Editor’s Note: This story is one of three detailing the complexity and cost of police pursuits. The series was prompted by the Dec. 4, 2021 22-mile pursuit by Tusculum police ending with a crash in Johnson City that killed a driver of an uninvolved car.
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Artistic talent put the world at A Pearson’s fingertips, but people who loved the 22-year-old recent college graduate said Pearson’s empathy and thoughtfulness toward others was an even more impressive personal trait.
“If there was anybody that I could immediately be like, ‘they’re going to change people’s lives with the art they make,’ it was always going to be them,” Pearson’s close friend and former roommate Shelby Tyler said. “I never had a doubt in my mind about it.”
But while Pearson’s art moved and impressed Tyler, other things came up more frequently as she remembered the friend she met while both were studying at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). The Christmas present Pearson dropped off in late November while visiting Tyler at her current home near Washington, D.C. Pearson’s never-flagging willingness to answer the phone when Tyler just needed to walk out to her car in the dark — something she didn’t like to do alone.
“They were the most genuine supporter I’ve ever met in my life,” Tyler said. “People are missing out on one of the best relationships that they could have had with another person just by how genuine they are, by how absolutely wonderful their personality was.”
Pearson died just after midnight Dec. 4 when a car being pursued at high speeds by Tusculum Police ran Pearson’s 2012 Scion off the road near Walmart on West Market Street. According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, charges are pending against Christian Morrow, whose car hit a traffic divider after entering a turn lane as Morrow tried to pass two eastbound vehicles that were occupying both lanes in front of him.
Pearson’s car was in the right lane and Morrow’s car struck the Scion, sending it into a ditch. Pearson had died by the time rescue personnel extracted them from the car, according to reports.
Nearly two months later, friends, family and co-workers tell reporters about Pearson’s life when they’d rather be talking to Pearson. They wonder why the pursuit had to happen, why it didn’t end sooner — why something so seemingly senseless not only happened that night but happened to someone they loved and were loved by in return.
“It still feels very unreal most days and there are still days when I will see that a text message popped up on my phone and the very first thing I’ll think is ‘oh, it’s A,’” said Mary Robinson, who spent three years working with Pearson at the Johnson City Public Library (JCPL).
“And then I’m like, ‘no it can’t be A because A’s not here.’” Robinson said. “So it’s hard to think through and to process and most days I would try not to think at all, but working here I’m surrounded by A and there’s always the memories that pop up. Yeah, it’s … I’m working on it.”
News Channel 11’s investigative story on the pursuit, which covered more than 20 miles and five jurisdictions despite police not having knowledge of a recently committed crime other than Morrow’s passing one of them at 104 miles per hour, can be accessed here.
‘Small choices could have prevented this’
Each person News Channel 11 interviewed expressed confusion, frustration and a desire for answers regarding the pursuit. Tyler became visibly frustrated while recalling her initial shock at the few details that became available.
“I think all of us are still asking ‘why?’. I mean, it’s such a crazy stars-aligning coincidence,” Tyler said. She said the end result based on what she knows “makes absolutely no sense.”
“Small choices could have prevented this from happening,” she added. “One of my best friends is gone because of the choices other people made, and it is so infuriating.”
Robinson said her library co-workers are in a similar place.
“We all have questions, just like, why did the chase go on for that long? Or why did it even have to happen at all?” Robinson said.
“That was one of the biggest things I’ve struggled with, and I think that it’s partly because of the way we lost A. It’s like you’re almost certain you’re going to see this person on Monday and then all of a sudden ‘wait, what happened?’”
Shara Lange, one of Pearson’s primary mentors at ETSU, said her department has actually suffered through the death of several students within the past year.
“It’s just been a real impact on our program of these young people just getting started out, and this one, it’s just so cruel and senseless,” she said.
Tyler said Pearson’s sister Catherine keeps her informed of whatever the family is learning about Christian Morrow’s criminal charges and other elements of any investigations. She said she just wants “everyone who needs to be held responsible, be held responsible for their actions because they should be. The driver, the policeman.”
She said she also believes larger changes are warranted and referred to the duration of the chase (more than 20 miles) and the time it occurred with little traffic around — until it reached Johnson City.
“There’s absolutely no reason that any of it had to happen, not at all,” Tyler said. “And … policy changes need to be put into place so it doesn’t happen again.”
Tyler’s not brimming with optimism on that front, though.
