Toymaker killed by alleged DUI driver remembered as family waits for justice

Jun 3, 2023, 11:24 AM | Updated: 3:17 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — As Salt Lake Bees fans entered the gates of Smith’s Ballpark Thursday, they made their way up the concrete steps. Halfway up, a young boy and girl stopped a few fans to offer a free gift.

“Would you or anyone in your family want a free car?” the boy asked. Finn Merrill, 11, extended out a wooden car painted blue with a whimsical happy face drawn on it.
His sister, 9-year-old Priya Merrill, also offered up free toy cars.

They were handing out dozens of cars with their mom and dad, Julie and Jason Merrill, as part of a larger group of volunteers.

“From Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory,” Julie explained, to one baseball fan. “We’re all volunteers with them, and we just make these, and donate them to local hospitals. And we just try to get them in as many kids’ hands as possible.”

Tiny Tim’s Foundation for Kids founder Alton Thacker sat at a table inside the stadium that showed pictures of children in Zimbabwe holding the same wooden toy cars. He explained that three female professional golfers from Zimbabwe take 40,000 toy cars over there to distribute every year.

They typically give away more than 100,000 cars a year to children all over the world, he explained.

He loves to see the smiles on children’s faces.

“We say: Take wood that would be wasted and make a toy for a little mind, so a little mind won’t be wasted,” Thacker said. “Because when you play with a little toy, you imagine. And if it has a face on it, you’re talking to it.”

Thacker’s cousin, Nile Thacker, understood that mission. As one of Tiny Tim’s most dedicated volunteers, the 75-year-old devoted 60 to 70 hours a week to the foundation.

Volunteers could often catch him at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in West Jordan. Perhaps they would see him bringing in a new shipment of donated scrap wood from a cabinet maker, or he’d be overseeing the assembly of the cars by making sure the wheels were on just right.

“He really dove into this place,” said Julie Merrill, Thacker’s daughter. “Every aspect of it I think, I feel, was touched by him in some way.”

In early December, as Thacker drove a load of 1,000 cars to hospitals around the Salt Lake Valley, he was hit and killed while waiting at the stoplight on 9000 South and Bangerter Highway.

“A Dodge pickup truck came down the offramp at very high speeds around 90 mph,” Merrill said. She said there were no signs of stopping.

The truck hit Nile’s truck on the driver’s side, pushing it across the lanes of traffic and sending the 1,000 Tiny Tim’s cars everywhere across the intersection.

Merrill said her dad had no chance of survival. He died on the scene.

She would later find out that police suspected the driver who hit and killed her father, 72-year-old Asael Paul Lyman, was under the influence of alcohol. Merrill said Lyman had a 6-year-old child in his truck with him, and both of them were not seriously injured in the crash.

But charges in Nile’s death weren’t filed until late April. That entire time, the family waited for Lyman’s arrest.

“It’s a hard thing for anyone to have to face,” Merrill said. “I would never want anyone to have to go through this.”

Lyman wasn’t arrested on the charges until early May.

He’s now in the Salt Lake County Jail on charges that include felony negligently operating a vehicle resulting in death, driving under the influence with a passenger under 16 years old, reckless driving, failure to obey traffic control devices and failure to stay in one lane. According to the charging document, Lyman’s son told police that Lyman “has a history of drinking too much alcohol.”

Merrill hopes to spread a message against drinking and driving, and for people to keep their friends and family members accountable.

“It was preventable. You know, this type of thing is so preventable,” Merrill said. “So, educate your kids, educate your grandparents. Just, everyone should be more open and to talk about problems that somebody might have. Or I mean, get a breathalyzer, put it in your own car, take your own initiative to be safe and to keep our community safe.”

The family is now waiting for the justice system to move forward. Lyman is scheduled to appear before a judge on June 7.

Meanwhile, volunteers continue building cars at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory, albeit with a huge, empty hole in their volunteer family.

Husband and wife Scott and Kris Neville talked about how they still expect to see Nile’s truck parked at the factory when they show up to help out.

Kris said “there’s something missing” without Nile.

“Nile is one of those heroes that wore his cape backwards, and in the form of a work apron all the time,” she said.

Julie and her husband Jason now volunteer more frequently at Tiny Tim’s in Nile’s honor. Julie wears her father’s apron “cape” as she sands cars, smoothing them down for little hands to play with.

“He’s just greatly missed,” Merrill said, getting emotional. ” I can’t even count how many people have come up to me and just given me big hugs and cried since he left us.”

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Toymaker killed by alleged DUI driver remembered as family waits for justice