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DUI airman: 'I've got a title of murderer now'

Twenty months have passed since former Airman 1st Class Lane Wyatt took one life and forever altered his own.

Yet when he wakes each morning inside the Alaska prison where he will spend the next dozen years, the events of June 30, 2013, seem as close as yesterday.

That day began with a well-laid plan for a night out in Anchorage. At the end is the horrific sound of a crash followed by silence.

Wyatt would be hauled away by police before he could see the full extent of the damage he'd done. But the crash scene photos left nothing to the imagination: the battered metal of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo he'd struck broadside, and the driver, killed instantly.

"It's stuck in my head all the time," Wyatt said in a recent telephone interview from Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai, Alaska. "I wake up thinking about it. I go to bed thinking about it."

He believes the renewed sense of guilt and grief that comes from remembering is worth it. Wyatt, a convicted drunken driver and murderer, has become an unlikely spokesperson on the perils of drinking and driving.

From the Anchorage jail where he spent his 23rd and 24th birthdays, Wyatt gave an Air Force interview that was turned into a front-page story in the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson newspaper and posted on Air Force websites around the world. He filmed a five-minute video titled "My Own Personal Hell" that ends with a visibly distraught Wyatt describing having to live with the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life.

Now Wyatt was speaking to Air Force Times in the hope of delivering his message to an even wider audience.

Those within the Air Force familiar with his effort believe it will make a difference.

So often, Wyatt's former commander, Lt. Col. Jason Kane, has reminded airmen to always have a plan when they go out — advice he heard countless times himself. That if you drink and drive, bad things can happen.

Wyatt is testament that bad things did happen — and to one of their own, Kane said. No words of his own could deliver such an impact.

Kane planned to play the video at a commander's call today. He has shared it with commanders across the Air Force and encouraged them to do the same.

"It's something I will share with everybody who takes command at any level, squadron, group or wing," he said.

That is what Air Force Safety Center commander Maj. Gen. Kurt Neubauer likes to hear.

"Stories like this provide a good reminder we're all human, anybody can make a mistake and some mistakes cause catastrophic consequences," he said. "Talk about it. Start taking actions. That will pay huge dividends."

Wyatt's victim

The driver of the Monte Carlo was 20-year-old Citari Townes-Sweatt.

Wyatt cannot bring himself to say her name aloud. He gleaned bits of her life from Facebook in the months he spent out on bail — Citari, impeccably dressed, posing and preening in photos with friends and family.

Townes-Sweatt had been that way since she was a little girl, trying on dresses and heels from her mother's closet with her sisters. "A little diva," said her mother, Lanita Sweatt-Sanders. "She loved to get her hair done, her nails done, her toes done."

Townes-Sweatt bought shoes and clothes with money she made from her job at Costco. She was also smart and stubborn and thoughtful, Sweatt-Sanders said. She made the honor roll in high school, graduating in 2011. She talked about becoming a certified nursing assistant and studying to be a nurse.

"She wanted to help everybody," Sweatt-Sanders said. "There was a point where I was struggling with my job, and I asked her to help me with rent. She said, 'Sure, mom. How much do you need?'"

Townes-Sweatt was the designated driver on the night she died.

The details of her daughter's final day are etched in Sweatt-Sanders' mind: She'd hung out around the house until it was time to leave for a 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift at Costco. She was back after that, long enough to shower and change into a dress for a night out.

Sweatt-Sanders had made steak for dinner and asked her daughter to try it. She took a couple of bites — she planned to celebrate a friend's birthday at a Japanese restaurant later on — and told her mother she had to go.

"She said, 'Bye mom, I love you.' I remember specifically getting up and going to the door with her," Sweatt-Sanders said.

"Please be safe," she told her daughter.

Townes-Sweatt stopped back in at midnight to change clothes; she'd gotten a tear in her dress.

Sweatt-Sanders was still up, playing Dominoes with her husband and some friends.

"I wish I had made her stay home. I wish I had just jumped on her and tied her down," Sweatt-Sanders said.

She remembers her daughter coming out in a black and white dress with boots. "She looked so cute. I said, 'Wait, wait, wait, give me a hug.'"

Townes-Sweatt groaned a little, then obligingly embraced her mom. Sweatt-Sanders repeated her earlier instructions: Please drive safe.

"She went down the steps, and that was the last time that I saw her."

The crash

It was nearly 5 a.m., and the sun was up over Anchorage.

Townes-Sweatt had spent much of the night at a house party in Mountain View, her friends told the Alaska Dispatch News. Around 3:30 a.m., they'd headed to another party at an apartment in Muldoon, where they stayed for about an hour before deciding to call it a night.

Wyatt's evening had begun with dinner at McDonald's followed by a few shots at a friend's house. He and three fellow airmen next took a cab ride to a local strip club.

"We hung out, had a couple of drinks, then went to the next place," he said.

They ended up at Chilkoot Charlie's, a popular club where Wyatt ran into another airman and the airman's girlfriend.

They drank and danced, then decided to head back to the home where they'd started. They took the military shuttle called JBADD — Joint Base Against Drunk Driving.

Wyatt remembers listening to music, playing games, smoking cigarettes on the back porch as night turned to dawn.

The newcomer and his girlfriend announced it was time for them to head home. They said they would walk; it was less than a mile away.

Wyatt offered to give the pair a ride. The group protested.