“We’re a little skeptical about anything that’s actually going to happen,” she said. “We talk about it all the time, and we doubt that these people will be held responsible the way that they need to be, but you know — there’s a little bit of hope.”
‘Born to read’
Pearson’s parents, Chuck and Kristin, provided several photos of Pearson — born Anna Grace Pearson — including one as a tiny baby with a knit cap and bib both emblazoned with “Born to Read” on them. Along with a camera, a book was something seldom missing from Pearson’s hands or reach for long.
“They loved to read,” older sister Catherine Pearson, 26, said of Pearson. “So many photos (where) you couldn’t even see their face — just head in a book. There’s one particular photo that I always think of where they’re literally sitting in the bookshelf with their stuffed duck hanging to the side. Just really, really loved books.”
(Note: Pearson identified as non-binary in terms of gender and the sources News Channel 11 interviewed for this story all referred to Pearson as they and A, as opposed to Pearson’s birth name.)
The Pearsons moved a good deal when the children were younger, Catherine said, but by the time Pearson was in high school, they’d settled in Northeast Tennessee, where Chuck Pearson is a college professor.
Catherine Pearson said A began to explore music, art and especially photography as a teenager. “A lot of people who knew them as a kid would probably say either face in a book or face behind a camera in a lot of cases.”
Within a year or so of entering college, Pearson would be a library employee and remain one for the rest of their life.
Pearson carried that artistic interest to ETSU, meeting Tyler during their freshman year. A group of friends developed on campus, largely drawn together by interest in either film or theater, which was Tyler’s major.
A flurry of creative activity ensued — and hadn’t slowed right up to Pearson’s last days.
“They were always just like sparking,” co-worker Robinson said. “They were always thinking, always creating, always on the go, had so many projects going. Almost never slowed down it seemed sometimes but they were, again, phenomenal and that’s the only person I’ve used that word for.”
Shara Lange heads ETSU’s radio/television/film program. She mentored Pearson through their capstone project and also witnessed Pearson’s leadership among peers. Pearson directed Buc Films, a student group that produces its own work, for a couple of semesters and often entered film competitions.
“Really a wonderful person,” Lange said of Pearson. “Kind, respectful, hardworking, really serious filmmaker and it’s been a huge loss for us — we really adored A.”
Lange said Pearson’s work focused on the region’s LGBTQ community, but in nuanced ways.
“What A was really interested in was these really intimate, beautiful moments, these sort of precious, gentle, caring moments between friends — these important moments in these characters’ lives,” Lange said.
While Pearson’s characters very often were LGBTQ and often non-binary, the stories weren’t “dramatic coming out stories,” which Lange said are important but very common.
“A wanted something a little more subtle,” Lange said. “So these really intimate, quiet films about these intimate moments between characters. A was also really interested in cinematography and so they’re really carefully crafted — really beautiful attention to detail in terms of imagery.”
The core group of a half dozen or so friends graduated in May 2021 and Tyler said most of them moved away by the fall. But despite her giftedness, Pearson had stayed — working full-time at the library, still creating and seemingly content for the time being to do her art where her loved ones remained.
That was perfectly fine with Robinson and Pearson’s other colleagues at the library. Not only was Pearson a tremendous problem-solver when the library faced challenges, Robinson said they were kind, compassionate and caring to co-workers and paid attention to the smallest details that made people feel good about themselves.
Like friends from ETSU, Robinson was convinced greatness was in Pearson’s future.
“I said that A was a rising star threatening to eclipse the sun,” she said. “I am absolutely positive that I would have been at all of the award shows and watching them accept them because they were on their way.”
A Pearson’s parents said they aren’t yet ready to talk about Pearson’s life, but released a statement to News Channel 11 that references a memorial fund the ETSU College of Arts and Sciences has set up in A’s honor.
“Those funds are going to support underrepresented students in the study of media and communications, especially those interested in film. Contributions to the A. Pearson Fund can be made by mail at ETSU Foundation, PO Box 70721, Johnson City, TN 37614. They can also be made online at http://etsu.edu/give/; select College of Arts and Sciences and note A. Pearson Fund.”
But not yet, and not just because of friends and co-workers. One likely anchor had bitten into the seabed of Pearson’s life in February 2020 in the form of Wendy — Catherine Pearson’s first child.
Along with friends to call, encourage and uplift, Pearson was held in the mountains by a new arrival in the Pearson family’s life. Wendy Pearson was born in February 2020 to Catherine Pearson, who said it was essentially love at first sight between A and their niece.
