Making a claim for fatal accident compensation is always best done with the support and assistance of a specialised personal injury claims solicitor.
By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
Two years ago, a 28-year-old postal worker named Bryant Wilkerson was hit by a drunk driver, a teenage girl who'd been partying with her friends all day on the Salt River and had the blood alcohol content to prove it.
That day, Wilkerson's life changed forever, but not in the way you might think. This, after all, is Maricopa County. We don't do things according to Hoyle. Our idea of "justice" is straight out of Kafka.
So despite the teen driver's intoxication, and despite testimony from numerous witnesses that she'd illegally attempted to pass Wilkerson by speeding over double yellow lines into a no-passing zone, sheriff's deputies decided that Wilkerson was to blame for the collision and the death of the teen's passenger. A report from the sheriff's department six months after the crash raised serious questions about that assessment. But the County Attorney's Office has continued to cling to its original notion of the case.
In the prosecutors' telling, then, Wilkerson is the bad guy, and the drunk teenager, Laura Varker, is the victim. Charged with everything from manslaughter (for supposedly causing the death of Varker's 15-year-old passenger) to endangerment (for putting Varker, the teen drunk, at risk), Wilkerson could be looking at two decades in prison.
Wilkerson is black. Varker, the teenage girl he collided with two years ago this May, is white. I know I'm not the only person wondering whether that's played a role in the way the county attorney has handled this case.
Indeed, it was truly weird to watch the details unfold as Wilkerson's trial began last week in Maricopa County Superior Court.
For one thing: Where else will you ever see the County Attorney's Office attempt to downplay underage drinking?
The lead prosecutor, Rene MacGregor, used her opening argument to lambaste Wilkerson for drinking on the day of the accident — but when it came to Varker, she noted only that her party of girlfriends was "doing what they wanted to do at the river that day — which was have fun." Yes, MacGregor conceded, "there was some alcohol." Then she quickly changed the subject back to Wilkerson, explaining that he'd drunk beer, smoked pot, and showed signs of impairment, according to the cops. He was supposedly having tremors. Why, there was a strong odor of alcohol on his breath!
Never once did she mention that Wilkerson's blood alcohol content, taken at roughly the same time as Varker's, was significantly lower than the teen's. Nor did she mention that Wilkerson, unlike Varker, was well within the legal limits. Not relevant? Hardly.
Meanwhile, the jury has heard from witness after witness attempting to convince them that then-17-year-old Varker, who was legally barred from having any alcohol in her bloodstream, wasn't staggering or stammering. Oh, they say, she was just fine. Never mind that her blood alcohol content was over the legal limit for adults. For the prosecutors, apparently, if a teenage girl is good at holding her liquor, it's okay for her to hop on the highway, sans seatbelt, and start passing in the no-passing zone.
Hey, she seemed okay to her friends!
And speaking of Varker's friends . . . Where else will you hear prosecutors objecting to testimony about a top-secret meeting held between private investigators and several key witnesses, days before the sheriff's deputies could interview those witnesses?
In most cases, if something like this came to light, the County Attorney's Office would be screaming about obstruction of justice. But in this case, it was Laura Varker's parents who pulled the stunt — just 24 hours after Varker's SUV began rolling like a tumbleweed down the Bush Highway, killing her passenger. The very next evening, the Varker family wasn't in mourning; they were already working on Dear Daughter's alibi.
So Mom and Dad summoned Varker's friends who'd been on the Salt River that day. Then they were separated and asked to speak to private investigators, presumably hired by the family's lawyers, according to trial testimony. By the time sheriff's deputies got around to attempting to interview the same witnesses days later, they didn't want to talk.
Where do you think they got the idea to zip their lips?
Normally, shenanigans like that would make a prosecutor livid. Not so in the case of State v. Wilkerson. Since Bryant Wilkerson is the bad guy, prosecutors are actually objecting to the defense team's attempts to elicit testimony about the next-day meeting.
Remember: Here, in this warped and crazy world, the teenage girl who was driving drunk is the "victim."
See what I mean about Kafka?
