veered from the interstate, crashing his father's SUV into a concrete barricade going about 65 miles per hour.
Cawthorn had been sleeping in the passenger seat, reclined back with his legs on the dashboard. An accident report from the Florida Highway Patrol states that Cawthorn, who had planned to go off to college that fall, suffered "incapacitating" and "life threatening" injuries.
The vehicle erupted into flames almost immediately after impact.
Ledford, referring to Cawthorn by a nickname, says now that he quickly "recognized that Maddy was unconscious and [I] was realizing that the situation was getting worse and worse."
At the same time, the fire was drawing nearer and nearer.
Ledford says he moved toward Cawthorn and felt an intense heat on his right arm, then realized flames were engulfing the back half of the SUV. He tried to open the driver-side door to escape, but it was jammed. He tried to kick out the windshield, but it wouldn't budge.
So, Ledford says, he reached over Cawthorn and punched out the passenger window.
He climbed out, landed on the concrete and immediately turned around to unbuckle Cawthorn, with whom he pleaded to wake up, he says.
"While I was pulling him out of the window, a bystander came by and helped me carry him away from the car," Ledford says.
Ledford says he and the bystander (who could not be reached by PEOPLE), carried Cawthorn's prone body about 200 yards from the wreck.
"I remember his leg was pretty badly cut from the accident and we were sitting on the side of the interstate," Ledford recalls. "So I took my shirt off and wrapped it around his leg and then just kind of stayed with him until the paramedics got there."
While Cawthorn was still at the hospital, his father, Roger Cawthorn, told North Carolina TV station WLOS that Ledford saved his son's life: "If it wasn't for him, Madison would've died."
"[Ledford] wasn't scared, didn't run from the fire," Roger said then. "He helped. He pulled Madison out of the car because he was unconscious."
On Facebook, Cawthorn's brother Zachary credited Ledford at the time with "saving Madison's life," according to court documents from the subsequent insurance fight.
"We love you," Zachary wrote, adding, "It could have been so much worse if you hadn't helped him like you did."
That is not how Cawthorn remembered things.
'A Fiery Tomb'
In a 2017 speech at a chapel at his Virginia college, Cawthorn recalled in harrowing detail how the crash and its aftermath unfolded — how the front-right corner of the car barreled into the barricade and kept on going, the metal scraping through the opening of the concrete with such friction, such intensity, that the gas line was exposed and ignited in an "inferno."
"He was my brother, my best friend," Cawthorn said in his nearly 30-minute Patrick Henry College speech, his voice catching. "And [Ledford] leaves me in a car to die in a fiery tomb. He runs to safety deep in the woods and just leaves me in a burning car as the flames start to lick my legs and curl up and burn my left side." (Cawthorn also said, "I was declared dead on the scene," though the accident report said he was incapacitated.)
At that point in 2017, Cawthorn was in the midst of his lawsuit with Ledford's father's insurance company. Ledford indicated to the Post that Cawthorn might have been saying "crazy things" because of the legal fight.
That dispute is complicated: Records show the insurance company paid Cawthorn $3 million, per the insurance policy; then he unsuccessfully sued them for $30 million, claiming bad faith after a negotiation with Ledford. A court ruled against Cawthorn and then his appeal was rejected in 2019. But the Post reports he is continuing to seek money.
Under oath in a 2017 sworn deposition, in the middle of the suit, Ledford repeated the same story about breaking the window and dragging Cawthorn's body from the flames following the crash three years earlier.
For his part, Cawthorn said in a deposition that "I have no memory from the accident," the Post reported.
The depositions also made public many lengthy, emotional text messages Ledford and Cawthorn sent back and forth in the years after the accident, as their relationship deteriorated and was ultimately restored.
Texts from August 2015 show an on-again, off-again rapport that, at times, included angry messages about their accident.
"You ruined my entire life," Cawthorn told Ledford in a lengthy message blaming him for the crash, for his condition and for not being supportive enough throughout Cawthorn's recovery.
"Just know that whatever you did was not enough man," Cawthorn wrote later.
Ledford replied with equal passion: "I get that it's hard to see me but don't you dare say I gave up on you or left you anywhere," he wrote, adding, "I did everything possible."
Ledford, who now lives in California, tells PEOPLE that he and Cawthorn have since made up.
Indeed, other text messages included in the deposition show the two high school friends more recently planning lunch together and asking each other about their experiences in school.
