“Life happens, but we move on. So live.”
Esther Muhammad jotted down that note in a book of poetry her son wrote. The message was meant for Ashley Smith, the driver who accidentally hit and killed him.
Muhammad wanted Smith to have the book. But Smith, acknowledging the gesture, declined the offer. The two women have not spoken in the two years since the accident.
It happened about 1:30 a.m. Sept. 24, 2013, on a dark curve of Gray Highway near its junction with Clinton Road. Daniel Muhammad, a 25-year-old poet who went by the pen name Simbaltia, died after being hit by Smith’s Dodge Stratus.
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His death received significant attention at the time. He was well known in Macon’s creative community. What has not been reported until now, though, is that investigators believe his death was a suicide. Police believe he deliberately walked out in front of Smith’s car, in part because of a post he had made to social media indicating he wished to die.
But that’s a line of thinking his mother cannot accept.
Smith, who was 20 years old then, had just finished a late-night shift at a Sonic restaurant and was on her way to pick up a friend. They were headed to a nearby Wal-Mart. As it happens, Daniel Muhammad had just left the same Wal-Mart and was walking home.
Smith crossed into the left lane to pass a slow semi-truck, and she stayed in the lane around a bend. She hit him head on.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion, she said -- like “the moment stopped.”
“He was facing his back towards me. I saw a book bag, a beige-looking book bag. That’s what made me know it was a person,” Smith said. “I saw the shoulder straps on the book bag.”
Smith was driving about 60 mph, according to a police report. The speed limit on Gray Highway is 45 mph.
There are no streetlights in that area or sidewalks, only well-worn paths in the grass on either side of the busy highway. The nearest intersection with a crosswalk was more than a thousand feet away from the accident site. When he was hit, Daniel Muhammad was crossing in the direction of his Cherry Tree Hill apartment complex.
Muhammad believes there was nothing strange about her son’s late-night trip to the store, and she insists that the suicide speculation must be mistaken.
“It wasn’t uncommon for him to be walking the streets that early in the morning because he often hung out downtown in the nightlife,” Muhammad said. She said her son would perform his poetry at various places downtown.
About a week later, another pedestrian, Brenda Faye Johnson, was hit by a car and killed at about the same place and time of day as Daniel Muhammad.
SECOND TIME HIT
Esther Muhammad called her son’s death a “freak accident,” although it was the second pedestrian accident he had been involved in. The first one happened when he was 16. A car hit him, and the accident crushed bones in his face, his mother said.
Doctors had to re-frame his face with a metal plate. He could drive, Muhammad said, but he never overcame his fear of vehicles.
“So he walked everywhere,” she said. “Unless he caught the bus.”
She does not blame Smith, but it bothers Muhammad that Smith has never reached out to apologize.
“If I am responsible for a death, it would be upon me to go to that individual and at least acknowledge my part,” Muhammad said.
For her part, Smith does not know how to deal with the situation. When she gave her statement to police, she said they dissuaded her from contacting Daniel Muhammad’s family.
“They were like, ‘You don’t need to call them, you don’t need to apologize. It wasn’t your fault,’” Smith said.
But it all troubled Smith, especially when she learned that Daniel Muhammad had a twin.
“He was apparently a twin, and I’m a twin. I was like, ‘Oh my God! I just killed his other half,’” Smith said.
Cpl. Austin Riley, a Bibb County sheriff’s traffic fatality investigator, said he determined that the incident was a suicide after he found a Facebook status that Daniel Muhammad had posted shortly before his death, indicating suicidal intentions.
Toxicology reports showed that he had not been drinking. Riley said that further supports his belief that the case was a suicide.
Muhammad is not convinced.
“If you really understand Daniel, that’s not Daniel. And if you read his book, which most of them haven’t, you would see that he was creative in his expression of life. That’s it. Life,” Muhammad said.
She said her son had plans for the day after the accident to travel to Atlanta to pursue an opportunity in the entertainment field.
Daniel Muhammad’s poems are filled with themes of life and death, love and loss, so even his poetry became a point of suspicion with police after his death, Muhammad said.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform published Daniel Muhammad’s book of poetry, “That Really Speaks. Inspired, Something,” last year.
He wrote his first poem while he was in the hospital after being hit by a car the first time. In the book, he writes that it was the best poem he ever wrote.
The poem, titled “Why,” repeats three questions throughout, asking God: “Why? Why am I still here? What is my true calling?”
At the end of the poem, God answers.
“He said, ‘Listen to yourself, you are already doing it.’’’