Clinging to hope after drunk driving death, sentencing

by Jen Lynds

Nathan York

Thirteen hours into my first day as a 35-year-old, the number “51” kept popping into my mind.
That was how old Nathan York was when he died just 423 days prior to Oct. 31, 2012.
The Medway man, a devoted husband, sibling and father of four, was killed instantly in an accident caused by a drunken driver. Jerome York, Nathan’s son, was at the wheel, and Herb Young, Jerome’s uncle, was a passenger. They were headed to Presque Isle to do some errands just after 6 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2011.
They didn’t make it.
They didn’t make it because a drunken William Barton, with a blood alcohol content of .13, crossed the center line and slammed into their vehicle.
The 53-year-old Mars Hill man, who had 22 prior convictions for crimes such as speeding, speeding more than 30 mph over the limit, and operating after suspension, had spent the week prior to the crash working on a construction project in Portland.
On Sept. 3, he had a “couple of beers” with his lunch, according to his attorney, and consumed Nyquil, a cold medication that contains alcohol. He drank more beer and Nyquil on the journey to Aroostook County, reportedly not considering how the medicine would interact with the beer or how fatigued he was from work and a more than four hour drive.
Nathan York died at the scene, and Herb Young suffered numerous physical injuries and a severe brain injury. His wife, Gail, said that he now endures daily pain and memory problems, needs assistance in all areas of his life, and faces extensive rehabilitation.
Jerome York spoke during Barton’s sentencing, and letters from Nathan’s daughters, Whitney and Desiree, were read. Kim York, too distraught to speak, had a victim witness advocate read her letter. Nathan’s brother, Barney York, also addressed the court.
Their words formed an image of a massive heart shattering to pieces right in front of our eyes. It was the little things that they missed the most about Nathan — the sound of him firing up his tractor, the sight of him sitting outside watching a Red Sox game, the cadence of his voice as he told a story.
Kim York was devastated that she did not get a chance to hold him one more time. Barney York said that his mother, knowing that Nathan was claustrophobic, was inconsolable when they finally had to close his casket for the burial.
I was humbled by their grace. The family said that they have forgiven Barton, which Jerome York said was necessary in order to carry on as his father would have wanted.
“His most important lesson was teaching us to never let a minute go by without enjoying life,” he said.
Herb Young did not get the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle, according to his wife. He was in a coma at the time.
“In many respects, I am starting over with a different person,” she told Superior Court Justice E. Allen Hunter.
There were several people present in court to speak on Barton’s behalf, including his daughter and ex-wife. Both said that he is a decent man who has a history of making bad decisions.
Barton also spoke, apologizing to the families and saying that he wished he could turn back time and rebuild all that he destroyed that day. That wish, however, is just one more thing for these families to mourn — for as much as they long for it to come true, it won’t. Five years from now, Barton will be out of jail and back in the arms of his family.
Nathan York never will.
Grieving for the families as I drove home from court, I thought ahead 16 years to when I will be 51.
When you are a child, you think that someone that age is old. Only as you mature do you realize all of the chances taken from someone who dies that young.
There would still be stories to write, words to say, love to offer. The photo collage of one’s life would be terribly incomplete.
I also thought of my mother, a nurse for almost four decades. Early one morning a few years ago, she came upon a serious car accident on her way to work. One of the victims was contorted awkwardly in the crushed vehicle, so she could only feel for a pulse in his neck.
When it was clear he was dead, she ran to help the two other injured victims, an older man and his wife. A short time later, she learned that the dead man was a childhood neighbor and friend. Later that afternoon, after speaking with police and writing the news story, I told her that her friend, who was on his way to work, was drunk. He’d been up drinking until just a few hours before he left his house for the last time. His blood alcohol content was .30, nearly four times the legal limit for driving in the state.
My mother cried. I was furious.
“That could have been you,” I told her. “That could have been you that he killed.”
And it could have. My mother came upon the scene just a few minutes after the crash.
The older man never fully recovered from his injuries. He died a year or two later.
Today, I can think of no larger public service campaigns than those conducted to teach people to buckle their seatbelts and to refrain from drinking and driving. Justice Hunter referenced one in court on Wednesday, reiterating that “buzzed driving IS drunk driving.”
And still, these events keep happening.
I don’t understand why.
It is hard to miss those public service campaigns, which were launched by the Ad Council in 1983. Most have assuredly heard the refrain, “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”
In court, testimony showed that Barton had spent time around friends in the hours before the crash, even sharing beer and pizza with at least one individual. Did they notice that he was swigging Nyquil along with alcohol? Did they think about advising him not to get behind the wheel? Did they fear, as some do, that telling someone that they are too intoxicated to drive turns them from “friend” into “nag?”
In terms of the latter, I hope not. I pray that one would realize that the lives that they could save by taking the keys far outweighs the discomfort of having someone mad at you for a few days.
I think everyone realizes that Barton is responsible for his own actions. In court, his family and friends indicated that they had expressed concern over the years about his drinking. It seems he did not listen. And we have proof that he did not stop speeding when he got his first or even his second ticket. When he had no legal right to drive, he disregarded it and was charged with operating after suspension. While out on bail after the crash, he violated his bail twice, once by being in possession of marijuana.
Once he gets out of prison, he will not be allowed to drive a vehicle or anything motorized for ten years. The secretary of state could opt for a harsher punishment. One can only hope that he abides by that decree.
Hunter reminded Barton in court that the York family is hoping something positive can emerge from the rubble that he has created. He will be mandated to complete 200 hours of community service as part of his sentence, and Hunter noted that people could benefit from hearing Barton detail how alcohol became a weapon that helped snuff out one life and nearly claim another.
In the end, hope is really all that there is left to cling to.
I hope that he has learned something from this.
I hope that, once he is released from prison, he will share his story
For amidst all of this loss, can others be saved?
I hope.