Ledford also says he volunteered for Cawthorn's primary campaign for about a month while visiting North Carolina last summer, traveling with the candidate to speaking events and vouching for his character with the locals who later elected Cawthorn. "I've never seen someone work harder for a group of people more than @madisoncawthorn does for everyone," Ledford wrote on Instagram last May.
In June, a day after Cawthorn won his primary, Ledford wrote: "You earned every last bit brother! My best friend. My future congressman."
And when Cawthorn marries his fiancée, Cristina Bayardelle, on April 3 — the seventh anniversary of the crash — Ledford says he will be a groomsman.
'What Really Matters'
According to Ledford, Cawthorn has apologized to him on multiple occasions about his 2017 speech. Ledford says Cawthorn told him: It was wrong for Cawthorn to believe his friend left him for dead and wrong for him to repeat that claim publicly.
But Ledford still doesn't understand why Cawthorn hasn't publicly clarified what happened.
"I'm still thinking about it, and trying to figure out how I feel about that, or the best way that I think that should be handled," Ledford says. "Obviously, I know what he said to me and that's what really matters, right? He's apologized for that a number of times, and it seems very genuine."
This would have never garnered much notice if not for Cawthorn's success.
During and after his campaign, he built an ever-larger profile based on the backstory of his wreck and recovery and his support for Donald Trump, along with his calls for the GOP to reach out to younger audiences.
He attracted significant media coverage — and scrutiny — while he cruised to victory in November, defeating Democratic hopeful Moe Davis after upsetting the Trump-backed candidate in the Republican primary.
But as the Post detailed in its report this week, some of Cawthorn's life story had been exaggerated or misrepresented by himself and his campaign — a pattern epitomized by his story about his wreck.
Cawthorn and his campaign claimed the crash ended his goal of attending the Naval Academy: "Madison's plans were derailed that year after he nearly died in a tragic automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair," his website read last year.
In his 2017 speech, he described telling the doctors how he would be well enough to attend the Naval Academy "by Christmas."
But that was another biographical misrepresentation.
In fact, according to his own deposition in the insurance fight, Cawthorn had already been rejected by the school after being nominated by his local congressman, the North Carolina news site Asheville Watchdog reported last August. (The Post also noted Cawthorn had said last year he worked full-time for Rep. Mark Meadows, which was contradicted by records that show he only worked part-time.)
This is not Cawthorn's first controversy.
Most notably, he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple former classmates at Patrick Henry, which he attended after the crash.
Classmates and alumni circulated an open letter last year describing him as having a "reputation for predatory behavior." The letter alleged he would invite women on "joy rides" and then "make unwanted sexual advances" after locking the doors of his car. Multiple women attested to this in the Post article and in a BuzzFeed article last week.
Cawthorn left Patrick Henry after reportedly completing one semester. In his deposition, he'd said he believed he suffered a brain injury in the crash that made school difficult, according to the Post; and the Asheville Watchdog reported that he said the end of a personal relationship had been a factor in leaving the college.
He has previously acknowledged one of the incidents with a young woman — involving an unwanted kiss — but chalked his behavior up to youthful fumbling and said he had not intended to make anyone uncomfortable.
"He was much stronger than me," the woman in that incident said last year, remembering how he grabbed her face to kiss her after she had turned away.
At a debate last year, Cawthorn said, "I have never done anything sexually inappropriate in my life."
Ledford says now that he and Cawthorn weren't speaking during Cawthorn's time at Patrick Henry, though he "wouldn't ever expect" Cawthorn to be accused of sexual assault.
As for his Trump-like political style — which has brought Cawthorn much praise from conservatives even as it has made him a liberal lightning rod for inflammatory language and misinformation, about election fraud and other topics — Ledford says "he's always been very outgoing and outspoken."
As Cawthorn told PEOPLE last year, not long after his election win: "I think it's just a lot more fun to be a conservative ... my generation is really probably the most pro-freedom generation since the founding fathers."
Republicans "have the right values, they just don't know how to convey them in a way that makes sense," Cawthorn said.
"We just enjoy life more," he said then. "We're less concerned about what other people are doing and we're more concerned about our own success."
Cawthorn is "firm in his beliefs," Ledford says now, though he feels the crash did mark a change in at least one way.
"That's definitely the Maddy that he was before the accident and after," he says. "If anything, I think he's learned a great deal and become a much more well-rounded person since the accident — by like, a lot."