Lee Norman Ranclaud pleads guilty to manslaughter over hit-and-run death of Jennifer Bates at Wickham

SWERVING and speeding, screaming and punching the steering wheel, Lee Norman Ranclaud seemed destined to cause a serious crash as he came “flying” over the Cowper Street bridge on the morning of December 14, 2016.

And coming the other way, on her scooter and on her way to work, was Jennifer Bates, 36, a respected architect, volunteer, passionate environmentalist and a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Related: Making sense of tragedy

But before he caused the crash that killed Ms Bates, and before he fled the scene prior to police arriving, as many as eight witnesses had seen Ranclaud driving erratically, speeding, stalling, swerving, swearing and “fishtailing” all over the road. 

The details of the lead-up to Ms Bates’ tragic death can be revealed after Ranclaud, 32, of North Lambton, pleaded guilty in Newcastle Local Court on Wednesday to manslaughter and a charge of failing to stop and assist after a fatal crash. 

Ranclaud was under the influence of methylamphetamine and cannabis at the time of the crash, with Dr Judith Perl, a forensic pharmacologist, opining that the 0.11mg/L concentration of ice in his blood would have “impaired” Ranclaud’s driving, according to a Crown case statement. 

The first report of Ranclaud driving erratically on December 14, 2016, came through at 6.30am – about three hours before the fatal crash. 

A woman spotted Ranclaud’s ute speeding near the intersection of Frederick Street and Berner Street in Merewether.

TRAGIC: The scene of the crash that killed Jennifer Bates at Wickham on December 14 last year. On Wednesday, Lee Norman Ranclaud pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

TRAGIC: The scene of the crash that killed Jennifer Bates at Wickham on December 14 last year. On Wednesday, Lee Norman Ranclaud pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

She saw him again in Llewellyn Street a few minutes later and watched as he turned into Windsor Street and took off. The woman called the police and later recognised the ute in a news report about the fatal crash.

At about 8am, Ranclaud, a plasterer, arrived for work at a job site on Cowper Street, Carrington.

He appeared flustered, was hyperventilating and “looked like he was going to cry”, workmates said. 

He stormed off the job site about 45 minutes after arriving, barging into another worker, who watched as Ranclaud tried to start his car a number of times before “violently and erratically” speeding away.

A number of witnesses say they saw Ranclaud’s ute speeding, "fishtailing” and swerving from one side of the road to the other as it headed along Cowper Street towards the bridge. 

One driver had to take “evasive action”; slamming his car into the gutter just to get out of Ranclaud’s way. He later told police Ranclaud appeared to be accelerating while his car was completely on the wrong side of the road and said he saw Ranclaud punching the steering wheel. 

Another woman walking her dog saw the ute “absolutely flying” up the Carrington side of the Cowper Street bridge. 

The ute then swerved to the right to get around a slow-moving car, clipped the median strip and proceeded straight into the roundabout without “braking or looking”, witnesses said. 

The ute mounted the roundabout, went up onto two wheels, swerved left and right before hitting the median strip on the other side of the roundabout and colliding with Ms Bates on her scooter and then a fence.

Ranclaud’s guilty pleas were an emotional development for Ms Bates’ family, who have sat in the public gallery for every one of Ranclaud’s court appearances. 

Outside the courtroom, and after Ranclaud had entered the guilty pleas, Ms Bates’ mother, Kathyrn Bennett, embraced DPP solicitor Hamish Fitzhardinge. 

“The family is relieved that the accused has pleaded guilty,” Ms Bennett said. 

“It helps to acknowledge the reality of what happened on December 14, 2016. “It doesn’t alleviate our grief but it minimises further trauma from the case being taken to trial.”

Ms Bates’ husband, Jordi Bates, said her death had left a huge hole. “What is justice in your eyes?” Mr Bates said.

“I’ve been asked that question a lot.

“Something the DPP told me; don’t consider it justice, think of it as a penalty system.

“This driver has impacted not only on me, but also on Jen’s parents, on the hundreds of Jen’s friends, the Newcastle community as a whole, the organisations Jen worked with.

“It’s caused massive disruption at Jen’s work.

“We want the seriousness of this event to be recognised, so people can acknowledge this isn’t right in our society.

“This sort of behaviour is not acceptable in our society, the punishment needs to acknowledge that.

“What does justice mean? “It’s a very difficult thing to define.”

LOSS: Jennifer Bates' mother, Kathryn Bennett, lays a teddy bear at her funeral service at the Hunter Wetlands Centre in December last year. Picture: Marina Neil

LOSS: Jennifer Bates' mother, Kathryn Bennett, lays a teddy bear at her funeral service at the Hunter Wetlands Centre in December last year. Picture: Marina Neil