DADE CITY — When Christian Ward was in a nursing home, living off a feeding tube, his father made a vow.
"I promised my son years ago that I would follow this guy," David Ward said.
Charlton Oliver Jr. was the man behind the wheel in the 1994 crash that gravely injured Christian Ward, then 23. After 11 years, Christian died from those injuries, and in that time, two more fathers joined David Ward's sad fraternity.
In 2003, Oliver struck an 18-year-old jogger, who died. Five months later, Oliver ran off the road and killed his date, who was sitting in the passenger's seat.
Ward and the other victims' fathers met in court Wednesday. Together, they thought, they could beg a judge for justice.
Three people had died with Oliver behind the wheel, but this would be the first time he faced serious consequences.
• • •
Oliver was on his second or third date with Shelly Bingham in November 2003 when his car struck a tree on Coats Road in Zephyrhills. Bingham, 33, died 11 days later. A test showed Oliver's blood-alcohol content was 0.203, more than twice the level at which a driver is presumed impaired.
A jury convicted Oliver, now 49, of DUI manslaughter in March. His sentencing came Wednesday.
Assistant Public Defender Steve Herman argued that it was an emergency room doctor's negligence, not Oliver's driving, that caused Bingham's death, and that Oliver's heart condition, not his drunken state, caused him to pass out at the wheel.
Oliver's driving record also has two DUI convictions, one conviction for careless driving and four for speeding.
Assistant State Attorney Stacey Sumner pushed for prison time. "Most … people learn their lesson. Mr. Oliver has been dealing with alcohol-related traffic incidents for 30 years," she said. "It's got to stop."
• • •
James Harp, Walter Singletary and David Ward have gotten to know each other well through years of court hearings. They came to support each other through their common grief and to seek one end: to get Oliver off the road and out of society.
Harp, a balding man with glasses, is Shelly Bingham's stepfather. He told the judge that Bingham's young son struggled for years after her death. He began to mention the other families affected by the defendant's conduct when Oliver's attorney rose to object to any of the past incidents being mentioned.
Harp moved on. "He does not belong out on the road," he said.
For Singletary, a burly man with a gray beard, justice has had no voice. In June 2003, Oliver's car struck his son Levi as he jogged along the side of a road in Dade City. The popular high school graduate and athlete hit the windshield and later died in a hospital.
Authorities investigated and determined Oliver was not at fault.
Walter Singletary hadn't said a word at the hearing Wednesday before Herman objected again. He reminded the judge that Oliver was exonerated in Levi's death and said it would be "legally inappropriate" for the father to speak at all."
The judge allowed Walter Singletary the floor. He didn't mention his son.
"I believe Charlton Oliver is a danger to other people in the community, especially behind the wheel of a car," he said.
David Ward, a man with white hair and a small build, spoke last, again over the defense's objection.
"It's a sin that these people are dead and they shouldn't have to be," he said.
• • •
Senior Judge Crockett Farnell called the medical testimony from the defense "quite interesting" but ultimately dismissed it.
Telling Oliver he was "drunker than a hoot owl," Farnell sentenced him to 15 years in prison, the maximum allowed for the second-degree felony, and revoked his driver's license "forevermore."
"If there ever was a person on this God's green earth who should understand the ramifications of driving under the influence," the judge told Oliver, "it is you."
• • •
In the lobby outside the courtroom, Ward hugged Bingham's family. They call him Mr. Ward.
Ward's son Christian was a passenger in Oliver's Camaro in June 1994 when it flipped off Darby Road while going 140 mph.
Christian suffered brain damage and lived in a Bradenton nursing home until his death in 2005 at age 34.
When Oliver went to trial in 1996 for that accident, the jury cleared him of serious personal injury while driving under the influence, a felony charge that could have sent him to prison. Instead he was convicted of culpable negligence, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to a year of probation and a $1,000 fine — no jail time.
"He finally got what he deserved," David Ward said Wednesday. "The case is over for me now."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.