By Reggie Ellis
Nearly a year after the accident, the pain of reliving the details of their son's death recounted in court is finally over for an Exeter family.
On Wednesday, March 24 Craig Flenory, 23, of Visalia was sentenced to 14 years in prison for gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence in the wreck that took the life of Travis Anderson, 17, of Exeter on April 28, 2003. Travis' parents, Lane and Ann Anderson, said they could have asked Deputy District Attorney Timothy Ward to go to trial and seek the 15 years to life prison sentence, but couldn't bear the pain for an additional year of punishment.
"Two more weeks of agonizing testimony," Lane said. "I'm just not that strong of a person. We have been through enough and we feel this is an appropriate punishment."
In their statement to the court, the Anderson family said that their decision not to pursue a conviction was not being soft or lenient but avoiding more pain for their family, including their other children Evan, 15, and Leslie, 12.
"Throughout this ordeal our family has endured the constant reminder of our loss and we feel this plea will bring us one step closer to putting our lives back together," the statement read. "There are many reasons for wanting to put this painful ordeal behind us but we want to be perfectly clear that none of them outweigh the need for protecting the public."
Judge Gerald Sevier also read letters from Flenory's family. In one letter he read that Flenory had donated a kidney to his father. He thought he had saved him but his father died. Flenory also spoke through tears at the hearing as he pleaded his case for forgiveness.
"I do apologize … and take responsibility for causing this painful chain reaction to everyone who's part of this situation," he said. "I know that I need to take punishment [for] my actions."
Lane said he believed that Flenory’s emotional statement was heartfelt and true but that didn't take away from what he did.
"What he did was not intentional, but now we will be serving a life sentence of living without our son," Lane said. "I don't believe he is a bad kid, but he has made a lot of poor choices."
Sevier admitted that Flenory was not a typical defendant and that once he is released from prison he should lead a positive life in Travis' memory.
Flenory was the driver of the 2001 Ford Mustang which wrecked on Monday, April 28 on Highway 198 near Horse Creek Bridge. According to the California Highway Patrol, Anderson was a passenger, along with Seth Vincent, 23, in Flenory's Mustang. The accident occurred when Flenory attempted to pass a vehicle heading westbound on Highway 198 and lost control of the car on the curve. Flenory overcorrected his steering and the Mustang veered wildly onto the dirt shoulder for 15 feet before falling down the embankment and smashing into the boulders below. The car flipped three or four times before landing on its roof at the bottom of the embankment near the edge of Lake Kaweah.
Anderson was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle onto the rocks where he sustained severe head and chest injuries. Both Flenory and Vincent were wearing seat belts and were transported to Kaweah Delta Hospital with moderate injuries.
"Travis was 6'4'' and probably was lying down in the backseat of the Mustang," Lane said. "A big lanky kid like that probably couldn't get the seatbelt on and shouldn't have been in the backseat."
After a week in a coma, Anderson died on Monday, May 5 in the intensive care unit at University Medical Center in Fresno.
Flenory was driving on a suspended license from a DUI conviction on April 7. He had a prior DUI conviction on Oct. 17, 2001. Flenory's blood alcohol level was 0.10. The legal limit is 0.08. He also tested positive for marijuana. Instead of serving jail time, he was offered the option of participating in the county's inmate work release program.
"I'm angry with the fact that repeat offenders can be back on the road within 13 months," Lane said. "He should never have been driving after two prior convictions."
Travis was a senior at Exeter Union High School and was looking forward to attending Cuesta College last fall. He was an outgoing, energetic, fun loving young man whose unique and genuine smile was contagious to everyone around him. His animated personality and adventurous spirit attracted many friends.
"He was a special kid," Ann said. "When we walked into the church the day of his funeral there were more than 2,000 people there, some standing outside. That is pretty awesome."
His true passion in life was his commitment to and love of horses. He has ridden horses since he was three years old, and has been team roping since the age of 12. He was a member of the American Cowboy Team Roping Association, currently ranked as No. 2. He won numerous awards over the years including cash, a saddle, bridles and a belt buckle. To this day, his father wears the belt buckle Travis won for Team Roping in January 2003.
"I don't go very far without it," Lane said. "We keep expecting him to walk around the corner smiling and goofing around. He is still missed greatly."
"We are losing way too many kids in this community to drunk driving related accidents," Ann said. "There were a lot of bad choices made by a lot of kids that night."
In order to prevent something like this from happening again, the Andersons have been in contact with a Fresno manufacturer of the Ignition Interruption System. The system installs a breathalyzer underneath the dashboard with a mouth piece connected by a cord. The device is hard wired to the ignition system so in order to start the vehicle the driver must first pass a breath-alcohol test, similar to the one used by police officers at DUI checkpoints.
"This problem is bigger than the kids," Lane said. "This is a social problem. This isn't about kids having fun at the river. We need to make people accountable for the choices they make."
If his breath-alcohol concentration is higher than the pre-set amount, such as the legal limit of 0.08, than the car will not start. This must be done each time the car is started. Some systems also shut down the car after a certain amount of time and require the driver to blow again after a certain distance. It is currently not state law but is recommended with conviction of a first offense. The Andersons would like to see it become a state law.
"This takes the personal choice out of the hands of the individual," Lane said. "I'm the last one to ask for another law, but if there is something out there that works let's us it."
At the end of each month, the probation officer downloads the information off of the system onto a computer that analyzes DNA. This will allow probation officers to see if anyone other than the convicted has started the car with their breath. If the report shows that someone else started the vehicle, that is a violation of probation and would result in a prison sentence.
Fresno County currently has a manufacturer that has worked with the courts, but Tulare County does not yet have one.
"I believe every person is responsible for their own actions but when it comes to safety there should be laws," Lane said. "Look at what seatbelts, child seats and seatbelts have done to make driving safer."
"We think this would make a difference and prevent something like this from happening again," Ann said.