BROOKSVILLE — Minutes earlier, the teen had struck a pedestrian on a dark country road and, panic-stricken, driven off into the night. He dropped off his passenger, then swung by the home he shared with his mother, stepfather and two sisters. His mom, Ann Wagner, was already in bed. The teen coolly said hello to his stepfather, then went to his room to write a note. Mom, he wrote, it's not your fault. Please say goodbye to everybody for me.
Then he climbed out his bedroom window, got back into his 2008 Mazda and, with the headlights off, sneaked out of the driveway.
Later, about 40 miles north on U.S. 19, a Levy County sheriff's deputy pulled him over for speeding. The deputy was climbing out of his car when he heard a loud pop.
In little more than an hour, Andrew Altringer had turned a terrible mistake into a profound tragedy.
Around 1 a.m., Wagner was roused from a deep sleep when two Hernando County deputies rang the doorbell.
When she opened the door, she knew something was wrong.
"Ma'am, is this the home of Andrew Altringer?" one of the deputies asked.
Wagner tried to peek at the idling cruiser in her driveway, expecting Andrew to be sitting in the back seat. He had never been in real trouble, but maybe he had been out with friends, cow tipping.
"It's more serious than that," the deputy said.
Maybe a car accident?
"It's worse than that."
Then came the unfathomable: Her son had killed himself with a rifle during a traffic stop just over the Levy County line, ending a promising life at the age of 18.
Ended it without knowing that the 22-year-old pedestrian he feared he had killed would survive and, through her father, forgive him and regret his death.
Before the accident, Altringer had a lot to live for.
He was a high school honor student who was headed to community college. He was in the National Guard and wanted to fight for his country one day. He was close to his family, had lots of friends and a new car. He had almost never disappointed his family.
"I'm not going to say he had the perfect life," Wagner said this week. "But he had everything he wanted."
Through her tears and overwhelming grief, Wagner called her son's friends in search of answers. As they pieced together the events of the night, things started to make sense.
Altringer had given himself the death penalty for an offense that prosecutors say might not have gotten him any jail time. Even if the pedestrian had died, his mother said, he could have paid the price and eventually turned his life around.
That's what she wants other young people to know. No mistake is worth taking your own life.
"Andrew never learned to deal with failure," Wagner said. "He was trying to save us from whatever he thought he had done. But there's nothing I wouldn't have done for him. There's always hope."
• • •
Now Wagner has heartache that won't ever go away. The past month, she said, has been almost unbearable.
"Nothing in your life can prepare you for this," said Wagner, sitting on the edge of a chair in her hushed living room. "The only thing I feel is grief and emptiness."
Only a month ago, her roomy home at the end of an unpaved, dusty road in the Royal Highlands neighborhood was full of life. The family had come to Hernando from Hilton Head, S.C., in 2004 after her husband found a job as a chef at a nearby country club.
Finally settled into their new home, Wagner doted on Andrew, her husband, Mik, daughters Kasie and Mikole, a parrot and four dogs. An older son, Nicholas, was off at the University of Central Florida.
The house always seemed to bubble with energy, from the joyful noise of young people to the yapping of the dogs.
Wagner said she encouraged her kids to pursue a range of interests and friends. She took them to art and music classes, pushed them to volunteer with disabled children and urged them to never discriminate against others. She wanted her family to be distinctive yet tight-knit individuals.
Wagner also had some things she wanted her children to avoid: premarital sex, guns, drugs and alcohol. The big "no-no," she said, was drinking and driving.
Her children, all of them busy with extracurricular activities, had never given her reason to worry. Especially Andrew.
Until Feb. 5.
"Everyone feels invincible," Wagner said.
• • •
After school ended around 3 p.m. that Thursday, Wagner called her son on his cell phone. With no classes on Friday, he told her that he planned to spend the night at a friend's house.
They talked again before 9 p.m., she said. Altringer said he was headed to the friend's house.
That may have been true. But Altringer had other plans that his mom knew nothing about.
According to a report from the Levy County Sheriff's Office, Altringer and a friend, Kyle Case, 17, bought a case of beer at a Chevron convenience store in the 2700 block of Commercial Drive in Spring Hill sometime after 8 p.m.
Altringer had six beers and Case four while they drove around before striking the pedestrian, Alicia Anderson, as she walked along the side of a dirt road, according to the sheriff's report. Case told authorities he saw Anderson in a ditch and they fled, believing they had killed her.
About 10 p.m., Altringer dropped Case off at his home a few blocks away. Minutes later, Case said he called Altringer on his cell phone and told him to stop driving and go home. Case promised not to tell anyone.
Altringer never found out that Anderson suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries. She was released from the hospital the next evening.
Instead, he drove home, wrote the suicide note and drove north on U.S. 19.
About an hour later, just over the Citrus-Levy county line, a deputy stopped Altringer for going 80 mph in a 45-mph zone. The teen pulled over to the left, into the median. Before the deputy could get out of his car, Altringer fatally shot himself with a rifle that, unbeknownst to his mother, he had bought on his birthday a few weeks before.
"That last hour of his life wasn't the Andrew that I know," Wagner said. "I can't even pretend to know what he was thinking. He just completely lost it. Everything just fell apart."
• • •
Five days later, the funeral was held at the Glen Lakes Country Club in Weeki Wachee where Altringer, his mother and stepfather all worked.
About 300 people came to mourn the loss of a young man who seemed to have a bright future. He was set to graduate from Central High in May, then move in with his older brother in Orlando for two years of community college.
From there, Altringer planned to serve in the Army and then pursue a career in medicine or making money off his inventions. He was always tinkering with things and had already hooked up one of his bicycles with a gas tank.
"He was very involved in everything," his mother said. "He was going in 15 different directions."
Now, Wagner said, she is angry, sad and numb, sometimes all at once. Some days are worse than others.
"It's almost like you go into another mode — most of my life since then has been on autopilot," she said. "I now have a reason not to fear death. I'm torn between two worlds."
But Wagner does not plan to suffer in silence. Or in vain.
She wants to reach out to more teens, talk to them about finding hope in the bleakest of situations. The day before the funeral, she made a point of talking with her son's classmates in the Distributive Education Club of America.
She also would like to ensure underage kids are never able to buy alcohol. Wagner strongly believes alcohol impaired the judgment of her son in those final, desperate moments of his life.
"Eighteen is too young to have a drink," Wagner said. "The person who sold him that beer should be shot."
In the meantime, Wagner is working on healing the wound in her heart. She has cut back on her hours at work and focused on rebuilding her life. She longs for a day when the pain isn't so staggering.
"You have to cry, you have to be angry, you have to move on," she said. "Someday, I'll get my life back."
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.