Wilkerson's trial began March 16 in the courtroom of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders. Sanders is a former deputy county attorney, one who made her reputation by aggressively pursuing rapists and murders. She was also known for having real compassion for victims.
But anyone expecting Sanders to favor her former office need not fear. I've been enormously impressed by the judge's handling of this case. She's a warm, low-key presence who really pays attention to detail — and has been scrupulously fair in deciding what evidence the jury should hear. Bryant Wilkerson may have gotten railroaded by sheriff's deputies and the County Attorney's Office, but at least he's getting a fair trial.
Wilkerson's big problem is one that his attorney, Michelle Carson, did her best to mitigate in her opening argument: He fled the accident scene.
That's a serious crime in itself, no question. And Carson didn't mince words. "Bryant Wilkerson is completely innocent of all charges except one," she told the jury, "and that is leaving the scene of an accident."
I first wrote about this case a little over a year ago. At the time, I was mostly concerned with the disparity in how Varker and Wilkerson were being treated. Here he was, facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and a half-dozen counts of endangerment — and yet prosecutors refused to charge Varker with so much as a DUI, despite medical records showing she'd been legally intoxicated.
Thanks to our criticism, the County Attorney's Office did turn the case over to another agency to determine whether Varker should also face charges. Ultimately, Mesa prosecutors charged her with five misdemeanors, including DUI and underage possession.
But despite her involvement in a fatal accident, Varker's DUI was treated lightly. She was granted a plea bargain in which the county attorney guaranteed that she'd never face additional charges for the May 2007 accident. All she had to do was plead guilty to one misdemeanor and spend one day in jail.
As it turns out, unlike Wilkerson, Varker's record is far from spotless. Court records show arrests for shoplifting — and, more recently, underage consumption.
Amazingly enough, those offenses didn't derail the plea agreement. In fact, the DUI plea was expanded to close the books on a totally unrelated for shoplifting arrest. One day total for both the DUI and the shoplifting — we should all be so lucky.
Wilkerson, meanwhile, was unable to post bail after his arrest on the evening of the accident. He simply didn't have the money, so he was stuck in Sheriff Joe's jail for three months. Even though he finally got sprung, he's been on house arrest for nearly two years, waiting for trial.
All the while, Wilkerson has assured me, he's been willing to plead guilty to leaving the scene of the accident. He knows he screwed up. He just refuses to believe that he's guilty of causing the accident.
Naturally, the county attorney has refused to make a reasonable plea deal.
It's become increasingly clear to me since the first week of the trial that we're here not because Wilkerson is any more guilty than Varker. In fact, the public defenders are making a strong case that just the opposite is true.
No, Wilkerson is on trial because the sheriff's deputies made a bad assumption, and then the county attorney refused to change his tune even after new evidence contradicted that assumption.
The sheriff's deputies assumed that the guy who fled the scene must be drunk, so they handled him as if he were. You can see it throughout their reports: Supposedly, Wilkerson had a "strong order of alcohol" on his breath. Supposedly, his eyes were bloodshot.
When deputies eventually did the most reliable test for assessing his blood alcohol content, it was just 0.01 — barely a trace of booze in his system.
By then it was too late. They were already convinced that he was to blame.
And then there was Laura Varker, the pretty white girl in a bikini driving her daddy's SUV.
Never mind that the backseat of the SUV was littered with beer cans, or that Varker had used a fake ID to buy booze for her friends. No one even thought to perform sobriety tests on her. The sheriff's deputies didn't realize they needed to check her blood alcohol content until they started looking at her hospital records. Then — duh! — it suddenly became clear this story was more complicated than they'd originally assumed.
What to do?
If you're Andrew Thomas, you proceed, apparently, as if your first impression is more important than the subsequent facts. Black guy guilty; white girl victim.
Which brings us to the big question: Why did Bryant Wilkerson flee when he wasn't drunk?
I suspect that everything in his experience as a black man living in Maricopa County told him that, no matter who was at fault, he'd be the suspect. That was an atrocious decision — by fleeing the scene, he turned suspicion into probable cause.
