Drunk driver sped on I-77, leaving 1 dead, 1 hurt. She wished she could ‘change it.’

Jeannine Valdes
Jeannine Valdes

A drunken driver who was speeding almost 100 MPH on Interstate 77 before a June 2016 crash that left one woman dead and another injured was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty Monday.

Jeannine Kantus Valdes, 36, had marijuana in her system and a blood alcohol content of .174 - more than twice the legal limit, prosecutors said in court Monday. Valdes was driving as high as 98 MPH on northbound I-77 in Rock Hill when she slammed into a car headed in the same direction, causing both vehicles to careen off the interstate and down an embankment.

Valdes had just left her two children at a friend’s house where she had been drinking and smoking pot when she got on the interstate, passing cars and swerving across lanes of traffic.

Lacee Sullivan, 23, of Monroe, N.C., the passenger in the other car, died from the crash. The driver of the other car, Gabrielle Williams, 22, suffered brain and other injuries, prosecutors said.

Williams, the surviving victim, asked for a severe sentence, saying in court, “I watched someone I love die – it happened right before my eyes.”

Williams described the “crumbling of the car” and the “flipping and tumbling” of the crash where her car landed on its roof. She spoke of how she has memory loss and other physical problems, plus huge medical bills because Valdes had no auto insurance.

Williams said she saw Valdes stumbling drunk at the crash site.

“She killed someone – Lacee,” Williams said in court of Valdes. “She used a four- or five- thousand-pound weapon. ... She has single-handedly wrecked my life.”

Valdes apologized to Williams and Sullivan’s family in court, saying, “Nothing is adequate to make up for what I have done.”

Valdes, mother of two children ages 3 and 9, said she has to “repay the world” for her decision to drive after drinking and using drugs, and is attending both Alcoholics Anonymous and a substance-abuse program.

“When I think of all the wonderful moments that Lacee’s family will miss sharing with her, I am overwhelmed with guilt,” Valdes said. “She is now gone from this earth because of the decision I made to drink and drive that night. I wish I could go back and change it...”

Valdes’ family, friends and her lawyer, Jim Morton, described a loving person whose decision that day was out of character in a life of generosity – and that Valdes’ remorse is honest and will last forever.

Prosecutors asked for a harsh sentence that sends a message about the dangers of impaired driving and got one from Judge Dan Hall.

“I appreciate the very difficult decision Judge Hall had to make – these cases are very emotionally charged,” 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said after court. “And this sentence sends a serious message, a stern warning, to anyone who might make a decision to get behind the wheel and drive after drinking.”

Sullivan died four days before her 24th birthday. Her family asked for a harsh sentence in saying that the death was a choice Valdes made to get loaded and drive - and the crime was no different than if Valdes took a gun and shot Sullivan.

“Lacee was given a death sentence,” said Sullivan’s mother, Deitra Johnson, in court.