Man sentenced to 24 years for killing Chesapeake track star in fiery car crash

CHESAPEAKE — A Hampton man was sentenced Tuesday to 24 years in prison for causing a fiery car crash that killed a Chesapeake honors student and track star.

The sentence issued to Jonathan Earls, 31, by Circuit Judge Andrew D. Kubovcik was the most that state sentencing guidelines recommended. The guidelines suggest a sentence based on a defendant’s background and the circumstances of the crime.

The crash occurred July 18, 2021, on Interstate 64 and resulted in the death of Jahsani Jean-Baptiste. The 18-year-old had just graduated a few weeks before from Western Branch High School. His family said he was planning to start school at Wingate University that fall on athletic and academic scholarships.

According to a statement of facts entered in the case, Earls was speeding and driving erratically around 12:30 a.m. with no headlights or taillights on when he swerved in front of a police car on the High Rise Bridge. The officer pulled Earls over and was walking to his vehicle when Earls sped off.

At times, Earls was driving up to 120 mph and swerving between other vehicles as the officer chased after him, the statement said. The pursuit ended when Earls crashed the Chrysler 200 he was driving into Jean-Baptiste’s Honda Accord. The car’s data system showed he was traveling at 103 mph when the collision occurred.

Earls got out of his car, jumped a guardrail and ran into the woods, the statement said. Police were checking on Jean-Baptiste, and had found a pulse on him, when his car burst into flames. A medical examiner later determined he died from thermal burns and smoke inhalation, the statement said.

Officers were unable to locate Earls that night, but tracked the car to his family. He denied being involved in the crash — and claimed the car had been stolen — but was later linked to it when his DNA was found on the vehicle’s airbag.

Jean-Baptiste’s mother, Sofia Jean-Baptiste, testified Tuesday that she and her husband had been on a “date night” in Virginia Beach the night their son was killed. Their car got towed and they called Jahsani to come pick them up and take them to get it, she said. Afterward, they stopped to get some gas for Jahsani’s car and were heading home when they came upon the crash that killed him.

The car was too badly damaged and burned to tell if it was his, she said, but she had a “mother’s instinct” that it was. After he failed to answer his phone, and wasn’t at home when they got there, they went looking for him, she said. Eventually they learned he’d been killed.

Jean-Baptiste wept as she told the judge how much Jahsani meant to his parents and siblings. She described him as a leader and role model who was very focused on his education and family.

“He was beyond a blessing to me,” she said. “Living without him — it’s just a very painful life.”

Jahsani’s father, Jeff Jean-Baptiste, testified he gave his son a kiss as they were leaving the gas station that night, and told him he’d see him when they got home.

“We miss him dearly,” Jean-Baptiste said. “It is a major loss.”

Earls testified during Tuesday’s hearing that the reason he sped off after the officer pulled him over was because he had a gun in the car. As a convicted felon, he isn’t allowed to have one. He also admitted to throwing a liquor bottle out a window as police pursued him.

“I know I messed up,” Earls said. “I apologize for that. I truly apologize.”

Jane Harper, jane.harper@pilotonline.com