But it turns out that he was right to be a little paranoid. Despite an appalling amount of evidence to the contrary, the county attorney insists that Wilkerson's at fault not just for leaving the accident, but for causing it.
The reasons for that became sadly clear in court on Thursday, when a sergeant in the Sheriff's Office took the stand. This was the guy who'd done the initial field sobriety tests on Wilkerson after the fatal accident.
But when it came time to identify Wilkerson in court, the sergeant got a little flustered. Wilkerson was sitting between his two public defenders, Michelle Carson and Chuck Whitehead. Unfortunately for the sergeant, Whitehead is also black. I could see the sergeant squint and do a double take as he tried to remember which one was the "bad guy" and which one was his lawyer.
"He looks a lot different than my first contact with him," the sergeant said, explaining his confusion.
In that instant, I remembered Wilkerson's mug shot, taken just after the accident. In it, he looks nothing like the quiet family man I've gotten to know. His hair is longer and crazier. He's wearing a T-shirt. He looks like a 20-something stoner, a guy that any cop would assume is up to no good.
The defense objected when the County Attorney's Office entered the mug shot into evidence. But Judge Sanders allowed it in, and I think she was right to do so. In that photo, you can see Bryant Wilkerson as the sheriff's deputies saw him. And you can see all too clearly just how he got screwed.
I don't know if the jury is going to see through the criminal justice system's appalling rush to judgment. This is a complicated case, and any time you have a guy fleeing the scene of a fatal accident, it's hard not to judge him for it.
But should he rot in jail for years on end because he reacted stupidly when a teenage drunk hit him? Not when the teen got off with one day in jail.
Our county attorney has botched this case beyond recognition. The question now pending in court is whether the jury will get that.
Making a claim for fatal accident compensation is always best done with the support and assistance of a specialised personal injury claims solicitor.
thom a** is as crooked and partial as they come , like his partner in crime arp ie O saying he wasnt going to treat Charles Barkley any different, he hung around him like a turd hanging on, charles couldnt get away from the slug. This is a tragety for this young man it raises questions is daddy dial bought candy dandy off??? promised him a little treat if he does good by him a little vote for atty gen??? yep.!this wont be the lst time 20 /20 has reported this county. selfish bas*a*ds!!!! keep this article to show the kids . Only in Maricopa county does this horse sh*t go on
The question remains - what is it that Arizona is all about? It's certainly not about fair justice. Could it be about money and power? People be damned, you are used for your money only, then discarded if you cross their paths.
Once started in the criminal justice system this is where it leads.
Senator McCain should step in and help those in Arizona who have suffered under the injustice in this county and state which violates an individuals rights and ignored the Constitution. With Senator Kyle in Senate Judiciary writing and proposing draconian laws to eliminate the Writ of Habeas Corpus, no wonder Arizona is such a Hell-hole of injustice and they prosper in building their mass industrial prison complex. McCain should know better having been warehoused in a prison in Vietnam. His own state is subject to inhumane and cruel treatment of human beings.
It's unfortunate but true that many white folks, including police, are afraid of black people, especially black men, just because of the color. If police/white folk treated people of color the same as the treat their own -- right or wrong -- and talk to us with respect, a lot of misunderstandings and profiling would not happen. White folks/police (YOU KNOW WHO YOUR ARE) get a grip - YOU ARE THE RACE PROBLEM.
