Each year, thousands of innocent people are struck by drunk drivers, a sobering statistic that continues to impact our nation’s streets and highways.
Of the 16,694 people who died in alcohol-related crashes in 2004, 14,409 (86%) were killed in crashes where at least one driver or non-occupant had a blood alcohol level (BAC) of .08 or higher. The legal limit for BAC is currently .08 in all states in the US.
Little did Los Angeles resident Yvonne Dennis know that her life would dramatically change after her collision with a drunk driver–an encounter that would alter her life forever.
It was a cool and balmy Friday night 13 years ago when Dennis pulled up to a red light at Florence and Normandie Avenues.
Dennis was driving her two sons, Rajon, 16, and Jameel, 10, from a church function. “We had just come from rehearsing a church play, ” said Dennis.
“We were teasing Rajon because he had been chosen to play the Prodigal Son and he would have to kiss one of the church members who would be playing his son,” recalls Dennis. “I remember Rajon saying, ‘I’m not going to kiss anybody.’”
Dennis, a single mother, recalls that her eldest son, Rajon, was quiet and shy. “He was tall, thin, and athletic,” said Dennis. “He loved basketball and bicycles. He was also good with his hands.”
Jameel was the opposite of Rajon. “Jameel was a knucklehead,” recalls Dennis. “He was very talkative and he liked to play practical jokes. He loved his skateboard and he was also good with numbers–he could add up figures without adding on paper. He knew when the man at the 99 cent store was trying to cheat him out of money,” Dennis recalls.
As she pulled into the intersection to make a left on the green light, Dennis didn’t see the speeding car headed in her direction. The speeding car ran through a red light and smashed broadside into Dennis’ vehicle.
“All I could hear was this loud scraping noise,” recalls Dennis, who said she was momentarily knocked unconscious. “Someone said to unlock the door and get out of the car. I was just about to turn and tell the boys to get out of the car but the back end of the car wasn’t there.”
Stunned, Dennis unlocked the car door. “I was in a zombie state,” she said. “There must have been about 100 people standing around on the sidewalk. As I walked, people moved out of my way. Then I looked down and saw Jameel lying on the ground. He was unconscious and lying on his stomach. I turned to lift his head up. His skull was cracked open and blood was dripping down his head. I went into shock,” said Dennis.
Searching for Rajon, Dennis stumbled 10 to 15 feet down the street. “Rajon was lying in the street on his stomach,” said Dennis. “His eyes were wide open, and his legs were twisted like a mop.”
The horrific car accident had left Dennis’ two sons terribly maimed and barely breathing. Dazed, Dennis stood on the curb trying to comprehend what had just happened.
“Once the driver who caused the accident got out of his car and saw what he had done, he jumped over Rajon and started running. I remember a lady screaming, ‘Stop him! Stop him! He’s getting away!’”
Witnesses grabbed the driver and started beating him. “Then somebody shot a gun in the air,” said Dennis, who said the crowd scattered.
Five ambulances sped to the scene to take Jameel and Rajon to the hospital. “I remember that one of the paramedics said that in 13 years, he had never seen such a horrible accident,” said Dennis.
“They put Jameel in the ambulance and then they did CPR,” recalls Dennis, who said that paramedics rushed Jameel to Daniel Freeman Medical Center.
“I told them, ‘My other son, Rajon, is in the street.” The paramedics urged Dennis to climb into the ambulance with Jameel. “When we got to Daniel Freeman, they rushed Jameel into the emergency room,” recalls Dennis, who said that after the accident, family and friends rushed to her aid. “After a while, a doctor came out and said, ‘I’m sorry, but Jameel was dead on arrival.’”
Dennis said she didn’t believe the news and demanded to see Jameel. “I walked into the operating room and Jameel was still on the gurney. I touched his face and forehead and he was still warm and sweating.”
Doctors then notified Dennis that Rajon had been taken to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital. ‘You need to get there right away,’ Dennis recalls the doctors saying.
“When we got to MLK, I ran to the windows and started beating on the glass, working my way to the door,” recalls Dennis. “They took me to a small room in emergency. I said, ‘My son just came here.’”
A nurse came in and told Dennis that they were doing exploratory surgery on Rajon. “We’re doing everything we can to save him, but we don’t know if he’ll make it,” she said.
Dennis said she was stunned when another doctor came into the emergency room with bad news. “The doctor said, ‘We did everything we could, but we couldn’t save Rajon.’ That’s when my brain shut down,” recalls Dennis, who said the news was too much to bear.
Dennis demanded to see Rajon. “They had already put him in a body bag, and they zipped the bag so I couldn’t see his body, which was broken from head to toe,” Dennis recalls. “His eyes were open and they looked like golf balls.”
Wracked with grief, Dennis’ sorrow quickly turned to anger. “I wanted the man who killed my sons in jail,” Dennis recalls. “They said they had him at King Drew in lockdown. They had done a blood test on him and his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit.”
Dennis found out that the driver was a repeat DUI offender. On the night of the accident, he had been drinking brandy heavily and smoking marijuana.
During the court proceedings, Dennis said that the suspect never apologized for killing her sons. “I would glance over at him in court and he would be kissing his wife and nibbling on her ear. Then he would turn around and look at me,” recalls Dennis. “The man’s and his whole family’s
attitude was one of indifference. It was unbelievable.”
Dennis said she was wracked with grief when she had to bury her sons on the same day. “Jameel’s birthday was the last day of September, and he was killed on September 23. He spent his birthday in the morgue. On the day of the funeral, I bought Jameel a birthday card, and I put it in the casket before he was buried. Then I wrote a letter to Rajon and rolled it up and placed it in his hand. I told him I was sorry about the accident and that I loved him.”
Dennis said her pain was so great after her sons’ burial that she was close to a nervous breakdown. “I was sitting on the floor of my house begging God to help me keep it together, because I knew I had to go to court and fight this man who had killed my sons,” Dennis recalls, who said that for the next three years, she saw a psychologist and took Prozac for one year.
It was Rajon’s teacher who told Dennis about Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “At first, I didn’t listen to her because I was still in grief. But she kept calling me about MADD. Finally I picked up the phone and called them.”
MADD turned out to be Dennis’ lifeline. “Right away they said, ‘We can help you. You have certain legal rights and we can get information for you about your case.’”
Each day of the trial, Dennis said that representatives from MADD supported her through the court proceedings and helped her emotionally and legally. “They were with me in the courtroom every day. They helped me from day one,” she recalls.
After deliberating several days, the jury eventually found the suspect guilty. “It was unanimous,” she recalls. “After the jury gave the verdict, they told me they were so sorry for my loss.”
The suspect was sent to prison. “He was supposed to do 13 years, but he got out in less than eight years for good behavior,” said Dennis.
Dennis now is a public speaker for MADD. For 13 years, she has stood up in front of court-ordered citizens charged with drunk driving and recounted the story of how a drunk driver has impacted her life.
“I go to the cemetery to talk to my boys and to change the flowers on their graves,” said Dennis.
“My life has been changed forever.”