WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Stephanie Wells made several decisions on July 19, 2014, that changed her life forever.
Those same decisions ended Michael Rankin's life.
Wells decided to drive drunk in the early morning hours of that Saturday. She admits to looking down at her phone, distracted by GPS, while driving in the 2600 block of Market Street in Wilmington around 3 a.m. The car in front of Wells had swerved to miss something, but by the time she reacted it was too late. She hit it.
"My first instinct was to get home where it's safe and figure out what happened, and go from there," Wells said.
It took 45 minutes for Wells to call 911 and tell the dispatcher she had hit something while driving on Market Street. By that time, a witness had already called and identified the kind of car involved in the crash. Police took Wells in for questioning and determined her blood-alcohol content was .13, above the legal limit of .08. That's when they told her the man she had hit in the street died.
"I wanted to die," Wells said about the impact of hearing that news. "I wanted to somehow find a way to get out of that investigation room and kill myself. I didn't know what else to do. I didn't see a future. I didn't even see a point of a future."
Fifteen months later, on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, Wells faced Judge John Nobles in New Hanover County Superior Court to enter a plea. Prosecutors and Michael Rankin's family wanted Wells to serve some active time in prison for the charges of Felony Hit and Run, and Felony Death by Vehicle. Judge Nobles decided against it, instead sentencing Wells to 250 hours of community service speaking to community colleges, colleges and high schools during her five year probation period.
"The fact that we've already lost one life, I just as soon try not to lose the other one at this stage," Judge Nobles said during the plea hearing. "It doesn't mitigate what she's done whatsoever. She's got zero record. This tragedy cannot be downplayed. There's no question about that. But this set of facts is very unusual. Not even a speeding ticket on her record. Obviously, she made the horrible mistake of drinking that night. She drove down a very restricted area where the lighting is poor. I see it coming in here. It's a dangerous situation coming in here. Without taking anything away from the family -- my heart is broken for them – I just can't -- this is a harder judgment than giving her an active sentence and is the way I feel like it ought to be done in this particular case."
Rankin's family is still upset about the sentence.
"A great injustice was done that day by the New Hanover Courts and I can only hope that more people don't die at the hands of these under punished drunk drivers," Michael's sister Karen said in an email.
Wells says she has had a tough time getting into schools and organizations to do those speaking engagements.
Hear what a local superintendent and school board member had to say about Wells speaking to students, and what other groups have told her when approached about speaking opportunities, in a special report Tuesday, May 10 on WECT News at 11.