From Letters to the Editor:
I can�t believe this is happening in the Unites States of America! Is Arizona even a real state?! Where are the civil rights organizations regarding this? Something needs to be done. The public officials involved need to be made to account for this gross miscarriage of justice. Are there no decent people in Phoenix, besides reporter Sarah Fenske? Ray Pendergast, Las Vegas
From Letters to the Editor:
Great story! Just shows that racism and injustice are alive and well John McCain�s Arizona. If he�s such a good guy, why doesn�t Senator McCain himself step in and help this young black man?!David Preston, San Francisco
From Letters to the Editor:
Too bad Bryant Wilkerson isn�t an illegal alien. He might just get kicked out of the country for what he�s done. Seriously, this is unbelievable! I�ve thought of moving to Phoenix for years, to get out of Yuma, which truly has little to say for itself. But I�d much rather stay put these days, after reading in New Times what�s going on over there with Joe Arpaio and Andrew Thomas. Though, I�m a citizen, I�m sure I�d wind up with an ICE hold and probably get the crap kicked out of me, to boot. Sure, Wilkerson shouldn�t have left the scene, but decades in jail for a death caused by a rich, drunken, white teenager?! If he�d been a well-off, middle-age white man, this wouldn�t be happening to him. And I think the argument that booked because he knows how minorities are treated by county cops is valid. Arpaio is famous for his racism these days! People of color will never catch a break as long as Arpaio and Thomas rule. I hope the U.S. Justice Department takes care of Joe Arpaio. Too bad, the feds can�t find a reason to go after his pal, Andrew. Raul Urrea, Yuma
From Letters to the Editor:
I�m so glad I moved out of Maricopa County when I did. Because it was only a matter of time until I violated some minor law and spent time in one of Joe Arpaio�s gulags. It doesn�t take much, as Sarah Fenske�s article proves. Must be nice to have connected parents who can get you out of trouble at the expense of a man, who (while not totally innocent) certainly is less guilty than a drunken teenager driving recklessly. Just another outrage by the MCSO and County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Par for the frickin� course.Terry Gentille, Tucson
From Letters to the Editor:
Kafkaesque indeed! This story should be sent out to anybody even thinking of moving to Maricopa County, especially if [he or she is] a minority. This county is filled with racists who elect racists as sheriff and county attorney. Why should we expect anything else to happen to Bryant Wilkerson? Of course, they are going to nail the N-word for the crime instead of the pretty white young thing with affluent parents! For a minority like myself, this story is terrifying. With the bad economy it won�t be for a while, because I�m stuck like everybody else, but I�m going to move away from this hellhole as soon as I can.Millicent Jones, Tempe
steve your an idiot...and by the way, its SEE NOT SHE...lol, you did that twice from what i glanced at.
now idiot, my point is not your crap grammer or spelling, its the simple fact that she WAS CHARGED WITH DUI after the fact..so guess what, IT WASNT .009 AS YOU CLAIM..no doubt your either a member of the Varker family or a friend, and your bias clearly shows. Little Laura is not the little princess you claim she is, she is still underage, she still was driving while intoxicated, there were beer cans in her vehicle, and she rode someones ass and couldnt stop in time. Even if she wasnt right on his bumper its HER RESPONSIBILITY to make sure she has enough room between her and the vehicle in front of her (this goes for everyone by the way, check out the law) to have enough time to stop no matter the circumstance. Hence why there is a law that you need to be certain distance from the car in front of you. Now, ive pointed out 4 different facts (between this and the other comments)that any judge would likely use to determine that she WAS AT FAULT for the accident...im ready for your rebuttal genius...
I may be a little bias because i personally know Bryant but the way i see it Ms Varker should have never of on the road or have a passenger, she's the reason this tragic accidenthappened
Read the Jim Rix book, "Jingle Jangle" about the corrupt Maricopa County criminal justice system. This will give great insight as to what is going to happen to this young man. This is standard operating procedure in the Maricopa County Attorney's office. Injustice prevails.
David Saint - you hit the nail on the head! Will boycott Dial products. Enough said. The corporations control the state and the elected officials.
DavidSaint, your #1 argument against what I said was me making a fucking typo. That sums it up. You people HAVE NO ARGUMENT. Is it illegal to drink if you're not 21? Yes. Does that have a damn thing to do with him pulling in front of her SUV causing her to hit him and killing an occupant of the vehicle before driving off? NO.
WAKE THE HELL UP. She through the New Times' smoke screen. Her fake ID had nothing to do with the accident. I guess you morons think it should be legal to smash your car into a car that has an expired license plate, killing the driver. After all, it is ILLEGAL to drive a vehicle that doesn't have a current registration.
