Originally created 07/24/02

A mother mourns



Joy Batchelor is standing in her 11-year-old son Drew's room Tuesday, describing him as only a mother can.

She tells of his fondness for race car driving and science. He wanted to cure cancer when he grew up.

One door down, she walks into his 13-year-old brother Brandon's room. She holds the last bath towel he used to her face and breathes him in.

In the room of her oldest son, 15-year-old Raymond Ashton Groomes, she gazes at the wall quilt she made for him depicting a school of fish. Catching fish was one of Raymond's favorite hobbies.

Her voice quivers, but she sheds no tears as she talks about the lives of her only three children, who died after a head-on collision July 11 on Belvedere-Clearwater Road.

"It's so quiet," she says, standing in Raymond's room. "I can't handle the quiet."

Earlier Tuesday, Ms. Batchelor, 34, stood in a courtroom with her ex-husband, Michael Batchelor, 34, at the Aiken County Detention Center. Mr. Batchelor went before a judge, who issued a $100,000 bond.

He's being held on 10 charges stemming from the accident, including a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Raymond, and two counts of accessory before the fact felony DUI resulting in a death, for Brandon and Drew.

Including Mr. Batchelor's sons, there were six boys in the truck, none older than 15. According to South Carolina Highway Patrol, Mr. Batchelor bought beer for the children and allowed Raymond, who didn't have a license, to drive.

Authorities are still investigating, and additional charges are likely to be brought. If convicted of the current charges, Mr. Batchelor could face a sentence of up to 121 years.

Ms. Batchelor said she can't forgive her boys' father.

"He murdered my babies. There's no other way to look at it. He's breathing my kids' air."

What makes her angrier is how Mr. Batchelor treated his sons. She divorced him while still pregnant with Drew, who didn't see his father until he was 3.

The boys went years without seeing Mr. Batchelor, though they longed for his affection, Ms. Batchelor said. Raymond spent a year at the Georgetown Marine Institute to deal with his anger toward his father.

But shortly before July 11, Mr. Batchelor showed signs of renewed interest in his children. He told Ms. Batchelor he wanted to take his boys fishing.

Ms. Batchelor said the events that unfolded the night of July 11 aren't clear. Jarod Sowell, 13, a friend of her children who was seriously injured in the wreck, told her Mr. Batchelor bought beer for the boys. They then drove to several random locations in Aiken County.

She lost her composure as she described the night and the voice on the other end of the phone.

"'Your sons have been seriously injured,"' Ms. Batchelor recalled hearing.

She raced to the accident scene, less than two miles from her home. A thunderstorm had moved in, and traffic was backed up on Belvedere-Clearwater Road. She turned into the other lane and approached the accident.

The truck was mangled, and a blue tarp was draped over the driver's side. Ms. Batchelor, whose father owns an auto-repair shop, knew the tarp was covering a body.

At Medical College of Georgia Hospital, a nurse brought out pieces of two shirts. One had Scooby-Doo figures on it - like the ones on the wallpaper in Drew's room. The other was orange and belonged to Brandon.

But where was Raymond, she recalled thinking. She wanted to go to him but couldn't leave her other sons, she said.

Raymond died at the scene, his upper body crushed beneath the truck, his mother said.

Brandon held on through the night. His distraught mother lay by his side for hours.

"No matter how much I loved up on him, I couldn't warm him up," she said.

Brandon died the next day. Drew still clung to life, his brain severely damaged. He died on Monday - four days after the accident.

"I knew in the back of my mind they were going to all go together," Ms. Batchelor said. "They left in the order they came."

The mother, who wears her sons' birthstones around her neck, said their deaths won't be in vain. She's on a crusade to educate teens about drunken driving.

Her cause hasn't gone unnoticed. Sen. Strom Thurmond sent Ms. Batchelor a letter of remorse. Her first ally, she called him.

"God had a reason for these boys," she said.

More than 500 people attended their funeral at Sunset Memory Gardens. Brandon and Drew are buried between their older brother and their grandfather, Ms. Batchelor said, ensuring their protection.

"I'm glad I told my boys every day, 'I love you,"' she said.

"Never did I think (July 11) would be the last time I'd hear, 'I love you, too, Mommy."'

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.