At 1:30 a.m. on February 12, Lisa Pembleton woke to the sound of a man pleading for help. Groggy in the chill of a winter morning, she was bundled inside a thin metal camper. Thick, rural darkness surrounded her. No streetlights or glowing living rooms disturbed the view. Her beloved horses, Geno and Jubal, asleep in the stables beside her, were her only companions amid the acres of generous fields off 120th Avenue South. Four months earlier, she'd road-tripped down from California to study horse training behind the dauntingly green hedges of Wellington.
To find her, the man had hopped a fence and trampled down a sand-gravel road, tracking white dust on the soles of his cowboy boots. He knocked on the flimsy camper door and appeared in her bedroom like a dilapidated ghost, wearing jeans and an unbuttoned suit jacket.
"I was just in an accident, and I need to use your phone," he sputtered.
Pembleton, 26, was not a cynical woman. She had trusting eyes, a sunny smile, and an abiding faith in God. She shunned alcohol and paid rapt attention to the gospel on Sundays. But she was no idiot.
This man's eyes were bloodshot. He was tripping over his words. He held an iPhone and its dead battery in his hand. Beneath his brown, J. Crew-style haircut, his forehead was bruised, his wrist swollen.
Pembleton kept the lights off. She scrambled for her Mace. "I didn't know who he was, or if he was telling the truth," she wrote later on her blog.
A week earlier, she'd had the strangest dream: A man broke into her camper, saying he needed the phone. In the dream, she found her Mace and kicked him out but felt terribly guilty afterward. This time, "by God's grace, my response was different," she wrote.
She put down the Mace and handed over her cell phone so the man could call his girlfriend, Heather Colby, in Georgia. Pembleton heard him say that "he had really effed up, and he didn't know what he should do."
He was tall and affable, clean-shaven but bumbling. He sat on Pembleton's couch and asked if he sounded drunk.
"What should I do now?" he wondered.
Call 911, Pembleton advised. But the man didn't move. He explained to Pembleton that he had "drank a few," according to her interview with sheriff's investigators.
"He was very hesitant, as he did not want to get into trouble," Pembleton wrote later. "But after some encouragement, he called."
"I hit something, and it had to have been another car," the man told the dispatcher. "I'm just at somebody's barn. I feel horrible. And they think I'm crazy."
Pembleton walked with the man down the road, toward the crash site. Before he left, he pulled out a wad of bills and tried to hand them to her. "I don't need your money," she said. He stuffed his hand back in his pocket.
Only later, after the flashing lights sliced through the inky darkness, did Pembleton learn that the dark-haired stranger was John Goodman, a 46-year-old multimillionaire trust-fund heir and polo hero of Wellington.
The "something" he'd hit was a Hyundai driven by 23-year-old Scott Patrick Wilson, a University of Central Florida graduate who had been driving home to Wellington to visit his family. The force of the crash capsized Wilson's car, tossing it into a drainage ditch. Trapped in the driver's seat for nearly an hour as Pembleton and Goodman talked, Wilson drowned before rescuers could reach him.
It was, as Goodman told his girlfriend, an "end-of-the-world accident." The story would soon attract national attention as a saga about money and justice, pitting an überrich playboy against the modest family of an aspiring young engineer.
Pembleton was a crucial postaccident witness. In the ensuing days and weeks, she turned away an avalanche of reporters who clamored to hear her story. Then she left town to continue her horse training in Vermont.
"The only thing I regret," she wrote, "is while I was with [Goodman] for about a half hour, before the authorities came, I never prayed with him."
Indeed, Goodman walked away that evening free of judgment, at least in the legal sense. He was not arrested or charged with any crime.
Goodman had grown up around horses in Houston, although not the polo kind. His father, the late Harold Goodman, raised racing thoroughbreds. Dad had also built a heating and air conditioning manufacturing business that made him among the 100 richest men in Texas. His four children, two sons and two daughters, would live off his success for the rest of their lives. Built more like a longshoreman than a jockey, John Goodman didn't originally gravitate toward the gentleman's sport of polo. As a kid, he played football and lacrosse. He attended a boarding school in Massachusetts and the private Wesley College in Delaware.