ST. LOUIS — Shelley Layton runs an emergency room in Crystal City where patients whose bodies have been mangled in drunken driving crashes arrive regularly — but only one ever blew her a kiss.
That patient was her husband, Nick, who had been heading home from a teaching job when a drunken driver speeding the wrong way plowed into him.
It took paramedics an hour to cut him out of his Kia Spectra. As he faded out of consciousness in the ER, his wife cradled his head in her arms. About two dozen colleagues fought to keep him alive, taking turns performing CPR.
She joined them, standing on a chair to squeeze bags of blood into him.
But he was bleeding too much internally. The blood settled in his belly.
After three hours, a doctor said enough. Time of death: 1:33 a.m., March 28, 2008.
Shelley Layton was a widow at 27.
The love of her life — the man who first proposed marriage to her when he was 10 and she was 9 — was gone. She would raise their two daughters, 4 and 1, by herself.
The man responsible was Michael Bruce Whitaker, 45, a four-time DWI arrestee who — because of missteps and plea deals — had avoided convictions on every one of them.
Whitaker, of Irondale., had never been to jail — even for a 2005 drunken crash in Chesterfield that forced a father and son off the road and destroyed their car. A judge gave Whitaker probation and ordered him to get substance abuse treatment. But his girlfriend said he kept drinking and driving. Whitaker and Layton became two more statistics in one of the nation's deadliest crimes.
A Post-Dispatch investigation has shown that St. Louis-area police, prosecutors and judges fail to punish drunken drivers, letting chronic offenders such as Whitaker avoid prosecution and keep driving.
Citing the newspaper's findings, Gov. Jay Nixon has called for dramatic and immediate changes to a system "riddled with loopholes and dark corners."
Last week, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay ordered municipal court prosecutors to stop granting plea deals in DWI cases that reduce charges or otherwise allow driving records to stay clean. Slay's chief of staff said the Post-Dispatch's stories convinced the city to get tougher on DWI.
In Missouri, someone is injured or killed in a drunken driving accident every hour and 42 minutes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration predicts that three in 10 people in the U.S. will be involved in an alcohol-related crash in their lifetimes.
Each crash starts with a personal failure. Despite years of public education, DWI remains a crime that devastates families and destroys dreams.
The crashes end some lives and dramatically change others.
Some people suffer paralysis, pain or confusion.
And some lose a soul mate and have to forge ahead alone.
Keeping the quiet at bay
It has been a long day. Shelley has worked a full shift at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, a job she's kept in the 20 months since the crash.
Every day, she had to pass by the crash scene twice.
Addy, 5, has been at kindergarten. Amy, 2, has been at preschool. Then ballet lessons with Mom.
After a stop at KFC to pick up dinner, Shelley pulls her car into the driveway in Bonne Terre at 6:32 p.m. She gets out, opens the back door and unbuckles the girls. Two little blondes spring out of the back door and follow their mother inside.
Family time is compressed to an hour — dinner, bath, jammies, brushing teeth, brushing hair, prayers, stories, tickling, hugs, kisses, lights out.
Nick used to share this, and every, responsibility.
"I've got to finish this life we've started," Shelley says. "I like to keep myself very busy, very focused."
In May, she earned a master's degree in health care administration from Lindenwood College with a 4.0 grade-point average. Now she's thinking about a doctorate in education.
The girls nibble chicken and green beans while perched on stools at the countertop bar of the kitchen island.
Shelley stands in her kitchen of this new house, with its open floor plan and vaulted ceilings, and smiles at the girls as they drink milk from pink and purple sippy cups.
"I put on a great show at work and at home," Shelley says. "I constantly have it together."
She's committed to being cheerful for her daughters.
"But at the end of the day, there is not much energy left, not much positive left in me."
It was hard to focus on the girls at the old house.
For months after his death, Nick's clothes remained in closets. A half-finished soda sat on the electronic piano keyboard he used to play. A tape recorder remained stuck on pause.
Shelley wanted a new beginning. She moved the girls here this summer, where "nothing is familiar." Addy and Amy were allowed to bring only their favorite toys.
Here, Shelley's life is "all in the girls. It's all in their joy."
Nick smiles down from pictures everywhere — at the front door, around the living room, in the hallway and in collages in each of the girl's rooms.
And now his voice rises from Addy's bedroom. Addy has put her daddy's CD into a pink boom box. It's "I Am," a gentle rock ballad about God's love and power. Nick was a musician and a man of faith. He became an ordained deacon at First Baptist Church of Desloge when he was 27.
Shelley played this song at his funeral. Now the girls play it every night.
"Daddy," Amy squeals. At just a year old when he died, she has only the faintest memories of her father.
Addy is in a support group for grieving children.
"You remember jumping on his belly?" Shelley asks her. Addy nods. "You'd ride his belly like a horsey."
Addy mulls the memory over, half smiling, looking away.
"She's such a thinker and a smart little girl," her mother says. "I will ask, 'Do you have any questions?' and she will say, 'No, can I go out and play?' and then one day out of nowhere it's, 'I have a question. What color was Daddy's car that he was driving?'"
Soon, it's bedtime for the girls.
On a typical night for Shelley Layton, that's when "it gets so quiet, so dark."
There were tornado warnings the night of the crash. Shelley worried about Nick making the 65-mile drive home from downtown St. Louis.
She called his cell. He surprised her by saying he was already halfway home.
