Drunk driver sentenced for woman's death

Charlie Sybrant died Oct. 18, 2009, when a drunk driver struck her near an interstate ramp.

The man who was driving the car that killed the 22-year-old will now spend up to 55 months in prison.

Daniel Whisnant — charged with killing Sybrant, injuring another and fleeing the scene — pleaded guilty to five charges on Tuesday, including felony death by motor vehicle, felony serious injury by motor vehicle and two counts of felony hit and run with injury. He also pleaded guilty to DWI and driving while his license was revoked.

Superior Court Judge James W. Morgan sentenced him to 38-55 months in prison for the charges.

Before being sentenced, Whisnant, now 20, begged Sybrant’s parents for forgiveness.

Placing one hand on his chest and another on his stomach, he trembled and moaned, as tears dripped off his chin.

“I hit them and I’m very sorry,” he said to Sybrant’s parents, Michael and Dee. His voice echoed across a courtroom filled with his family members as well as friends and family related to Sybrant.

“If I would have known it was a person, I would have come back,” he said. “I wish I could take it back. I think about her every single day. I wish it never happened."

According to police, investigators and state attorneys, Sybrant and her friend, Joshua Gajus, were walking alongside the northbound on-ramp from Interstate 40 to U.S. 321 in the early morning hours of Oct. 18, 2009, when they were struck by a car.

Investigators say the two were walking for help on the side of the road after running out of gas on the interstate.

Sybrant was killed. Assistant District Attorney Sean McGinnis said her left foot was removed from her body and there were multiple injuries to her back and chest.

Gajus, who was walking with Sybrant, was also struck, but survived after suffering a laceration to his left leg.

The driver of the car, Whisnant, fled the scene.

When police arrived to the accident scene, investigators found parts to a Chevrolet vehicle and put out a “be on the lookout alert” for the hit-and-run vehicle in and around Hickory, McGinnis said.

Later that night, Valdese Police Officer Tim Branch stopped a Chevrolet Impala on suspicion the driver was impaired. Whisnant and a friend, Joey Durham, were inside the car.

Branch also noticed there was heavy damage to the Impala and suspected the car was involved in the accident at the I-40 on-ramp to U.S. 321.

Officers questioned the two men and performed a breathalyzer test on Whisnant, who blew a .12 blood alcohol content.

Both men admitted to hitting “something” and admitted to fleeing the scene.

Hickory officers obtained blood, hair and tissue samples from the Impala and that were tested in Chapel Hill, and it was determined the samples came from Sybrant’s body, McGinnis said.

Whisnant was indicted shortly after the incident and has been in and out of court since.

Whisnant said Tuesday he’s devastated and sorry for what happened. He said he thought what he hit was a deer or animal, not two people. He and his attorney, Andrew Jennings, say he wouldn’t have fled the scene if he knew it was a person.

“I’m very, very sorry,” he told Sybrant’s parents. Please find it in you to forgive just a little bit.”

Jennings and Whisnant’s family members said the accident has caused Whisnant to have serious depression and mental unstableness. Whisnant said Tuesday that he has not been able to sleep after seeing images of a young girl at the foot of his bed.

Sybrant’s family and friends expressed mixed emotions after the plea, but most did not agree with the length of Whisnant’s sentence.

Meredith Sigmon was one of many friends and family who attended the plea hearing in support of Sybrant. Like the rest of the crowd, Sigmon wore pink, Sybrant’s favorite color.

She said the sentence is not enough.

“We’ve waited so long for this and have heard so many different things,” she said. “He’s going to be locked up for three or four years and we have the rest of our lives without her.”

Sybrant was a graduate student at Appalachian State University. As an undergraduate, she graduated from ASU at the top of her class and served as a resident assistant and resident director at school. Her father, Michael, said she was the youngest person to serve on the Governors Crime Prevention Council.

At the request of Sybrant's family, Whisnant's Chevrolet Impala will be used in the Catawba County Alcohol and Substance Abuse Program's Keys to Life, a drunk driving awareness program.

“She was only 22 when she was hit and killed,” Michael said to the court.

“(Whisnant) still has the ability to grow old, but he took her life away that day. My wife did not just lose a daughter, but her very best friend.”

It is unclear when and if the family will accept Whisnant's request for forgiveness.

"I've been raised that everyone deserves forgiveness if they ask for it, and he did,” said Dee Sybrant, Charlie’s mother. “Today's probably not the best day to answer that question. ...I've been raised that everybody deserves to be forgiven."