COLUMBIA It was a sunny afternoon in May 2011 when a 20-year-old USC student, high on drugs and alcohol, blew through a red light at Whaley and Assembly streets, slamming into a car driven by a well-known Lexington County preacher.
It was a tragic moment that would devastate the families of Billy Dean Randall and Mary McAllister Reames.
Randall, 71, died at that intersection, leaving behind a large, deeply religious family.
For Reames, a bright future potentially lay in ruins as she faced up to 25 years in prison for felony driving under the influence.
But the Randall family did something rare amidst their deep grief.
Instead of calling for vengeance, they offered forgiveness.
They embraced Mary Reames and her father, Gil Reames. They prayed with them, invited them to church and followed Mary Reames’ progress through drug and alcohol rehab while she waited to go to court.
“As a family, we had peace knowing God would take care of him,” Nathan Randall said of his grandfather. “Reaching out with forgiveness was a healing factor for us. We wanted to see change in Mary’s life and for her to have a relationship with God.”
So when Mary Reames, now 22, stood before a Richland County judge last week, the Randall family stood with her and asked for mercy.
Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein sentenced Reames to one year in prison and ordered her to pay a $10,100 fine, the minimum punishments allowed by S.C. law for felony DUI.
Goodstein, who declined to comment for this story, also gave Reames five years of probation with monthly drug and alcohol testing. And Reames must perform 500 hours of community service – under the direction of Stephen Williamson, the pastor of Gethsemane Baptist Church, which was founded in 1976 by Billy Dean Randall.
All of this – the forgiveness, the mercy, the peace – is unusual in the legal system.
“In my 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Pete Strom, Reames’ defense attorney.
A pilot and a preacher
Billy Dean Randall spent a lifetime preaching and flying.
He was considered a first-class pilot who taught hundreds of other Midlands aviators to fly. His knowledge of airplanes and understanding of flight were well-respected throughout the aviation community.
Billy Dean Randall also was a man of faith who flew countless mission trips to preach and help the poor in the Caribbean. He not only founded a church but fought in federal court for the First Amendment rights of street preachers.
In the 1980s, he was part of a band of fiery street preachers who delivered hellfire sermons on the sidewalks of Columbia, Swansea and Beaufort. He was arrested numerous times.
When Beaufort created a noise ordinance aimed to silence Randall and the other street preachers, he sued and won.
Nathan Randall said his grandfather never passed up an opportunity to witness to others, whether it was on a city sidewalk or in the cockpit of an airplane. He always was patient with those in need, even when they called at 2 a.m. to ask for help.
“He wasn’t selfish,” said Nathan Randall, who lived with his grandfather for seven years. “He didn’t think about pleasing himself.”
Randall was the pulpit minister for Gethsemane Baptist Church until 2003. In recent years, he and his wife, Doris, had moved to another church to help it grow.
But some of Randall’s four children and 14 grandchildren still attend Gethsemane, and Williamson, its minister, was ordained by Randall.
It was Williamson who reached out to the Reames family with the Randalls’ blessing.
“I knew she was hurting, and I knew she needed the Lord,” Williamson said. “I’m supposed to do what Christ would do – reach out to this woman who is hurting and alone.”
Williamson also extended his support to Gil Reames, a single father and financial adviser who lives in Camden.
He invited Gil Reames to lunch. Pretty soon, Nathan Randall joined them. The men talked and prayed.
They wanted Gil Reames to come to services at Gethsemane.
But he was reluctant.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “My child was involved in a terrible accident that took the man who started this church. I felt like my family had harmed these people enough, and I wasn’t going to do anything to cause any more pain.”
The first night Reames worked up the nerve to drive to Lexington for Wednesday night services, he was running late. He stood outside the door, willing himself to go inside.
“‘Do I open it?’ I struggled with myself,” he said, “and I have to tell you it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done for myself.”
Inside, Gil Reames found God.
He found God in the people who embraced him in spite of the horrible thing his daughter had done.
“What’s the most popular Bible verse? Psalm 23? A lot of people know the words,” Reames said. “These folks know the shepherd.”
In the 20 months since the accident, Gil Reames became a familiar face at Gethsemane. And so did his daughter.
