News | Jan. 13, 2015

Former Airman sentenced to 18 years in drunk-driving death tells story

By Chris McCann JBER Public Affairs

He was born into an Air Force family, moving around from Florida to Okinawa to Oklahoma. He played outdoors - climbing trees and swimming. In high school at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, he taught swimming lessons before his father, an Air Force major, retired to Shawnee, Okla.

"My parents were strict," said Lane Wyatt, a former airman first class and client-systems technician stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. His father started off as an Airman before getting a commission. They inculcated values.

For a while, he said, he slipped.

"I knew I was going wild when I got out of high school," Wyatt said. "I had to straighten up, and the military was the best option."

He enlisted in the Air Force, trying to go back to Okinawa.  He missed the beautiful weather, he said. The people, including his high school friends. The seawall.

"It felt good to wear the uniform - it was a good feeling to be the guy people look up to. I mean, I did client systems, but everyone thought I flew planes."
His parents came to the ceremony when he graduated from Basic Military Training.

"They were happy - they thought I was party-crazy, and I flipped the script on them. I was planning on going to college, and before I'd said I wasn't going to go. I wanted to be a scuba instructor, so I was figuring out what I had to do to get there."

For his first duty station, he requested Okinawa, somewhere in Korea, or JBER; in 2012, he joined the 673d Communications Squadron. Although it wasn't his first choice, he wasn't disappointed.

"I just wanted to get out and travel."

Wyatt took to his job immediately.

"I enjoyed it a lot," he said. "I looked forward to going to work. Sit in front of my computer, or a radio, plug it up, move it along. It was fun."

He and his fellow Airmen joked around a lot, but also worked hard.

In his free time, he liked climbing Flattop and O'Malley Peak.

"I skied, and I tried my hand at snowboarding - once," he said with a wry grin. At 22 years old, he had plenty of time to try just about anything.

A senior noncommissioned officer said Wyatt was on track to achieve his dream of being a chief - and to do it fast.

But that dream was killed - as was a 20-year-old woman - on a sunny June Sunday morning, when Wyatt made the choice to drive drunk.

A Good Plan Goes Bad
On Saturday, June 29, Wyatt left his dorm room with a fellow Airman; they picked up another on the way to the home of another friend who'd just returned from a deployment.

"We went to McDonalds," he said. "We were just jamming out in the car. We went to the friend's house we were staying at and had a few shots - the little sample ones." He gestured the size of a miniature bottle - about an ounce and a half.

"He'd never been to the Alaska Bush Company," Wyatt recalled. "So we went to take him there. We dropped off our cars."

They called a taxi and set off for an evening of entertainment.

"We just had fun," he said. "It was a guy's night out. I left my car; I didn't plan on driving. ...The plan was to go home and crash out; I was waiting for the season premier of Dexter."

At some point later, the group decided to go dancing at Chilkoot Charlie's, a popular Spenard bar.

"I really had fun dancing," he said. "I told my friend 'I'm not here to pick up a girl; I'm just here to dance.'"

At the bar, he ran into an Airman he'd seen around the base. He was 'kind of new," Wyatt said, and they started talking.

Wyatt and his compatriots had already called Joint Base Against Drunk Driving, a JBER-based volunteer organization that offers free rides home to service members who've had a little too much. They invited the newcomer, and the girl he was hanging out with, to join them.

Safely at the house, they continued listening to music and goofing off.

But the sun was up early, and sometime after 4 a.m., the new Airman and his girl decided to head home - about a half-mile away.

"I decided I'd give them a ride," Wyatt said. "I thought I was good to drive. I thought I was fine."

His friends protested, but ultimately they all piled into his Chrysler 300 and headed north on Boniface Parkway, laughing and joking.

At a red light, someone pulled up beside them and revved its engine as if to race.

Wyatt said he did it back, in jest, before they started through the intersection - something he did fairly often, though he didn't actually race. The other car fell behind.

It was 4:58 a.m., according to the police report.

"I remember coming up to a green light," he said. "Then it turned yellow."

He remembers glancing back at his passengers to see if they were wearing seat belts, in case he had to slam on the brakes, but he couldn't tell.

He wasn't sure whether to speed through the intersection or try to stop.