“They were very, very excited to be kind of the cool aunt figure,” Catherine said.
A Pearson’s non-binary identification left them preferring a different description than ‘aunt,’ and “Double A” for Aunt A became “Dubba” as Wendy started speaking.
“Maybe only two, three weeks before A was killed she had really started saying ‘Dubba’ regularly,” Catherine said.
A Pearson was now a beloved Dubba, a close friend to numerous library co-workers, a rising creator, mentor and partner in the ETSU and local film scene, and they were still close with Tyler and the rest of their tight circle of former college classmates.
Lange doesn’t remember conversations about A’s longer-term artistic goals.
“I think in a beautiful way A was really committed to A’s family, A’s community — had a big community here of students and filmmakers that loved A.”
Tyler and Robinson both remember vividly when they learned Pearson was dead. Robinson was off work but once staff members found out, they began calling co-workers.
“I had quite a few people check in on me,” Robinson said.
Tyler was working that Saturday because of a special event when she received a text from Catherine Pearson, who had gotten her number from another person in Tyler and A’s group of friends.
“That was really out of the blue, and I knew something had happened,” Tyler said. She went into a back room and called Catherine Pearson.
“Catherine told me, and I was a wreck,” Tyler said. “I mean like, how do you even process that kind of information? You know, they were 22 years old. It just was completely and absolutely insane.”
Tyler and several friends had a two-hour group call, but Tyler said it was “very isolating” the week before the funeral with her and other of Pearson’s friends scattered abroad.
At JCPL, director Julia Turpin quickly made the call to close for the rest of the weekend after Saturday morning’s news. Robinson said she’s still trying to process Pearson’s death nearly two months after it happened.
“When we came back to work on Monday, obviously a very somber Monday, but we were all pulling together and working together and drawing strength from each other, and so I am so very grateful for coworkers like that,” she said.
Pearson’s co-workers have created an homage of sorts in the library’s break room. It’s a wall filled with pieces of Pearson’s art and other memorabilia related to their late friend.
At ETSU, an A Pearson prize has been established for an upcoming film festival, and Lange said an assignment in her narrative film class will be based on a short film Pearson made. The Pearson family has also established an A Pearson scholarship fund at ETSU.
“It’s small solace to this loss,” Lange said. “Because, you know, you just can’t replace this person, but we’re trying ways to honor A’s work and the life (of) a remarkable, wonderful person.”
Tyler said the group of friends scattered through Georgia, Maryland and Tennessee tries to call each other at least weekly.
“We’re always texting, we’re always trying to make sure that we’re okay,” Tyler said. “And leading up to the funeral I mean, it was just a lot of shock … I remember I cried on and off for like the first day and a half, maybe two days. And then just kind of had no idea how to handle it. Because I’ve never been through a loss like this or really any loss at all. And I know a lot of my friends haven’t either. I mean we’re still pretty young.”
At Catherine Pearson’s house, little Wendy is saying Dubba more than ever.
“Some of A’s stuff is in my house,” Pearson said. “She goes around saying, ‘Dubba’s this, Dubba’s that.'”
She realizes Wendy is far too young to understand what’s happened, and in the meantime is struggling to process the reality of A’s death herself.
“It still doesn’t feel real, and part of that is it was so sudden.”
Catherine Pearson, who paused for long periods when talking about A’s death, said she speaks with Tyler some to try and process it together. And the babysitter from when Catherine and A were young attended the funeral and was very kind.
“She’s talked to me about everything that’s going on and helping to process and lean on each other in that. There are people around that I’m talking to.”
Memories may be all that’s left — but they’re good
Robinson, Catherine Pearson and Tyler all spoke at length about how Pearson’s passion for art and their memories of time spent together with such a kind person leave them with at least something to hold to in the midst of a sadness they haven’t shaken.
Lange said knowing Pearson’s personality and talent, and the way Pearson was choosing to live close to home, raised some deep questions.
“It’s an interesting question like, ‘what does it mean to live a meaningful life? And what does success mean?’ And I have no doubt that A could have been successful.
“Sometimes we say, ‘I want to make my own films’ like the only thing that means success is I make a big Hollywood blockbuster, but there’s a lot of gradation in between. There’s another kind of success, which is working in this industry, and I have no doubt that A would have had the success to do that.
“And I would say A, in the meantime, did live a beautiful life of being kind and generous with others, cultivating community, so certainly was meaningful to our community and no doubt would have had various degrees of success moving forward.”