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.