"I wish I could tell you it was a deep conversation," she said. "We talked about paying bills and who was going to pick up the kids."
The call dropped at a typical dead spot, on U.S. Highway 67 just after he crossed south into St. Francois County. She figured he'd be home in 5 minutes.
But an hour went by. He wasn't picking up his cell. She paced.
Then the phone rang. It was a paramedic who knew her.
Shelley passed the crash scene on her way to the hospital. She said she pulled in right behind the ambulance and saw blood pouring out of the back.
Nick recognized her in the ER. "Shells," he uttered.
"We talked just for a moment, and all he said was he couldn't breathe. I said it was going to be OK, all these people were going to take care of him, and he said, 'I know, but I can't breathe, I can't catch my breath.'"
Larry Ayers, a nurse at Jefferson, remembers Shelley telling Nick the medical team was going to put him on a ventilator.
"He blew her a kiss, and she kissed him," Ayers said. Then the machine took over Nick's breathing.
The staff started getting ready to take him down for a CT scan to help locate his injuries. But he started "coding" — going into cardiac arrest.
"There were at least four or five nurses, three respiratory therapists, at least six paramedics and EMS people, plus a few physicians," Ayers said.
For three hours, they took turns performing CPR. They hoped to stabilize Nick, then cut him open and stop the bleeding.
"Everyone was crying," Ayers said. "His skin and chest were just saturated from water from tears."
Finally, a surgeon, Travis Methvin, was called to the ER to consult.
Methvin said he told Shelley that nothing more could be done. Nick's heart hadn't had any electrical activity for more than an hour. Blood was not reaching his brain and organs.
"We're done," he told her.
Shelley didn't immediately accept the surgeon's judgment.
"He was strong enough to look at me and say, 'The time is up now. It's time to stop CPR.'"
There was no autopsy. Nick's injuries were massive. Cause of death was ruled cerebral trauma.
His bones and skin were harvested. His eyes went to two different states.
"He was almost 6-foot-7, and he was 290, 300 pounds," Shelley said. "So they told me his back was so large that he was able to use the skin on his back for two burn victims, not just one."
They buried him on April 1, Shelley Layton's 28th birthday. About 2,000 people came to his funeral.
"Although I do know a lot of people with my job, it is nothing compared to who Nick knew," Shelley said. His friends were "too numerous to count."
Tammy Fletcher, Whitaker's girlfriend, said he was drunk the night of the crash.
(Whitaker, now serving 25 years in prison for second-degree murder in the crash that killed Nick Layton, at first agreed to speak with a Post-Dispatch reporter, then changed his mind.)
Fletcher said in an interview that Whitaker had stopped by her house in Potosi about 5 p.m. She said she told him to leave because he was intoxicated and she didn't want him around their 4-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship.
"I always told him, 'With your drinking and driving, do you want to kill your daughter, or someone else? Do you want to kill yourself?'"
Whitaker called Fletcher again about 8 p.m. on his cell. He was upset about an argument with his father about a piece of property. She said she told him to find a place to stay the night.
He swerved his Caprice into the parking lot of a Red Cedar Lodge in Bonne Terre and drove 3 feet off an upper parking lot to a lower one, damaging a retaining wall.
Motel workers saw him stumble into the lobby. One of them called 911.
Whitaker dropped to his knees, records show, saying, "Lord, help these people."
The manager offered him a room, a ploy to stall him until police arrived. But Whitaker got back into his Caprice and sped off.
It wasn't the first time he beat the law.
Records are spotty and poorly kept, but they portray a chronic drunken driver who was arrested at least four times and suffered few consequences.
His driving record shows that he refused a breath test in a DWI stop in 1992. The location is not listed.
He was arrested for DWI on May 22, 2004, in Leadington, a city in St. Francois County. Police and court officials there did not respond to a reporter's request to view records about the case.
Records from the Layton crash indicate that a court gave Whitaker a plea deal in the Leadington case called a "suspended imposition of sentence," which kept a DWI conviction off his record. He was placed on probation for two years.
He violated the terms of the probation twice, records show, but it apparently was never revoked.
The next DWI arrest was Feb. 26, 2005, by a state trooper in St. Francois County. A Missouri Highway Patrol report said there was "no disposition" known in the case. It was not clear whether authorities tried to prosecute the case, but Whitaker was not charged.
A few months later, Whitaker was driving drunk again.
Dave Moritz and his son were heading from one hockey game to another on May 5, 2005, on Highway 40 in Chesterfield. Moritz remembers a jolt from behind, his vehicle spinning, and his 13-year-old son in his back seat yelling, "Oh, my God, oh, my God!"
Their SUV had lost every piece of glass, but they were OK, aside from stiff necks.
Moritz said he approached Whitaker's car and saw him reach under his seat for a bottle of mouthwash.
St. Louis County prosecutors gave Whitaker another suspended imposition of sentence. He pleaded guilty to two counts of DWI assault, but would avoid a conviction if he completed five years of probation.
He didn't do a day in jail, just 30 days of house arrest.
State law says a second-time DWI offender is not eligible for a suspended imposition of sentence. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch did not respond to a request for comment.
The next time authorities had a shot at putting Whitaker away, it was after the call from Red Cedar Lodge, the motel in Bonne Terre. But police didn't get there in time.
Whitaker was headed up Highway 67, about to destroy Shelley Layton's dream of growing old with her husband.