He opted to go through. He was doing 50 to 55 miles per hour, prosecutors later said.

"I didn't see anyone, I just saw lights."

'Like an Explosion'
The next thing he remembers is waking up draped over the steering wheel, his nose bleeding. He got out of the car, as did his friends.

"I just stood there and looked, trying to take it in. ...I thought they hit us."

One of the other Airmen asked how he was doing.

"It was like after an explosion in a movie, when there's no sound, just the ringing. I had no idea what to  do. The girl was in the back seat and there was blood on her face, so we tried to get her out and calm her down."

The other car was pointed away from him; he could only see the rear passenger side, and the damage didn't look too bad.

People came from a nearby gas station, and one started talking to the girl, keeping her calm.

"I just remember standing there, not knowing what to do. ... People were yelling at me to stay where I was. I told my friend I was going to jail. I was terrified."

Then the police showed up.

"I didn't want my friends to get in trouble," he said. "I said they didn't know I had been drinking."

The police took him to the Anchorage Correctional Center; his blood alcohol concentration was .196.

They asked about the events of the night; when they were done, he asked for his phone and called his father.

"He told me to stay calm," Wyatt recalled. "Neither of us realized how serious it was. I didn't know anyone was seriously injured or anything."

When the police officer returned, he placed Wyatt under arrest and listed the charges.

One count of driving under the influence, three counts of assault in the third degree, four counts of assault in the first degree, and manslaughter.

He was poleaxed.

"I just sat in intake," he said. "They had me change [into a uniform] and I just kept asking 'what do I do?'"

He called his supervisor, Air Force Staff Sgt. Corina Arangure.

"I was pretty hysterical," he said. "I told her the charges, and I asked her to call my parents. And then I sat. They let me walk around, but I didn't want to be seen. It was my first time in jail.

"It was just over. I felt horrible. I spent the next few hours crying on the floor of the cell. A mental health provider came and asked me about it, and all I could say was 'someone died. Someone died.'"

He'd driven drunk a few times in high school, but never since joining the military.

He had a career path and a bright future. That's why he'd used taxis and JBADD.

The young woman he killed, Citari Townes-Sweatt, was 20 years old and out after a similar evening of fun with friends.

"She was the designated driver," Wyatt said, tears spilling down his face. "And I feel like the trash of the earth. It's one of those things that's unforgiveable. A lowlife does that, and that's not me."

Townes-Sweatt was killed almost instantly in the crash.

Her four passengers sustained serious injuries - which led to the first-degree assault charges. Wyatt's own three passengers had superficial injuries, adding up to the three counts of third-degree assault.

Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Kodiak was the Communication Squadron's acting first sergeant. He had known Wyatt as an Airman in another section, but didn't really meet him until that day in jail.

"The reality of the situation really hit me when that second door closed behind me," Kodiak said. "He couldn't answer a lot of things because of the investigation, but he said 'I'm not that kind of guy, Sergeant Kodiak.' I'm a father, and he's a young man. I sat and talked with him until they kicked me out. It was only about 45 minutes - not long enough.

"I left there empty."

'My Own Personal Hell'
Wyatt was freed on bail after about six months, and was able to return to work. He had an ankle monitor and a third-party custodian - a guardian who, outside of work, could never leave his side.

Going back was a relief, he said, especially compared to the stress of incarceration. His parents came to visit him, and even at work people didn't treat him any differently, he said.

"I'm sure people had their opinions, but they kept them to themselves."

"The Airmen welcomed him back - not exactly with open arms, but they liked him and respected him for the level of effort he put in," Kodiak said. "They wanted him back."

Aranguare said Wyatt was a stellar Airman.

"He was excellent; he was definitely on track. He'd ask for ways to improve himself, look for projects to do himself. He'd give anybody the shirt off his back - and he always will. That's part of who he is.

"He definitely feels all the remorse, the regret, the devastation. All the conversations he's had with Ms. Townes-Sweatt's family, there's been nothing but forgiveness. But as much forgiveness as they've given him, and the love, he's still full of absolute regret and remorse."

Kodiak said Wyatt frequently spoke to him during the time he was out on bail.

