Community calls for answers in 2020 unsolved hit-and-run death
VNO Staff Report
By Erica Morse, Christine Salzer, & Clinton Dunn
Published 7:00 p.m., May 4, 2023
Editor’s note: The conversation between Mike Galvan and Christopher Willoughby was in the form of a text message exchange, not a phone call. Galvan’s quote has also been split to separate the text message from his interview with Excise. VNO apologies for the error, and has corrected it below.
This report — the first in a series — follows a two-and-a-half-year investigation by the teams of Victims News Online and Moms on a Mission, in conjunction with the victim’s family, following the hit-and-run death of Tara Stevens. More than 50 in-depth interviews have been conducted thus far, including eyewitness statements and first-hand accounts of events leading up to – and after – the crash. Victims News Online and it’s Publisher, Erica Morse, accept all responsibility and liability for the information collected and reported in this series.
(MICHIGAN CITY, INDIANA) — Just after midnight on Saturday, September 12, 2020, Tara Lynn Stevens was crossing the street, when she was suddenly thrown into the air, apparently struck by a vehicle.
Tara’s friend Mike Galvan, who was walking a few feet ahead, was not injured, but remembers nothing about who or what hit Tara.
“One minute we were walking, then she flew up in the air, and landed on the road”, Mike told Victims News Online in a March 2022 interview. “I never saw what hit her”.
Tara’s injuries were critical: she had extensive damage to her right hip and torso area, a significant brain bleed, and was unconscious from the crash. She was airlifted to Memorial Hospital of South Bend, where she underwent numerous surgeries.
At the time of the crash, Tara was walking towards Creekside Bar & Grill, a local bar where a benefit fundraiser was being held for one of her friends.
Although there were approximately 80 people in attendance at the time of the crash — both inside and outside — no one stepped forward to say they witnessed the incident.
Police released little information in the days following the crash, initially believed to have been an accident. It was just after midnight, the roadway was dark, and Tara and Mike were crossing near the center line at an angle. It was also feared the driver could have been speeding and/or intoxicated. Reports began to surface there may have actually been two vehicles involved, not one. Rumors of two vehicles racing soon began spreading, as everyone wondered who was responsible.
Ten days after the crash, on September 22nd, 2020, Tara Stevens succumbed to her injuries.
The morning after the collision, the friend Tara was walking with told VNO he received a text message from one of the owners of Creekside Bar & Grill. According to Mike Galvan, one of the bar owners, Chris Willoughby, asked him only one question: ‘Which direction were you and Tara walking when she was hit’? Galvan told him they were walking towards the bar at the time of the crash.
“I thought it was strange, Mike Galvan told VNO in 2022. “He never asked how I was doing, or how Tara was doing. He only wanted to know if we were headed back to the bar”.
At first, Galvan told VNO, he thought the bar owner was attempting to look for him and Tara on video footage to help identify the driver or the vehicle.
Mike Galvan and Tara Stevens had been at Creekside earlier in the evening but left to attend a private party. It was upon their return that they were crossing the street, to re-join their friends inside. Approximately three weeks after the crash, Galvan received a call from Indiana Excise asking to be interviewed about the crash. It was at that time he considered the text message from bar owner/attorney Chris Willoughby may have been an issue of liability.
Tara Stevens was laid to rest on Wednesday, September 29th, 2020. On the day of her funeral, that same bar owner, who also happens to be a prominent local attorney, filed her will at the LaPorte County Courthouse.
“He was a friend of my Dad’s, and I needed my Dad’s help with this stuff”, Micaela Hackett told VNO.
Micaela Hackett told VNO that, at the request of their father, the bar owner, Chris Willoughby filed her mother’s estate. The eldest daughter of Tara and her ex-husband, Michael Hackett, Micaela turned to her father for financial guidance and advice after her mother’s unexpected death. Willoughby had also represented Mike Hackett in his 2015 divorce against Tara Stevens. Tara and Mike created a will during their marriage that was never changed after their divorce, and Mike was still named the Representative. Therefore, Tara’s ex-husband, Michael Hackett — along with the couple’s oldest daughter, Micaela Hackett — were named Co-Representative of Tara’s estate, which was being handled by the bar owner and local attorney, Chris Willoughby.
Tara’s estate was filed at the LaPorte County Courthouse in Michigan City. The filing stated Tara Lynn Stevens was a resident of LaPorte County, Indiana, at the time of her death:
However, at the time of her death, Tara Stevens was a resident of neighboring St. Joseph County, not LaPorte County. After her 2015 divorce, she purchased a home in Mishawaka, Indiana, making her a St. Joseph County, Indiana, resident.
