SECOND-DEGREE MURDER - Airman sentenced to 18 years in drunken-driving death

  • Published
  • By Chris McCann
Before being labeled a murderer, Lane Wyatt had a different title: Airman first class.

Everything before June 29, 2013, the day he killed a 20-year-old woman in a drunk driving accident, was different.

Wyatt was born into an Air Force family, moving around from Florida, to Okinawa, then to Oklahoma.

“My parents were strict,” said the former airman first class and client-systems technician stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

His father, a retired Air Force major, started off as an enlisted Airman before commissioning. His parents inculcated values, but for a while, Wyatt admitted, 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. His parents came to the ceremony when he graduated from basic military training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

“They were happy. They thought I was party-crazy, and I flipped the script on them,” he said.

From party animal to a promising Air Force career, Wyatt surprised his parents further when he told them of his plans
to become a scuba instructor and to attend college, something he had balked at before.

For his first duty station, Wyatt was assigned to the 673rd Communications Squadron at Elmendorf, where he exceled in his job immediately.

He had really turned his life around. One senior NCO even said Wyatt appeared to be on the fast track to achieve his dream of being a chief master sergeant.

But those dreams came to a screeching halt the night Wyatt chose to drive drunk.

On that fateful day, Wyatt and a couple of his friends decided to hang out at the home of another friend who’d just returned from a deployment. They later decided to go out for the evening, so they dropped off their cars and called a taxi.

“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.”

At some point later, the group decided to go dancing at a bar in the area where they ran into another friend.

As the evening was coming to a close, Wyatt and his compatriots called Joint Base Against Drunk Driving, an Elmendorf-based volunteer organization that offers free rides home to service members. Not wanting the fun to stop, they invited the newcomer and the young woman he was hanging out with to join them. They returned safely to the house, where they listened to music and goofed off.

Sometime after 4 a.m., the couple who had joined them late decided they wanted to head home, which was about a half-mile away, within easy walking distance.

“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 were on their way, laughing and joking.

While on their journey, they stopped at a red light where Wyatt said someone pulled up beside them and revved their engine as if they wanted to race. He did it back, in jest, before they started through the intersection. Though he didn’t actually race, the other car fell behind.

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

He wasn’t sure whether to speed through the intersection or try to stop. According to prosecutors, Wyatt was doing 50 to 55 mph when he opted to go through the light.

“I didn’t see anyone; I just saw lights,” Wyatt said. The next thing he remembered was 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,” he said.

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,” he said. “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.

“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.”

Shortly after the accident 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 where they asked about the evening’s events. His blood alcohol concentration was 0.196.

When they were done, Wyatt 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 for 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 had killed 20-year-old Citari Townes-Sweatt, the driver of the other vehicle.

“I was shocked,” he said.

Wyatt later made a call to his supervisor, 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.

“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.’ ”

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.

“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.”

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 sat and talked with him until they kicked me out. It was only about 45 minutes — not long enough.”

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, Wyatt 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.

“The Airmen welcomed him back — not exactly with open arms — but they liked and respected him for the level of effort he put in (to his job),” Kodiak said. “They wanted him back.”

According to Arangure, Wyatt was a stellar Airman.

“He was excellent; he was definitely on track,” Arangure said. “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,” Arangure added. “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.”

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.”

After a while, his custodian couldn’t provide the around-the-clock presence the court required. Wyatt remanded himself back into custody while 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.

“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 solemnly. “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.”

Wyatt said he heard the safety briefings and had seen the videos about the dangers of drinking and driving. 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 would do it. And then I became ‘that guy.’ ”

Wyatt said he knew a DUI could be devastating to his future.

“But hurting someone ... not what you think about,” he said. “You don’t think you’re going to kill someone.”

“Ninety-nine years is the maximum they could give me,” he said 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 (by my actions), 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.”

In a plea agreement, Wyatt pled guilty to one count of murder in the second degree, one charge of assault in the first degree and driving under the influence, condensing some of the assault charges in exchange for the upgrade from manslaughter to murder.

The judge sentenced the once promising young Airman to 18 years in prison.

“I hope to get out before I’m 35,” said Wyatt, 24.

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 one day at a time,” he said. “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.”

Kodiak, now a first sergeant with the 673rd 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 (and) inform them.”

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

“It’s not something that will go away, ever,” he said. “I don’t blame anyone but myself.”