“I’ve prayed with Mary and her father right here on this altar,” Williamson said Wednesday night after services.
A student and a killer
At the time of the accident, Mary Reames was a junior criminal justice major with a 3.6 grade point average and a job in a Columbia law office.
Her father knew his daughter drank and partied, he said. But like any other parent with a child away at college, he was not around to see her day-to-day behavior.
When Mary Reames’s blood was tested an hour and 45 minutes after the 5:30 p.m. wreck, her blood alcohol level was .169. Under South Carolina law, .08 is considered evidence of intoxication.
She also had evidence of marijuana and the prescription drug Xanax in her system.
USC’s spring semester had just ended. But Gil Reames said he never has learned where his daughter had been before she ran the red light and hit two cars, including the one Billy Dean Randall was driving.
He learned of Mary Reames’ arrest while walking his dogs after work. A friend, whose daughter roomed with Mary Reames, called with the news.
Short of learning a child has died, “as a parent, it’s the worst place you can imagine being,” Reames said as he recalled the bond hearing at the county jail.
He posted bail so his daughter could be released until her trial. Mary Reames immediately went to an inpatient alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and then a Christian residential recovery home.
She has stayed clean, her father and the Randalls said. But, most importantly to them, she has become a Christian.
During Reames’ sentencing hearing, Goodstein, the judge, asked Reames to describe herself.
When Reames finished, Goodstein looked down from her bench and said, “And a killer,” according to people who attended the hearing. The courtroom went silent.
When asked about the one-year sentence, Assistant Solicitor Dolly Justice Garfield said she had asked the judge for three to five years but accepted the decision.
Faith in sincerity
The Randall family is all too aware that cynics will suspect the Reames family acted like Christians so Mary Reames could avoid a 25-year prison sentence.
But Nathan Randall and Williamson said they have complete faith that Mary and Gil Reames are sincere.
“I do not want any misunderstanding,” Williamson said. “This all was initiated on my part.”
Added Nathan Randall, “People need to look for the good and find God.”
The church and the Randall family also know they took a risk in advocating in court for an addict. The odds of a relapse always are high for alcoholics and drug addicts.
Again, they have faith Mary Reames will beat the odds and stay sober once she is out of prison.
“We’re willing to take the risk,” said Kathy Randall, a daughter-in-law to Billy Dean Randall. “We’re praying for her. She made a bad mistake, but she’ll have to live with that the rest of her life.”
Mary Reames will be tested monthly after her release. If she is found to have either drugs or alcohol in her system, she will be sent to prison for 15 years.
Williamson said he has counseled hundreds of addicts as a minister and knows the risks. But Mary Reames has stayed clean in the 20 months since the accident and only someone who is determined can accomplish that, Williamson said.
“I’ve seen addicts who know they will lose everything turn back to it,” he said. “Even knowing they will go back to jail if they aren’t off drugs isn’t enough for some people.
“It said volumes to us with how she managed to keep herself clean. She’s made good decisions.”
And Mary Reames has a huge support system in God, her dad, the Randalls and the Gethsemane congregation, said Nathan Randall, who has often spoken for the family since the accident.
“With all of the love she has received, it’s going to be a lot harder to go back to that,” he said of the drugs and alcohol.
Hope for a good life
Mary Reames is scheduled to be released in January 2014. For now, her father is not worried about his daughter finishing college or what her next step will be.
Instead, he is grateful that she will get another chance, one that is available because a family found it in themselves to forgive.
“They gave my child her life back,” Gil Reames said. “My daughter has an unshakable faith.”
People who have committed horrible acts need forgiveness, Williamson said.
“Without knowing there’s hope for forgiveness, there’s a tendency to not want to live again,” he said. “It’s human nature.”
Forgiveness is what Billy Dean Randall would have wanted, Williamson and Nathan Randall said. If he knew Mary Reames’ life and soul could be saved through his death, then the pastor would be satisfied, they said.
“Forgiveness doesn’t mean what you did is OK,” Williamson said. “Forgiveness is we choose to love you despite what happened. Forgiveness is we harbor no ill will toward you. We want you to know the Lord.
“With 15 years in prison, she would have no life. We want the best for Mary when she gets out.”