"I figured it was only a short distance, there and back," Wyatt said. "I knew I'd been drinking, but I didn't feel I was messed up."

Wyatt's buddy climbed into the passenger seat; the airman and his girlfriend, in the backseat. Wyatt slid behind the wheel of his Chrysler 300.

"We headed out. I was driving fast," he said.

On the way, Wyatt saw a light turn yellow, then red. He thinks he was going 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit — fast enough, Wyatt thought, that if he hit the brakes he'd end up sliding through the intersection anyway.

So he gunned it.

He didn't see the Monte Carlo until it was too late.

The aftermath

Wyatt came to with his head on the steering wheel. He saw smoke through the windshield and not much else.

As Wyatt climbed out of the car, "I was just kind of dazed. It seemed like everything was in slow motion. It was very quiet," he said.

The silence shattered all of a sudden. Cries from the bloodied woman in his backseat. Shouts from bystanders telling him to stay where he was. Sirens. Questions from police.

He didn't get to see the other car up close before he was taken into custody. What Wyatt did see — the back end of the Monte Carlo where it had come to rest in a clump of trees off of the shoulder — didn't look that bad.

Wyatt figured their front ends must have collided. Since everyone in his car escaped serious injury, he reasoned, everyone in the other car must have, too.

He was hauled to the Anchorage Correctional Center. His blood-alcohol concentration was nearly .20 — more than twice the legal limit of .08 for driving.

He phoned his father, a retired Air Force major who'd begun his military career in the enlisted ranks before earning a commission. "I told him I was at a cop station. There was probably a bunch of sobbing."

Bret Wyatt urged his son to stay calm. They both knew a DUI could be career-ending. But it was not the end of everything.

After the call, a police officer came back in the room and told Wyatt he was under arrest. He read the charges: Driving under the influence. Three counts of assault in the third degree. Four counts of assault in the first degree. Manslaughter.

A few miles away, two somber police officers knocked at Sweatt-Sanders' door. She pulled a robe on over her nightclothes and answered.

The officers said they'd come to talk to her about her daughter.

Sweatt-Sanders let loose a litany of questions: Why? What's happened? What's going on? Is she OK?

"No," one of the officers answered. "Citari died this morning in a car wreck."

Imprisoned

Wyatt would remain in pre-trial confinement for the next six months, most of it in lock down. When Wyatt got comfortable in one facility, he'd be moved to another one. "That's a hell in itself," he said.

In his cell that first day, he said, he fell to the floor and stayed there for several hours, crying uncontrollably. "I couldn't believe I killed someone."

It was not Wyatt's first time driving drunk. His parents had done their best to instill in Wyatt and his three younger brothers the same Air Force values they tried to live by. But he'd been a rebellious teenager, he said, drinking and getting behind the wheel more than once while a high school student at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

Wyatt loved life overseas and hoped to remain in Japan and gain residency. When that didn't work out, Wyatt chose the only other life he knew.

He joined the Air Force in January 2011. It was a turning point, a time to straighten up.

As part of the 673rd Communications Squadron at Elmendorf — Wyatt's first and last assignment — he heard some reminder at least once a week about the perils of drinking and driving and the military shuttle that would pick them up if they'd had too much.

Which is why he'd left his car at his friend's house that night and relied on taxis and shuttles. Until he didn't.

The trial

After six months in jail, Wyatt's family was able to come up with $30,000 to bail him out and arrange for a court-mandated custodian to monitor him around the clock. He resumed his Air Force duties. An ankle monitor tracked his movements.

But the freedom, such as it was, was short-lived. Facing a possible 99-year prison term for DUI, manslaughter and seven counts of assault — one for each of the passengers in the two cars — Wyatt decided to take a plea deal that would amend the charges to second-degree murder, first-degree assault and drunken driving and cap his sentence at 30 years.

At the Dec. 19 sentencing hearing, Bret Wyatt testified that his son wished it had been him who'd died in the crash instead of Townes-Sweatt.

It was one of the lowest moments since the morning of the crash, Wyatt said, listening to his family and the family of the victim speak in court.

His grandmother testified that her grandson was not a monster despite the second-degree murder conviction.

And then there was Townes-Sweatt's mother and sister, Jamaesha Sweatt, who delivered a most unexpected message: They had forgiven Wyatt for all he had taken from them, and they hoped he would one day be able to forgive himself.

Their forgiveness — and the peace that came with it — had not happened overnight, Sweatt-Sanders said. For two months, she was in the grips of grief, unable to pull herself together long enough to go to work.

"I prayed and prayed and prayed a lot," she said. A friend from church gently encouraged her to be grateful for the 20 years she had with her daughter.

"I've changed a whole lot since this happened. I've grown in wisdom and love," Sweatt-Sanders said. Wyatt is "having his life lessons, too. Even though it was tragic what happened, he's going to come out a better person."

Before the crash, Wyatt took pride in being the oldest of four children. He liked to think his brothers — one of whom also joined the Air Force — looked up to him. There was no pain in imagining the future; Wyatt wanted to make it to the top of the enlisted ranks, earn a diving certification and retire in Japan, where he would take people on diving trips.

"I've got a title of murderer now," he said.

1,000+ DUIs

According to the Office of the Air Force Surgeon General, 1,232 airmen, more than three a day, were picked up by civilian or military authorities in 2014 for driving under the influence, a slight decrease from 1,391 the year before.

Those airmen were referred to the Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program, called ADAPT for short.

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