Postal workers do not fair well at trial in Maricopa County. Ray Krone an innocent man, postal worker, first offense was falsely accused, wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not do.
Visit his website: www.raykrone.com
Read the book about the corrupt Maricopa County Courts and what they did to an innocent man, "JIngle Jangle" by Jim Rix. Everyone should read this book if they want to understand the broken criminal justice system in Arizona. Should be required reading for all college students.
Our prayers go out to this young man and his family as we know he is in the middle of a Maricopa County kangaroo court and a County Attorney looking for his next conviction and career point.
We will watch this case closely and it will not be swept under the rug like hundreds of others had been while the officials "move on".
well then steve w, in YOUR infinite wisdom explain why she got charged with DUI then..it sure wasnt .009 moron...it was more like .09...nice try though..and by the way genius, ITS ILLEGAL TO DRINK PERIOD UNTIL THE AGE OF 21...she also had wrecked just months prior to this, so its not like shes an earnhardt behind the wheel. Just face the facts, MCSO screwed up and now instead of doing the right thing and admitting it they just proceed to charge him with manslaughter..ive never heard of someone being charged for manslaughter because someone hit THEM from behind and killed their own passenger..you obviously dont know the law either, because if you hit someone from behind its YOUR fault anyways... this is a tragic case, but one that should have been resolved a long time ago with him getting time served (3 months he was in jail) with probation, and Laura Varker shouldnt have a license...much less get off for DUI, underage consumption, minor in possession, possession of a fake id, and shoplifting with 1 day and fines..but thanks for playing...ps if she didnt do anything wrong, why the need to coach witnesses the next day then? sorry, that shows me that they KNEW she screwed up...
HERE WE GO AGAIN! It never ceases to amaze me how stupid New Times readers are for believing the bullshit articles that New Times writes. Slanted, biased bullshit!
Ms. Varker tried to pass him on a double line because HE PULLED HIS CAR RIGHT IN FRONT OF HER!!!!!! WHY WON'T YOU MENTION THAT? She was only trying to avoid hitting him! Wilkerson caused the death of a passenger in a motor vehicle by doing a U-Turn into on coming traffic rather than being patient. Then he took off. THAT IS WHY MR. INNOCENT IS IN A LOT OF TROUBLE!
Sarah Fenske doesn't believe the witnesses who said Ms. Varker was not wobbly and falling down drunk. HELLO!!!!!!! HER BAC WAS ONLY .009!!!!!!!! Just 3 years ago it was 100% legal to drive down the road at that BAC level until the authorities decided to bust everyone who takes a sip of anything and drives.
How long after the accident was Wilkerson's blood taken? How long did it take to track him down? New Times won't mention that.
Just the mere suggestion that an intelligent 27 year old postal worker driving down the road that got smashed into by an SUV in a serious accident would flee the scene because of the hard life he's had as a black man in Arizona in the late 90s and early 2000s is a 100% fucking JOKE!!! Especially considering that Wilkerson doesn't even look black. He looks half white and half arab.
The New Times has zero credibility.
first, to the idiot who claims that "joe and andy only go after bad guys", put that pipe down and sober up..seriously you need to find out just what your stating before you say it..cause its complete BS..next i think Dial Co should be more careful of what they let their employees do, even if its an exec. Im surprised no one has thought about a boycott of Dial products for their lack of conscience and moral fortitude. I dont buy any as it is so i guess i already do boycott them, lol, but if you buy Dial products, lets send them a message that if they want to be part of the community it means taking responsibility and keeping the community safe...i know i dont feel safe with a girl that was basically shown "oh its ok if you kill someone drinking and driving, go do it some more"....point is, that girl should NEVER be driving again...period...maybe im a little more angrier than others, but this has been ass backwards from the get go...
People need to get to this trial to witness how justice is played out in Maricopa County and the state of Arizona. The Maricopa County Attorney's office prosecutors control the courts. The broken criminal justice system in Arizona needs an independent outside investigation by the DOJ, the people's attorney.
