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Guess which driver's facing 21 years in prison — the drunk , rich, white one or the sober, poor, black one?

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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske