CHERRY POINT, N.C. (NNS) -- "I once thought that dying was the worst that could happen. I want to spread the word that living is truly punishment after these crimes."
Stephanie Wells killed a man. She spoke those words during her sentencing for felony death by motor vehicle in a Wilmington, North Carolina, courthouse. She was drunk the night of July 19, 2014, and the events she set in motion based on her choices have set the stage for the rest of her life.
His name was Michael Rankin. He was a husband, brother and uncle. He was a fantastic cook and could carve a mean turkey. He had friends and family who loved him and cared about him. He was a caring soul who was always ready to lend a hand, help out a friend in need, and who loved the outdoors ... fishing and hunting.
Stephanie took all that away from him and his family.
Stephanie told her story to the staff at Naval Health Clinic Cherry Point, March 26. She does that now, speaking at colleges and high schools or to anyone who will listen to her story. She speaks with the air of someone much older than her 26 years. It's a voice of reason, acceptance and even understanding. But underneath her calm demeanor is a web of sadness that the audience can feel ... the knowledge that she took a human life.
Stephanie began her story by telling the audience how, while growing up, her parents emphasized making the right choices in life.
"When I started driving at 17, of course they told me not to text and drive, not to drink and drive," Stephanie said. "But it was always because of the impact it would have on my life. Of course, they weren't wrong.
"For years I lied to myself. I would tell myself I'm better at drinking and driving than my friends who got caught or died. The night of the accident, I had been doing it for five years with no consequences."
Stephanie hit several Wilmington bars with her friends that night. She had a plan; park at a friend's house near the downtown area and walk to the bars, party and spend the night. And that's what she did until she got a text and decided to get in her car and head across town to visit another friend. As she drove through the narrow, darkened streets of downtown Wilmington at 3 a.m., she looked down at her phone GPS and failed to see Michael working on his moped on the side of the road. He died at the scene.
"I knew I had hit something, but I had no idea what it was," Stephanie said. "Since I was now only a few miles from my house I drove home. I immediately went in and woke up my roommate and then we called the police."
The police came and Stephanie had a blood alcohol level of 0.17. She was taken to the police station, where she was questioned for a while before the police told her what she had done. Her nightmare had begun.
She felt the impact of her choices almost immediately. She was immediately fired from one of her jobs. But more than that, the guilt was overwhelming.
"Now I had a reason to drink," Stephanie said. "It became very bad. I drank to die, no longer for 'fun.' Every day that I woke up I wanted to die. Eventually, I attempted suicide and upon failing at that, something changed. I was in the hospital of over a week and that was just a month before my court date. I left the hospital feeling like there was hope to do better and to live my life in honor of Michael Rankin, rather than kill myself, too."
Stephanie was sentenced Oct. 13, 2015. The judge imposed a sentence of not less than 64 months nor more than 89 months ... suspended for a period of 60 months. He ordered Stephanie to complete 250 hours of community service directed towards speaking to young people at both the community college, college, and high school levels about the effects on her family from this incident and what the life-altering effects on her were.
And that's how Stephanie came to NHCCP.
"As we listened to Stephanie, I was in awe of her willingness to be so vulnerable in front of a group of strangers," Lt. Cmdr. Corey Fancher, NHCCP patient safety manager said. "I think it would be easy to sit back and judge her for what she did. But if we pause and say to ourselves, 'This could happen to me,' then the impact of everything she said is so much greater. It is human nature to listen to someone's horror story and disassociate from it by not putting ourselves in their reality. But the reality is - it could happen to anyone of us."
"Making responsible drinking decisions is important. None of us are above the fray or the risk when we make decisions that we know could have such negative consequences. As she stated, I am free to make all of my decisions, but I am not free to choose the consequences of those decisions."
Stephanie has completed 92 hours of community service so far. She will remain on probation until she is 29 years old. She will be 36 or older before she can have her driver's license without the court-ordered breathalyzer in her car.
She fully expected to be spending six or more years in jail as the prosecution wanted. She knows she is fortunate to be given the chance to speak out against driving while intoxicated. But more than anything, she sincerely believes the judge has given her an opportunity to keep Michael's name alive, that she can now speak for him and tell his story as well.
"I plan on telling my story as long as I can to whomever will listen," Stephanie said. "I owe it to Michael and his family."
Named after Medal of Honor recipient, Pharmacist's Mate 2nd Class William D. Halyburton, the Naval Health Clinic Cherry Point provides high-quality patient care to more than 18,000 active-duty members and Department of Defense beneficiaries. In addition to outpatient surgical services, NHCCP offers Medical Home Port (including family care and pediatrics), Dermatology, Internal Medicine, Orthopedics, Physical Therapy, Mental Health, Pharmacy services, Preventive Medicine, Aviation Medicine and Radiology to include MRIs.
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