I can't believe your reporter would suspect the Maricopa County sheriff and DA of racism. His entire record is one of going after only bad people who only coincidentally always happen to be minorities. Its not their fault criminals only come in brown and black. Sheriff Joe makes Phoenix a laughing stock in the eyes of the nation. 5th largest city in the country with a racist sheriff right out of Deliverance. That's world class!
I think the only color that has affected this case is green. Dad has mucho long green and he is using it to ruin this guy who was unfortunate enough to be in the way of daddy's little drunk girl. It could have been anybody.
I don't understand why the parents are supporting this girl, instead of making her take responsibility for her actions. Until they do so, she will not have a life as a responsible adult, just an overgrown child taken care of by mommy and daddy.
Why are you folks trying to ruin the life of another to protect the misdeeds of your child?
If indeed the father is an executive with Dial, and if indeed he is not doing the right thing here, he needs to do it now. You won't be able to save your daughter by enabling her.
Once again, another travesty which continues to churn out of the Maricopa County Attorney's office known for abuse of power and retaliation. The taxpayers cannot afford to keep throwing people's lives away in jail and decades in prison which is nothing more than warehousing humans beings in deplorable conditions of confinement.
People need to get to this trial and sit in the courtroom to witness what goes on, then people will realize there is little to no justice in the state.
This travesty will not only ruin this vulnerable man's life and his families but cost taxpayers millions going through the system and years in appeals and prison confinement, while the wealthy young woman goes free. How do these people sleep at night?
Injustice to one, is injustice for all. If you think this can't happen to you, think again.
How do we prevent this from happening again. Underage drinking, fake ID and intoxicated equals one day in jail. I'm not convinced skin color played a role in the judgements made by MCSO or the County Prosecuters Office but what could be the reason. Oh yeah financial disparity. Teenage girl with well to parents, private invetigaters aren't cheap. I've had my run ins with MCSO and the County Attorney. And each time whether I was guilty or not I felt mistreated. I had my home broken into and was accused of staging it. They presented no facts just false accusations. Eventually after spending a pretty penny, the case was thrown out of court. On top of that, the officers that botched my case and made to look incompetent by my attorney."not a Public Pretender I mean Defender" continued to harass to the point where I had to move for fear of retaliation. Oh yeah by the way....I'm Black
The Varker family needs to know that their day in court is coming . . . . very soon!
And put Andrew Thomas on notice ,too!
What a travesty.. and a farce. Super job reporting and detailing events. Yes, let's get more publicity on this story! Amazing what money can buy, sad but true.
WELL DONE!!! I'd like to see this story get much more publicity. I am hoping Dateline or 20/20 picks it up!!!
Add this to the pile of letters going to the DOJ, Attorney General Eric Holder on rights violations in Arizona. Sarah, you did a great job of showing the public what is going on in the Maricopa County courts. This case is so wrong on so many levels it sends chills down my spine.
The bias and bigotry in the county and state is well-known. This is a kangaroo court unless this Judge doesn't cave into to the prosecutors who control the courtrooms in Maricopa County.
What a total bunch of BULLSHIT...
Once again MCSO screws up a case by being so inept, and once again Candy Dandy Thomas could care less about justice or the truth.
Maricopa County Justice System has got to be the most fucked up thing I've ever seen.
Only in Maricopa County does the truth mean nothing to what obviously should be called the Maricopa County Injustice System.
im also wondering when Tampering With witnesses, obstuction of justice, and perjury became legal....i guess if your parents have money its ok....
im really starting to wonder if "SCA" was funded by the girls dad who is a big exec at Dial co. Thats the only explenation i can come to as to why this has moved forward. But again, this is Maricopa county, where the big W is more important than justice. Where 17 yr olds can apparently drive drunk, illegally pass someone causing an accident, and yet the person they hit is somehow at fault...It reminds me of an accident i was in, when a guy cut me off and slammed on his brakes..according the the cops then when i asked, i was at fault period because i had hit him from behind..so when did this change? When did getting hit by a drunk driver that killed one of their passengers amount to manslaughter? I guess only in this backwards ass county where politics rule, and cops just cant be wrong....NAACP, where are you now?