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Even With A Conviction, Justice Not Guaranteed For DWI Victims

8:02 PM, Feb 23, 2012   |    comments
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Alamance County, NC -- It was an early July morning. Carl Wheeler had left a family gathering and was on the way home. When he saw a minivan that had run out of gas off the side of Interstate 40/85, he stopped to help.

His decision to be a Good Samaritan changed his life.

On Tuesday, Curtis Lutterloh pleaded guilty to driving drunk. He admitted to being behind the wheel of a Ford Taurus that plowed in to Wheeler and 17-year-old Darren Jones at 65 miles an hour.

Jones had driven to the scene at Exit 147 because his brother was behind the wheel of the broken down minivan. He died on the way to the hospital.

Wheeler lived, but his life was still taken from him. At 40 years old, he's confined to a bed in his mother's mobile home. He can hardly speak. His right leg is amputated. He has a hard time moving his arms.

"Every morning I wake up, I thank God for waking me up to take care of my child," Esther Wheeler, Carl's mother, said. She spoke to WFMY News 2 from a recliner next to her son's bed. "This is where I sleep. ... This is where I've been ever since he came home [from the hospital] October 17th."

It's where Esther pledges to stay until her son can speak again, can walk again and can hug her again.

"I have asked God so many nights to take my life and put me where [Carl] is and put him where I am," Esther said through tears. "It's impossible."

Carl, who has three children, has brain damage. But his mom said he knows enough about what happened to ask one question: why?

"He cries a lot," she said. "He sheds a lot of tears now. He cries a lot. He keeps asking me 'why?' and I can't give him an answer as to why this is him: laying here the way he is. I can't."

That's what drunk driving does to people. And Esther wants answers from Lutterloh. But the only time he turned around in court Tuesday was as he walked into custody and said goodbye to his own family.

"He's a heartless man, the way I'm thinking," Esther said. "At the least, he could've gotten up and said 'I am so sorry for what I did to [you and the Jones family].' He could have gotten up and said that. But he didn't say anything."

Esther quit her job to take care of Carl. Her daughter, who also helps out, is the family's only provider now. They'll get only $1,400 in restitution from Lutterloh. But in the end, Esther is behind on their rent, can't afford the treatment and rehab Carl needs and can't even take him out of the house. Her dream is to have a wheelchair-accessible van for Carl, but she can't afford it.

On Tuesday, Jones' parents told WFMY News 2 of their heartbreak following Lutterloh's sentencing.

"It doesn't bring him back," Alice Jones, Darren's mother said. "Nothing will ever bring him back. It's just a matter of making [Lutterloh] pay whatever way we can for what he did to my son."

Lutterloh was sentenced to 41-59 months in prison. He must pay the Jones family more than $3,100 in restitution.

Local attorney David Daggett, of Daggett Shuler, said justice isn't easy to come by in cases like this one.

In terms of compensation, he said there often isn't much victims' families can do.

"There is a common myth out there that folks that have claims resulting from an accident have an easy claim or get a windfall," Daggett said. "In reality, there are many more times that people do not get enough justice, as opposed to too much. This appears to be one of those sad situations.

"It is a cold, hard fact of life," Daggett said.

Alamance County District Attorney Pat Nadolski said Tuesday he was pleased to see Lutterloh get jail time, but he didn't think it was enough.

"I'm happy for the Wheeler and Jones families in this case," he said, "because it was a significant sentence, under the auspices of the law. But really, I kind of feel it wasn't enough time, to tell you the truth, based on the acts that were committed, the death and the ruining of a life.

"That is what the legislators have passed," Nadolski said. "I would certainly like for there to be more intense punishments when you have felony death by motor vehicle or felony serious injury by motor vehicle."

WFMY News 2 tried to reach out to Lutterloh's attorney in hopes of speaking with Lutterloh himself, but the attorney's voicemail box was full at a phone number listed for his law firm.

Since this story aired Wednesday night, WFMY News 2 has received calls and emails from gracious viewers who want to help the Wheeler family. If you would like to contribute, call the WFMY News 2 Information Center at (336) 379-9316 or email news@wfmy.com.

You can also make a contribution at any BB&T branch, by donating to the "2 THOSE WHO CARE/WHEELER FAMILY" account.

WFMY News 2

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