Jason’s Journey: Extra Fuel and the Lost Highway

Note:  For those of you already familiar with the case, pardon me while I recap.  For those not familiar, there is a great deal more to read about this case in the search warrants and in previously posted blog entries on this site.

Michelle Young was murdered in her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 3, 2006, sometime between midnight and 6:00 am.  The pregnant mother was attacked in her bedroom and beaten to death with a blunt object.  Cassidy, the Youngs’ 2 1/2 year old daughter, was left unharmed in the home.  The murder was discovered by Michelle’s sister, Meredith Fisher, who was sent to the scene on an errand by Michelle’s husband, Jason. Jason Young’s alibi is that he was out of town on a business trip when his wife was murdered.  Nevertheless, a grand jury indicted him on charges of first degree murder in December of 2009, and he is due to stand trial in May of this year.

Jason Young left home on Thursday, November 2, 2006, stopping at the Handee Hugo convenience store where he fueled up his Ford Explorer at 7:32 pm before setting off.  His meeting was scheduled for 10:00 am the following morning at Dickenson Community Hospital in Clintwood, Virginia.  After driving about 80 miles, Young stopped to eat a late supper at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Greensboro, North Carolina.  At approximately 10:50 pm, Young rented a room for the night at the Hampton Inn in Hillsville, Virginia.  About an hour later, Young is seen again in the hotel lobby, this time in different clothing than he was wearing upon arrival.  Search warrants indicate that investigators believe Young tampered with a stairwell security camera, a side exit door, and the door to his room before leaving the hotel around midnight to return to Raleigh and commit the murder. 

As previously stated, Jason’s Thursday morning meeting was scheduled to begin at 10:00 am.  However, he arrived more than half an hour late at 10:35 am.  A cell phone ping indicated that he was just southwest of Wytheville Virginia at 7:40 am — approximately 112 miles from his destination.  Using Bing Maps calculations, he should have arrived at Dickenson Community Hospital by 9:50 am — a couple of hours later, yet it took him nearly three hours.  Reportedly, Jason told friends the reason that he was late was because he got lost.  This lost time translates to perhaps 30-50 additional miles of driving.

The following images show a possible scenario for Jason’s lost time and mileage.  On the map, the route A-E-C is the route Jason should have taken from Abingdon, Virginia, where he left I-81, to Dickenson Community Hospital in Clintwood.  Missing the left turn at marker E would have sent him off his intended route.  Depending on how long it took him to realize his mistake, he would have had to work his way back toward Clintwood on the E-D-C route.

[Click to enlarge]
The missed turn

As you can see from the above image, it would have been easy for someone unfamiliar with the area to mistakenly continue on through the intersection rather than turning left here, as it appears that turning left would have resulted in traveling southwest whereas the direction (as the crow flies) to Clintwood is northwest.

Credit card receipts found in Young’s vehicle indicate that he purchased fuel at the Handee Hugo in Raleigh on Thursday evening and again at the Get-It Market in Duffield, Virginia, on Friday at 12:06 pm.  The route that Young would have traveled from the Handee Hugo to Dickenson Community Hospital and on to his fuel stop in Duffield is approximately 363 miles.  You could argue that this distance is doable on one tank of gas in a 2004 Ford Explorer, but you would have to ignore both the mountainous terrain that would surely have reduced his fuel efficiency and the extra miles Jason would have added to his route during the time that he was lost en route to Clintwood.  This gas mileage discrepancy supports investigators’ belief that Young made at least one additional fuel purchase between 7:32 pm on Thursday and 12:06 pm on Friday for which there is no documentation. 

Now, if you’re doing the calculations in your head, you’ve probably figured out that he needed only a few extra gallons of fuel to complete his route.  However, it would have taken almost an entire extra tank for Jason Young to drive back to Raleigh from Hillsville in the middle of the night to murder his wife and return again to the Hampton Inn the next morning — approximately 344 roundtrip miles.  The question arises, where and when did he refuel?  It probaby won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve been studying maps and satellite images and have come up with a theory.

Question: How do you purchase fuel without investigators being able to track down the secret fuel purchase later? There are four things that you would need to consider:

  1. Use cash or a prepaid card to avoid producing records that could track the purchase to you.
  2. Purchase the fuel at a location where you aren’t likely to be recognized by someone who knows you or remembered later by someone who happened to see you there.
  3. Pick a location that wouldn’t be immediately checked by investigators.  In other words, don’t buy gas near the murder scene nor near your hotel.
  4. Cover your tracks.  Your cell phone pings will tell on you. 

I’ve long been bothered by Jason’s late evening stop at the Cracker Barrel restaurant.  It’s always seemed odd that he declined to eat with Michelle, Cassidy, and Michelle’s friend, Shelly Schaad, prior to leaving home, opting instead to stop and eat at a restaurant little more than an hour down the road at such a late hour. 

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Restaurant

I’ve come to believe that the real purpose for the Cracker Barrel stop was to mask an extra fuel stop.  If investigators later wondered why his cell phone records indicated that he stopped in Greensboro, his meal at the Cracker Barrel would have been a reasonable explanation, and investigators would have had no reason to suspect that he bought more fuel again so soon after the Handee Hugo purchase.  Mind you, it would have taken only about five gallons of gas to top off his tank at that time.  However, it would have enabled him to get at least that far away from Raleigh after the murder before he needed to refuel again.  That’s the important part.  Keep in mind that during the post-murder fuel stop, Jason would not have needed to worry about covering his cell phone tracks because he had either turned off the phone or left it in his hotel room … perhaps both.

Greensboro stop:  (1) Cracker Barrel, (2) Sheetz

Incidentally, if Jason had left this location with a full tank of gas after the murder, he would have had enough fuel to make it all the way to his meeting in Clintwood and on to the Duffield fuel stop even if he had gotten lost and added an extra hour onto his drive.  At exit 124 in Greensboro (the exit Jason would have used to get to the Cracker Barrel) there is also a big convenience store that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Sheetz convenience store

Sheetz convenience stores offer a prepaid gift card in denominations of $10 to $100 in $5 increments.  The Sheetz Z-Card can be used to pay for fuel at the pump.  Being able to pay at the pump rather than going inside to make a cash purchase would have been to Jason’s great benefit in covering his tracks.  Recall that Jason’s mother, Pat Young, relayed to Wake County Sheriff’s investigators that a wallet with $500 cash was missing from Jason’s closet after Michelle’s murder.

Z-Card can be used to pay at the pump 24/7.

If my theory is correct, Jason would have made a small purchase of gas at the Sheetz store some time between 8:45 pm and 9:30 pm on Thursday evening and a much larger purchase the next morning between 5:00 and 5:45 am.  There are a few alternatives to consider regarding these purchases:

  1. He used cash at the register on Thursday evening to pay for the gas and also to buy a prepaid Z-Card to use for the post-murder refuel.
  2. On both occasions, he used a Z-Card at the pump that he had procured prior to November 2.
  3. He used cash at the register on Thursday evening but reserved the previously procured Z-Card for the post-murder refuel. 

Store records should be examined to look for cash and Z-Card purchases during those times.  If the same Z-Card was used to make both purchases, it would add to the pile of circumstantial evidence already in the hands of prosecutors.  If a Z-Card was purchased with cash at the time of the 5-gallon refuel and then used the next morning to purchase around 20 gallons of gas, this would also be evidence that would implicate Jason Young.  And if the Z-Card was purchased on another date at another location, it’s possible that other records — credit card, cell phone, etc. — could be used to place Jason at that location on that date thereby tying Jason to the Z-Card purchases.

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