Two cars collided last year on Cinco de Mayo.
Considering the date, you might assume that at least one of the drivers was drunk — and you'd be right. Laura Varker was 17 years old, and she'd been tubing down the Salt River all day with her eight best girlfriends. Their T-shirts all read "Cinco de Drinko." Even an hour after the accident, Varker's blood-alcohol level was 0.09, over the legal limit for adults. And, as an underage driver, she was in violation of the law by having any amount of alcohol in her system.
One of Varker's girlfriends, 15-year-old Felicia Edwards, didn't drink a drop. But it was Edwards who died when Varker's Yukon Denali hit another car and flipped over and over like a tumbleweed before coming to a horrifying stop on the Bush Highway north of Mesa. Edwards was thrown from the SUV and pronounced dead at the scene.
When sheriff's deputies called Felicia's mother that terrible day, her first question was, "Was she wearing a seat belt?" She wasn't. Instead, Felicia had been in the back of the SUV holding down the tubes — a decision she paid for with her life.
That's a tragedy.
But only in its aftermath did the collision become a travesty. That's because, even after blood tests showed that Varker was legally drunk, and even after sheriff's investigators learned that it was she and another girl who'd flashed a fake ID and bought Coors Light and malt liquor for the group, Varker hasn't been charged with anything.
Not underage consumption.
Not drunken driving.
And certainly not manslaughter.
Instead of charging the affluent white girl, the sheriff's officers arrested the other driver, a black man, a guy who wasn't even legally drunk.
Bryant Wilkerson was a 28-year-old postal service clerk with nothing on his record worse than a fender-bender. That day, he was merely making a U-turn, in a place where U-turns are permitted, when a 17-year-old party girl in her daddy's SUV tried to speed around him.
Wilkerson's life has been upended. He's been charged with nine felony counts, including manslaughter and aggravated assault. He spent three months in jail because he didn't have the money to post bail, and he lost his job because of that. Now under strict curfew and random alcohol and drug screenings for the past five months, he has to get permission from the court just to attend his daughter's band concerts in the evening.
He's facing 21 years in prison.
Meanwhile, Laura Varker is posing on her MySpace page in a bikini.
That day on the Bush Highway, Bryant Wilkerson did one thing wrong. Admittedly, it was really wrong.
He was making a U-turn — which, again, was legal — when he saw Varker's Denali come out of nowhere on his left side. According to the sheriff's report, witnesses suggest Varker saw his little Hyundai slowing and crossed over the yellow lines into the center lane to pass him. At least one witness, a friend of Varker's who was just behind her on the highway, told deputies that the other car was slowing too dramatically for her to stop; Varker had to lurch into the center lane just to avoid rear-ending him.
(Now, you'd think Varker would allow plenty of distance between herself and other drivers. Just seven months earlier, as a 16-year-old with a brand-new license, Varker had caused another accident. Police records say she failed to stop in time and slammed into another car on Cactus Road, which then hit the car in front of it.)
But back to Cinco de Mayo. As he went into the turn, Wilkerson didn't see the SUV veering into the center lane until it was too late.
Amazingly, Wilkerson's Hyundai was just fine, other than losing its bumper. It grazed the SUV and hung on to finish the U-turn.
In their rear-view window, though, Wilkerson's passengers were horrified to see the Denali flipping over and over, according to the sheriff's report.
And that's when, Wilkerson admits, he made a really big mistake. He panicked and took off.
"I freaked out," he says. "That's no excuse; that's so not me. But I had the people in my car yelling, 'Go, go, go!' and I just freaked out and panicked." Sheriff's deputies caught up with him just 10 minutes later.
Because he fled the scene, it's understandable that the sheriff's deputies assumed that Wilkerson had something to hide. Their reports note that he smelled heavily of alcohol, that he'd admitted to smoking pot that morning, that he seemed drunk.
The problem is, all the tests came back well under the legal limit. Wilkerson blew a 0.049 on the sheriff's Breathalyzer. By the time the sheriff's officers did a blood test, which is widely considered much more accurate, Wilkerson's blood-alcohol content was only 0.01. The presence of marijuana was just as minimal. Wilkerson had only trace amounts in his bloodstream.
Never mind. The sheriff's deputies had made up their minds: Wilkerson was to blame for the crash. They arrested him, charging him with manslaughter, aggravated assault, leaving the scene of a fatal injury accident, unlawful flight from law enforcement, and five counts of endangerment. (A sheriff's spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
He would spend the next three months in Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue Jail — in the maximum-security wing. His wife tried her best to raise bail, but $54,000 is a lot of collateral when you're a renter.