Indiana probate code is clear as to where the estate should be filed. According to Hillbrich Law Firm – as well as more than 50 other law firm websites in the state of Indiana, the estate must be filed in the county where the decedent resided:
However, Tara’s estate was filed in LaPorte County. According to court documents, also on October 6, 2020 – the same day of the the initial erroneous filing – the first petition to probate Tara’s will was amended and changed to correct the inaccurate claim of Tara’s residency status from that of a LaPorte County resident to ‘domiciled in the state of Indiana’.
Tara’s daughters told Victims News Online they were unaware the estate should have been filed in St. Joseph County. According to Micaela and Olivia Hackett, they do not recall a discussion with the attorney regarding where the will should have been filed. Neither do the girls recall signing a conflict of waiver document regarding Willoughby’s ownership in Creekside Bar, towards which Tara was walking at the time she was hit.
Victims News Online spoke with five attorneys from St. Joseph County and LaPorte County who specialize in Indiana estate law. When provided with the details of the hit-and-run crash in front of the bar – along with the estate filing in LaPorte County — and asked if it would be considered a conflict of interest, all five refused comment, stating they either did not want to “get involved”, or were inclined not to comment on such a situation.
According to Rule 1.7 of the Indiana Rules of Court – Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney cannot represent one client when it conflicts with the financial interests of another:
Rule 1.7. Conflict of Interest: Current Clients
(a) Except as provided in paragraph (b), a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest. A concurrent conflict of interest exists if:
(1) the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or
(2) there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.
(b) Notwithstanding the existence of a concurrent conflict of interest under paragraph (a), a lawyer may represent a client if:
(1) the lawyer reasonably believes that the lawyer will be able to provide competent and diligent representation to each affected client;
(2) the representation is not prohibited by law;
(3) the representation does not involve the assertion of a claim by one client against another client represented by the lawyer in the same litigation or other proceeding before a tribunal; and
(4) each affected client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.
After the estate was closed, Tara’s criminal case began to stall. Nine days after her death, on October 1, 2020, the Michigan City Police Department (MCPD) released a stock photo and description of what they said was the suspect vehicle.
The vehicle was described as a 2010-2017 GMC Terrain with possible damage to the front right (passenger) headlight assembly unit.
While the GMC Terrain appeared to be the primary vehicle of interest, rumors were still spreading that a second vehicle – a white SUV – may have also been involved in striking Tara. As often happens in the bar scene, patrons began talking, and word spread to our team that the community may not be hearing the full story.
It was at that time we decided to investigate.
On October 22nd, 2020, one month after Tara passed away, the Justice for Tara Stevens Facebook page was created by our teams, with the goal of crowd-sourcing information from the events surrounding Tara’s death, in an effort to find her killer(s).
Within days of the crowd-gathering effort beginning, information began pouring in from members of the community that caused Tara’s family – and our team – concern that a cover-up may be involved. Wet met with Tara’s siblings, and eventually her daughters, and received their blessing to aggressively investigate specific allegations being made against individuals with ties to the bar where Tara was hit.
Heather Rolling is the owner of Justice Warrior Investigations in Nashville, Tennessee, who is known for taking on cases where a cover-up has been alleged. She is also the star of Investigation Discovery’s hit series, “Secrets, Lies & Private Eyes”, about a team of female private investigators who solve cold cases to help families find answers. Rolling told Victims News Online that it is often difficult to prove a cover-up in a case, because those involved “deny, deny, deny”.
“Where there is corruption on the lower end of the totem poll, it always seems to go all the way to the top” Rolling said. “The hard truth is that the justice system applies to everyone differently depending on 1. Who they know; 2. Their status; and 3. How much money they have. Families all over the country are being denied justice for crimes committed against them and/or loved ones. It flies in the face of what this country is supposed to stand for.”
Our team was already skeptical about the lack of a single witness to a crash with more than 80 attendees, at an event with hundreds of videos and pictures, where people were constantly coming and going; but then, a bizarre encounter at an unrelated fundraiser unexpectedly heated up this mysterious cold case. It all began with a conversation that took place at Legacy Hills Golf Club in LaPorte, Indiana, on Sunday, August 29, 2021 – nearly one year after the crash – involving a bartender from Creekside Bar & Grill.
Anyone with information regarding the death of Tara Stevens is asked to call Corporal Brian Wright of the Michigan City Police Department at (219) 874-3221.
Stay with Victims News Online for continuing updates, as well as the next article in this series, regarding the unsolved hit-and-run death of Tara Stevens. Editor’s note: phone calls and social media messages left for Attorney Christopher Willoughby went unreturned. An in-person message left for Corporal Brian Wright at the front desk of the Michigan City Police Department by our team on Tuesday, May 2, 2023, has also gone unreturned.
1 thought on “Community calls for answers in 2020 unsolved hit-and-run death”
Great job. Remarkable piece!