Where's the Other Driver in the Bryant Wilkerson Case? Not in Jail...
By any standard, Laura Varker has had quite a year.
In the past nine months alone, the 19-year-old has been booked for shoplifting, receiving stolen property and failing to yield at an intersection (an action linked to her third car accident in as many years). The authorities found Varker's ID in the backpack of a confessed coke dealer and issued a warrant for her failure to appear in court.
Most shockingly, last month, police got a search warrant to seize Varker's clothing and DNA after a fellow partygoer ended up in critical condition, a knife stuck in his carotid artery. A neighbor told police that he saw Varker and a friend loading the victim's body into a car bound for the emergency room — the knife still firmly attached — while other partygoers frantically scrubbed away the blood stains.
Not too many college students keep so busy. And what makes it even more impressive is that Varker's done it all while on probation for drunk driving.
Yep, nine short months ago, Varker pleaded guilty to DUI and was almost entirely let off the hook. Never mind that the accident killed her 15-year-old passenger. Her lawyer argued that her drunk driving and the passenger's death were unrelated, and the justice of the peace bought it.
Varker got just one day in jail.
To be fair, there were some stipulations. She had to put an Interlock device on her car. She had to agree not to consume alcohol. And, she agreed to "at all times be a law-abiding citizen."
You can see how well that turned out.
If the name Laura Varker sounds familiar, well, that's because I've spilled plenty of ink writing about the other driver involved in the car accident that killed Varker's passenger. Bryant Wilkerson was making a legal U-turn when Varker, impatient, attempted to pass him. When Wilkerson's bumper clipped her SUV, it began rolling over and over, killing 15-year-old Felicia Edwards.
As anyone who's followed this case could tell you, Wilkerson stupidly fled the scene. When sheriff's deputies caught up with Wilkerson a few miles later, they were already convinced that he was drunk and to blame for the accident.
But accident reconstruction — and a few blood alcohol tests — would prove them wrong. It was Varker who was speeding, Varker who crossed the double yellow lines, and Varker who was, in fact, drunk.
Bizarrely, the new information changed nothing; the county never wavered in its zeal to prosecute Wilkerson. County Attorney Andrew Thomas didn't just charge the 28-year-old postal worker with manslaughter, he actually charged him with aggravated assault, for imperiling Varker, the drunk driver who hit him!
Only in Maricopa County, kids.
After my column on the situation was published, Thomas ultimately farmed out the case to another agency to see whether Varker should also face charges. (That's where the DUI came from.) But the disparate treatment the two drivers received was shocking.
Indeed, after Wilkerson's jury found him not guilty in April, I talked to three of its members. They were all emphatic in the belief that the wrong driver had been on trial.
They reiterated those thoughts at Wilkerson's May sentencing hearing. A total of six jurors ultimately offered public support for Wilkerson, and argued for leniency. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders, a veteran of nearly 100 jury trials, acknowledged she had never seen anything like it. At their urging, she sentenced Wilkerson to three years of probation.
Interestingly, the jurors didn't just talk about how Wilkerson deserved a break.
They held Varker responsible.
Listening to them in the courtroom, it struck me that these women should have made dynamite pro-prosecution jurors. The women who spoke were all white, middle class, in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. They were no-nonsense types: mothers, teachers, auditors. In any normal trial, they'd probably side with law and order.
Instead, the jurors were angry that the prosecution went after Wilkerson with such force when Varker was off the hook.
"It's a tragedy, it's horrible, but the person that should be paying for it is not in this room today," the forewoman, an IT compliance analyst named Gail Dempsey, told Judge Sanders. "Today, she's off gallivanting around somewhere."
"This is a rich man, poor man case," added juror Ellen Thomas, a retired teacher. "The rich parent is allowed to get their child free of any charges. The poor man is held responsible for everything that happened."
Varker was lucky that they didn't come after her with tar and feathers. But rather than feel grateful, she's seemed determined to prove the jurors right.
After Varker pleaded guilty to DUI last summer, prosecutors dropped all other charges against her. But at her sentencing in October, the 18-year-old could have still faced up to 180 days in prison.
The victim's mother pleaded with the justice of the peace handling the case, John Tolby, to go for the max. But her friends promised that Varker had matured since her passenger's death one year earlier. Varker's lawyer wrote of her "remarkable character." Family friends noted that she was spending more time with her family, at home. And Varker's "best friend," Nina Jimenez, vowed that she had "grown superbly."
"She understands life is not promised tomorrow," Jimenez wrote, "and is taking full advantage of every single day she opens her eyes."
Oh, the irony.
Since her sentencing hearing, Varker has averaged close to one encounter with law enforcement a month. And while she does appear to be "taking advantage of every single day she opens her eyes," it's surely not in the way Justice Tolby had hoped. She's been in so much trouble, in fact, that city prosecutors appear to be taking steps to revoke probation in one of her misdemeanor cases.
It's been a long list of bad behavior: Two months after Varker pleaded guilty to DUI, promising not to consume alcohol and to be a law-abiding person, she was cited by ASU Police for underage consumption.
Two weeks later, when cops searched a car transporting a young ex-con named Anthony Sharp, they found a backpack with dime bags full of cocaine — and Varker's ASU identification card. Sharp, who admitted to dealing coke, said she was his girlfriend. Varker doesn't appear to have been questioned.
Around the same time, Varker was busted for shoplifting and, later, for possession of stolen property. When she didn't show up for a court date in March, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
But Varker's lawyer, Hector Diaz of Quarles & Brady, got it quashed without repercussions. Last month, in exchange for a guilty plea, Varker's charge was reduced to "disorderly conduct." Her punishment? Just 24 hours of community service. (Diaz didn't get back to me with a comment by press time.)
In May, Varker was cited for failure to yield at an intersection — a complaint, again, dismissed by the court. By my count, it was the 19-year-old's third accident.
Then came the search warrant. After a party near Greenway Parkway and Scottsdale Road on June 6, a young man named Maurice Walker had to be rushed to the hospital. A neighbor told police that he came to the house after hearing screaming; at that point, he saw Laura Varker and another partygoer "dragging the victim with a knife in the back of his neck through the kitchen to the car." They were taking Walker to the hospital.
It's not clear to me whether the move was altruistic — or whether the partygoers were simply trying to cover up what really happened. Police arrived to find one girl hosing blood off the back porch and another scrubbing the carpeted area. The guy ultimately arrested for attempted homicide, Jesse Sernas, was in the shower with his clothes on.
There's no evidence that Varker had anything to do with the knifing. But court records suggest that police have questions about why the partygoers acted the way they did: They seized DNA samples and clothing from seven of them, including Varker.
And there's plenty of evidence, I think, that Varker learned a very bad lesson, thanks to the county's bungled investigation into her passenger's 2007 death.
She learned that you can lie and say you weren't drinking, and the Sheriff's Office may well arrest the wrong driver.
She learned that you can get a high-priced lawyer and you'll stay out of jail.
She learned that you can violate probation and, maybe, no one will care.
From there, it's not a stretch to conclude there's no point in calling 911 and waiting for an ambulance. It's smarter to load the victim into the car, knife and all, and give everyone time to clean up the crime scene, right?
Carpe diem, suckas!
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