Wilkerson learned in jail that the SUV driver had been legally drunk. He'd initially been so shocked by the accident, he says, that he figured he must be to blame.
But when he heard that, he began to wonder just what was going on. He had only a public defender and no money for a lawyer. He questioned whether he was getting a fair shake.
Wilkerson contacted the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the NAACP's Maricopa County branch, who had much the same reaction. Tillman couldn't believe what he was hearing.
They were charging the guy who was below the legal limit with manslaughter, and they weren't charging the drunk with anything?
"I've seen numerous cases that have come through here, where people have been charged under very questionable circumstances with DUIs," Tillman says. "In this particular case, within a few days, the sheriff's department had in their hands a report saying she was legally drunk."
And yet they haven't charged her.
"I have a serious problem with that," Tillman says.
No one is saying that Wilkerson should face no penalty. Prosecutors, for example, could have charged him with leaving the scene of an accident, and it's hard to imagine the Reverend Oscar Tillman getting involved.
But manslaughter? Twenty-one years in prison?
Tillman began contacting the Sheriff's Office in August. He says he hasn't asked them to drop charges against Wilkerson, but he wants to know when they're going to charge Varker.
In early December, he says, he was finally informed that the Sheriff's Office had filed a supplemental report suggesting that charges be filed against Varker. Barnett Lotstein, a top aide to County Attorney Andrew Thomas, promised Tillman he'd see where things stood. Tillman is still waiting. (Lotstein did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.)
Tillman's confident that, ultimately, justice will be done.
"They can't hide this one," he says. "I'm not going to let this man be railroaded when [Varker] may have caused the entire accident."
Varker's father works at Dial, the German-owned Scottsdale-based soap company, records show. The family has hired a host of lawyers for their daughter, including a pair at the highly respected firm of Quarles & Brady, to handle any potential criminal charges.
When sheriff's deputies went back a few months after the accident to press Laura Varker's friends about whether she'd been the one to purchase the booze, all but one refused to cooperate, including a few girls who'd initially agreed to interviews. They'd given Varker's parents their word, they said, that they wouldn't talk.
Varker's lawyers have also hired a retired Phoenix cop, who surveyed the scene and concluded that Wilkerson erred when he slowed down to make the U-turn. By doing so, the former police officer wrote, Wilkerson impeded the flow of traffic, forcing Varker into the center lane.
"He could have completely exited the westbound lane into the bus stop cutout and attempted to execute a safer U-turn," the report suggested.
John Sandweg, one of Laura Varker's lawyers, said Laura and her family would decline all comment.
"This is a tragedy, this was a horrific accident, but it was not Miss Varker's fault," Sandweg says.
Bryant Wilkerson is tormented by what happened to Felicia Edwards. When deputies first told him that someone died in the accident, he broke down.
"It was a hard pill to swallow," he says. Even today, eight months later, his eyes fill with tears. "Looking back, I know I wasn't really at fault. But it's still something that's hard to think about."
Wilkerson is a soft-spoken guy. He grew up in California. His father is black and American Indian, he says, while his mother is white. He and his wife live in an apartment complex in Fountain Hills, and he's now working at the Chevron station across the street.
"That way I don't have to drive," he says. He still has driving privileges, but he knows what can happen on the road. It's safer to walk.
A few years ago, Wilkerson and his wife formally adopted a pair of sisters whose mother had decided she was more interested in drugs than raising children. The girls are both in middle school now, and so when Wilkerson thinks about Felicia Edwards dying, he thinks about his daughters. He's seen Edwards' mom, Jennifer Bither, in court. Under the law, he's not allowed to approach her; she's the victim, and he's officially the suspect.
But he thinks about her, often.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Through her lawyer, Bither declined comment. She is suing both Wilkerson and Varker for her daughter's death, court records show.
"She's the real victim here," Wilkerson says. "As hard as it may be for me, it's nothing; it's not even one-tenth the thickness of a hair, compared to what it is for her. I can't comprehend that. If I were to lose one of my daughters, it would just tear me up."
But he still can't understand why he's the only one being held responsible, why he's the one looking at 21 years, while Laura Varker continues on her way.
"I need to get the story out," he says. "Because it really seems like they're trying to railroad me."