"Several times he came to my office and we'd have conversations," he said. "It was really soberng. I'm not an emotional guy, but those conversations got emotional."

Wyatt went online and looked up Citari Townes-Sweatt on Facebook. He ended up on her mother's page, looking at posts she'd made and videos she'd linked.

"It was my own personal hell," he said. "I haven't talked to her. I don't know what to say."

The screws tighten
After awhile, his custodian couldn't provide the around-the-clock presence the court required, and his Air Force discharge paperwork was nearing completion.

"He started losing hope," Kodiak said. "His demeanor started changing; I guess he felt the screws were tightening."

Without the custodian, Wyatt remanded himself back into custody.

"Even as restricted as he was [with the custodian], on base or in his dorm room, he liked that a hell of a lot better than jail," Kodiak said. "When the discharge was complete, the last thing he asked me was to get his story out. 'If it saves one Airman, it will be worth it,' he said."

Eventually he was moved to the Goose Creek Correctional Center, where he resides for the present.

Even there, Wyatt said, he sees people who knew Townes-Sweatt. "Every single day I run into people who were affected by it," he said. "They were dating someone who knew her, or they were friends, or people she knew in high school.

"They say they forgive me, but it doesn't feel right being around them. I try to avoid being around them. I don't deserve to be around them."

He'd heard the safety briefings, seen the videos, been told not to drink and drive.

"I had one rule," he said. "I planned on following it. But you don't know what will come up during the night."

He'd even been at an Airman's Call where the guest speaker was an Airman who'd gotten a second chance after a DUI.

"I thought, 'I'm never going to be "that guy",' he said. "I never thought I'd do it. And then I became that guy."

If he'd given it any real thought, he said, he knew a DUI could be devastating to his future.

"But hurting someone ... that's not what you think about. You don't think you're going to kill someone."

"Ninety-nine years is the maximum they could give me," he said Aug. 7, before his sentencing. "But it's not the years. That doesn't matter as much as I killed a young woman. Seeing people so affected, that's what matters.

"I brought shame on the military, I brought shame on my parents - and those people [in Townes-Sweatt's car], they're still recovering from serious things they'll have to live with for the rest of their lives. I'm just sorry."

Paying the Price
Wyatt pled guilty to a count of murder in the second degree, one charge of assault in the first degree, and a DUI, condensing some of the assault charges in exchange for the upgrade from manslaughter to murder, and was sentenced Dec. 19 to 18 years in prison.

"I hope to get out before I'm 35," he said in August. With good behavior, a chance at parole may give him that opportunity - but it's still a long way off.

"Until then, I take it a day at a time. There will be difficulties finding a job. I'll be a convicted felon, and I know how that looks on a resume. It will be hard to go back to normal."

He has three brothers, one in the Air Force, and his family has stood by him.

"I thought I'd be disowned," he said. "It makes it easier, having people - it gives me hope for the future. I'm not going to be by myself."

In the meantime, after any visit, he has to undergo a full strip-search for contraband before returning to his cell. He makes almost no decisions.

He wakes up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to go to breakfast, the high point of his day.

After breakfast, he gets an hour of recreation time to work out. Then it's playing cards with other inmates, watching TV, or reading a book until lunch.
After lunch, there's more cards or TV, and an hour of afternoon recreation. Dinner. Cards. Bedtime.

"That pretty much wraps up the day," he said. "I could get up later, but I would miss breakfast."

He wasn't raised religious, but he's learning a bit about faith now, he said. He's trying to finish his education.

"I pray for her family and friends every night," he said. "It doesn't get any better."

Kodiak, now officially a first sergeant with the 673d Logistics Readiness Squadron, said the two years he has spent in contact with Wyatt have given him a new outlook on his role as an NCO.

"He's motivated things that had kind of died out in me," Kodiak said. "Being more alert, not taking things for granted.

"And especially to dig a little deeper, to not stop at the second layer. To know your Airmen - and their friends. You maybe can't stop them from a bad decision, but you can mentor them, encourage them, inform them."

Though he is facing 18 years of incarceration, Wyatt said, it's a life sentence anyway.

"It's not something that will go away, ever. That seemed like a night that nothing could go wrong. I wasn't thinking straight.

"I don't blame anyone else."