On the afternoon of Jan. 17, 2016, Kelli Putnam had been in the stands cheering the Panthers to a playoff win against Seattle.
Several hours later and a few miles away, the 28-year-old New York transplant – still dressed in Panthers’ game-day black – stepped off the curb into South Boulevard and was struck by a speeding Audi. By the time her body came to a halt, Putnam had been catapulted 191 feet.
On Monday, this and other details of Putnam’s death dominated the opening day of testimony in the trial of the Charlotte man who’d been driving the car that day – a man, prosecutors say, who had a history of drinking and getting behind the wheel.
Greg Wheeling is accused of second-degree murder in connection with Putnam’s death. If convicted, the 32-year-old faces up to 16 years in prison. His trial is expected to extend into next week.
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During opening arguments, the Providence High School graduate sat impassively before rows of family and friends as a prosecutor described how Wheeling and Putnam had both been participants in one of the city’s most celebrated days of professional football – and how a series of reckless and unlawful decisions by Wheeling, the prosecutor argued, had ended Putnam’s life.
Wheeling, according to assistant district attorneys Heidi Perlman and Desmond McCallum, already had a DWI conviction from 2010 that prohibited him from driving with anything higher than a .04 blood-alcohol level. Yet Wheeling drank throughout the playoff game at Whiskey Warehouse, a Plaza Midwood bar. After the collision, his blood-alcohol level was found to be .13, more than three times his restricted limit, Perlman said.
When the game ended and his group was about to leave the bar, Wheeling begrudgingly gave his keys to a designated driver, Ashley Campbell, for the ride to drop off friends at the I-485 light-rail station, Campbell testified. But as Campbell drove the unfamiliar, high-powered sports car through unfamiliar streets, Wheeling pushed down on her right knee to compress the car’s accelerator and make the car go faster, she testified.
“He said, ‘Kick it. Give it what you got. Feel what it can do,’ ” Campbell, a registered nurse and one of the six people in the Audi S4 that day, told the 12 jurors. “It made me super uncomfortable. I just said, ‘Stop.’ I think he was aggravated at me.”
When the group pulled into the Shell station at East and South boulevards for a bathroom stop, Josh Siff, Campbell’s date that day, said Wheeling ordered Campbell to turn over his keys.
“I’m going to drive my own f---ing car,” Wheeling said, according to Siff.
Wheeling pulled back onto South Boulevard and accelerated. Within the next mile, Siff and Campbell testified, Wheeling drove at 60 mph or more, slaloming in and around traffic that was still flowing out of uptown after the game. The speed limit on South Boulevard is 35.
Siff, who was now in the front passenger seat, testified that he turned to look out his side window because he was so disturbed by Wheeling’s driving. He said he saw a woman dressed in black appear on the sidewalk. Then there was a crash.
In her opening argument, Perlman described the scene – returning time and time again to the distance Putnam’s body was thrown. She said some bystanders were in shock. Others prayed.
“The defendant? He went back to his car and got some gum,” Perlman told jurors.
In their report, police said “speed and alcohol” had been a factor in the collision. In an unusual twist to his opening remarks, defense attorney George Laughrun asked jurors to apply the same standards to Putnam.
She, like Wheeling, had been drinking throughout the day, Laughrun said. After the game, Putnam and boyfriend Bronsyn Stewart had made stops at Tavern on the Tracks and the Gin Mill on their walk toward Mac’s Speed Shop, where Putnam was a longtime waitress. After her death, Putnam’s blood-alcohol level was later recorded at .20.
According to Laughrun, witnesses will testify during the trial that Putnam was walking very fast and “reeking of alcohol” just before she veered off the sidewalk. On the witness stand, Siff described how the woman dressed in black darted unexpected into the middle of the street.
“Without warning, she ran in front of the car. She never stopped. She never looked in your direction?” Laughrun asked.
“Yessir,” Siff replied.
As the jury watched, Laughrun also walked Campbell a series of inconsistencies in her testimony and what she earlier told police and prosecutors about the events of the day, and what had been seen and said in the speeding car. After Campbell admitted that she lied to police about the number of people riding in the car to protect a friend who had fled the scene, Laughrun fired back. “What else are you lying about?”
Campbell testified that after Wheeling took over the wheel, she yelled at him from the back seat to slow down.
She said Wheeling’s girlfriend, who was sitting alongside her that day, told her that he drove that way all the time.