KAUFMAN COUNTY, Texas — The Christmas shopping rush is on, and online orders from places like Amazon are booming. That means the pressure is on delivery drivers crisscrossing our neighborhoods.
But the rush to have packages delivered so quickly has a human cost, says the family of 30-year-old Johnathon Hearn of Mesquite.
“My brother's life is just, now, a cross on the side of the road that people pass,” said Aliesha Harman.
At 1:45 a.m. on July 12, someone called 911 to report a man was walking down Interstate 20 in Terrell. Another caller reported hitting what they thought was a deer. It was Hearn.
The story of how he ended up there begins 15 hours earlier.
The morning of June 11, Hearn clocked in at an Amazon facility in Forney and left with a truck full of packages to deliver. Like most Amazon drivers, he didn’t actually work for Amazon. His employer was a third-party delivery company called Triumph Logistics.
“From the moment that my brother got on the road that day, there were red flags,” Harman said.
Just after noon, Hearn was pulled over in Van, Texas, for reckless driving. It was the first of several times he would be pulled over that day. Hearn had gone days without his PTSD medicine and was having a mental episode. Since he appeared sober, he was sent on his way.
At 1:15 p.m., Hearn was still in Van, where he drove his Amazon truck through a customer’s yard, eventually getting stuck in the woods behind her house. The homeowner called 911.
A state trooper arrives to give Hearn a field sobriety test.
“Well, your sentences are coherent. You're not stumbling. I don't smell anything,” the trooper is heard saying to Hearn on body-worn camera footage. “Do you have any medical episodes where you black out, do you have PTSD or something?” Hearn responds: “I do have PTSD, but it's never been an issue.”
Still concerned about Hearn’s safety, the trooper follows him as he drives away. Dashboard camera footage captures the van swerving. The trooper pulls Hearn over and issues him a warning for failing to drive in a single lane. He refers his license to the state’s mental health advisory board for review, writing that Hearn is suffering from “PTSD and possible lack of medications.”
The trooper calls Hearn’s supervisors at Triumph Logistics to tell them that Hearn is unsafe to drive, and asks that someone come pick him up. They arrive and take Hearn and his van back to the Amazon facility in Forney. They don’t send Hearn home. Instead, records show, they sign him in under another driver’s name. Hearn is then put back on the road to continue his route, delivering packages across North and East Texas.
'They didn't care'
“I can't believe that anybody would even do that,” Harman said. “They didn't care.”
Hearn’s unusual behavior continues. He fails to deliver most of his packages. Instead, photos provided to WFAA show he opens some of them and fills them with trash.
WFAA obtained screenshots of internal communications with Hearn and his supervisors from that day. They show Hearn to be incomprehensible in his text messages. His supervisors reply with laughing emojis. To each other, the supervisors write: “This is bizarre behavior” and “I'm wondering if the cop was right.”
At 8:25 p.m., Hearn returns to the Amazon facility. He leaves work in his personal vehicle. He drives for hours until his truck runs out of gas on Interstate 20 in Terrell. When he tries to run across the highway to a gas station, he’s struck and killed.
“We were best friends,” his sister said. “I miss every single thing about him every single day.”
Shelby Cocking is a former dispatcher for Triumph Logistics.
“That, to me, is extreme negligence that they didn't get him off the road and get him help,” she said.
Cocking said Amazon’s delivery service partners, known as “DSPs,” like Triumph, often manipulate Amazon’s system by checking in drivers who are unfit to drive, under other drivers' names. The DSPs do it, she said, to keep their drivers on the road longer than Amazon allows, increasing the number of packages delivered and increasing the amount of money the DSP gets paid.
“I've been seeing it happen more and more,” Cocking told WFAA.
A former Triumph Logistics employee, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, agreed.
“The reason why I want to speak out is because I, myself was placed in a position to drive when I shouldn't have,” the former employee said. “I only had one eye that was operating and they still put me behind the wheel.”
Keeping drivers on the road when they shouldn’t be is a risk to the public, Cocking said. “A driver that's out on the road when they should not be could kill somebody easy,” she said. “We have kids running back and forth across the street, or, you know, playing in their neighborhoods and these guys are delivering to neighborhoods.”
John Trapani IV is the owner of Trophy Club-based Triumph Logistics, and was Hearn’s boss. He declined to answer our questions.
WFAA contacted Amazon, and a spokesperson issued a written statement:
“Our thoughts are with Mr. Hearn’s family and friends while they mourn the loss of their loved one. We are working with our Delivery Service Partner, Triumph Logistics, to fully investigate the allegations, and will take any appropriate action once that’s complete.”
“We hold our DSPs to high standards, and it’s important for us to continue working with partners who raise the bar for safety, create a positive work experience for drivers and others they work with, and deliver for Amazon customers.”
With consumer demand for home delivery increasing, delivery companies are under increasing pressure to get packages delivered quickly.
In a recent Fort Worth lawsuit involving a wage dispute with another contractor, Tenet Concepts, an Amazon driver told a judge: “You can't take bathroom breaks while you're on the road" to a customer’s house. “If you take a break, you delay the orders, we get fired."
A national labor union group, Strategic Organizing Center, recently released a report analyzing government safety data from 2017 and 2020 and found that drivers delivering for Amazon were injured on the job at higher rates than those working for competitor UPS.
"If the bosses had done the right thing and taken him off the road and not put him back out, there's no telling, there could have been a different outcome … than having to visit a cross on the side of the road,” Aliesha Harman said.
Got a news tip? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.