After 20 years, memories of a drunk driving disaster linger
Twenty years ago, a drunk driving crash at the intersection of Ocean Bay Boulevard and U.S. 158 in Kill Devil Hills left four teenagers dead, another severely injured and a young woman sentenced to six decades in prison. The tragedy also left the Outer Banks community shaken – and the difficult memories and powerful emotions linger here two decades later.
“It was a bad day,” said former Kill Devil Hills master patrolman Wes Liverman, recalling the afternoon of April 6, 1999. “For anyone who lived here when it happened, it’s still vivid in their memory.”
First to the crash scene, Liverman arrived moments after a highly intoxicated Melissa Marvin ran a red light and struck a vehicle carrying five 17-year-olds — Shana Lawler, whose family had recently relocated to Colington, and her four friends visiting from New Jersey for spring break.
Three of those friends, Megan Blong, Amanda Geiger and Angela McGrady, died at the scene. Lawler died several days later, and another friend, Michael Horner, survived, but sustained serious injuries. Marvin incurred minor injuries.
Nine months later, in a Manteo courtroom, that afternoon was replayed during an emotional week-long trial that attracted national media coverage. The 29-year-old Marvin, with two prior DWI arrests that had been reduced to reckless driving, was convicted of four counts of second-degree murder.
Dare County Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett sentenced her to four consecutive prison terms of 15 years, noting that the sentencing was to recognize each of the victims. Marvin was not given a chance of parole.
Since that April afternoon in 1999, the families of the four girls who died have worked to spread the message of the dangers of drinking and driving through various platforms, creating the non-profit Precious Gems Memorial organization to honor the girls. And Shana Lawler’s sister, Erin Lawler Patterson, has dedicated her career to mental health and addiction issues, as well as volunteerism.
As for Marvin, the photographs of the victims still hang on her locker at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh, according to a former inmate interviewed by the Sentinel. And sources confirm that over the years in the facility, Marvin has participated in outreach programs, has led a mentoring program and taught GED classes to fellow inmates.
Julie Alley of the Raleigh-based Green Eye Productions, is working on a documentary on Marvin called “MISSY,” which recounts that April 1999 afternoon, tells Marvin’s story and examines whether her sentence is a fair one.
Marvin has so far declined to be interviewed for the documentary, said producer Julie Alley, and has never granted a media interview in the past 20 years. She also did not agree to a written request for an interview with the Sentinel.
Spreading the message of Precious Gems
The Precious Gems Memorial was created shortly after the crash by the victims’ families, and the organization has sponsored numerous fundraisers, races, videos and presentations over the past two decades to drive home the dangers of drinking and driving. Last year, the group launched a curriculum and video called “One Decision,” that is geared for high school-aged children and serves as a platform to discuss the impact that one bad decision can have.
The video includes interviews of the victims’ families and first responders to the crash, as well as written comments by Marvin.
Speaking of the crash, Erin Lawler Patterson told the Sentinel that, “One person’s decision not only affected the families of the girls, but also Melissa Marvin and her family.” Patterson is now an author, blogger and podcaster who seeks to debunk the familiar teenage reticence to “rat out” peers and encourages young people to speak out when they see others making wrong choices.
The Precious Gems curriculum, Patterson noted, would be “an excellent resource for Dare County Schools,” where students attend school just a quarter mile away from the crash site.
Speaking personally about Marvin, Patterson said: “I have forgiven her, but that in no way removes how I feel about the [prison] sentences and that I believe they are justified.” But Patterson also acknowledged: “Her family members essentially lost her.”
A turning point for Dare DWIs
Marvin’s two prior DWI charges that were reduced to reckless driving became a linchpin of the prosecution’s case. And what seemed to be the traditional local leniency toward drinking and driving on the Outer Banks was a topic of local conversation during the days and months following the trial.
Liverman remembers that subject as being something that struck him most about the case.
“Dare County, up to that point, never wanted to take a hard-nosed approach to drinking and driving,” he said, recalling that a familiar phrase on the beach at the time was, “Come on vacation, leave on probation.” DWIs, he said, basically equated to “a slap on the wrist.”
Retired Kill Devil Hills Captain Mark Evans, who was the second officer on the scene, said he believed the case changed how local DWI cases were prosecuted, with fewer instances of watered-down charges and lower sentences.
“It was one of those rare cases that really impacted the area back in 1999,” Evans told the Sentinel.
What stayed with Evans most over these 20 years, however, was the message he shares with young drivers, including his 16-year-old son. When the light turns green, pause and look left and right before entering an intersection.
She has ‘yet to forgive herself’
Attorney Michael Sanders of Elizabeth City represented Marvin during the January 2000 trial. And he still thinks about her.
“Who wouldn’t,” notes Sanders. He recalled receiving a call from the Dare County Clerk’s Office pleading for him to take the case. “No lawyer in Dare County would touch it,” he said. Assistant district attorneys at the time, Robert Trivette and Amber Davis, prosecuted the case.
Asked about the sentence handed down by Judge Tillett, Sanders said, “I was surprised the sentence was that severe, as was everyone else connected to the case in my opinion….Any of us in criminal justice will tell you we see a lot of intentional violent acts which are treated less harshly than what happened to her.”
Wilmington resident Robert Livingstone shares that sentiment. His daughter, Diana Livingstone, was serving a sentence at the Raleigh prison in 2017 for several DUIs and breaking parole. After suffering significant mental anguish while in prison, his daughter was moved to a cell with Marvin.
“[Marvin] turned my daughter’s life completely around,” said Livingstone. “Missy was like a second mother to Diana during those months and continued until her release….As far as I am concerned, Missy saved her.”
Livingstone said he has obtained the paperwork required to request clemency, but added that Marvin hasn’t taken any steps toward that end. “She’s taken full responsibility and has yet to forgive herself,” Livingstone said. “She made bad choices, but she didn’t go out and try to hurt someone.”
Dennis Wehitz, a friend of Marvin’s at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, VA, said he has tried to keep in touch with Marvin over the years and hopes the MISSY documentary will bring light to the lengthy sentence she received in 1999. He also hopes it will provide insight into the Marvin that he knows. “She is such a warm-hearted person and is destroyed by what happened. That has never been exposed,” he says.
For her part, MISSY producer Julie Alley said Marvin has refused to go on camera out of concern for the families of the victim. But after interviewing individuals who have had contact with Marvin inside the walls of the Raleigh prison, Alley described her as someone “who fights for the underdog in there, but has not forgiven herself.”
For more information on Precious Gems Memorial, visit https://preciousgemsmemorial.com.