News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011
GROVETOWN, Ga. -- The last five months have been a nightmare for 17-year-old Amber Lever -- one she's forced to relive over and over.
In May, she was driving the SUV that wrecked and killed one of her best friends, Taylor Gazaway. Amber admitted to second-degree vehicular homicide and was sentenced to one year behind bars. She served 14 days before a judge released her in time for her senior year of high school.
It was a sunny, summer afternoon in May. Six teenagers were enjoying their first week of summer freedom with a lunch date, but it was the ride home that changes all of their lives forever.
"They came around this curve, and as they came around this curve they hit this gravel," recalled neighbor Christina Morris. "It sounded like a brick wall."
Seventeen-year-old Taylor had just graduated from Evans High School, and in an instant, he was gone.
"Everyone loved him, nobody disliked him. He was always there to help anyone out. He was a good friend," said one of Taylor's friends after the accident.
One of Taylor's best friend's, Amber, was driving. She came around the curve too fast, lost control and slammed into a tree. The impact killed Taylor.
"Tell me what you remember about the accident," said reporter Katie Beasley.
"I don't really remember any details about the accident, really at all. It was just kind of like a blur," Amber responded.
The side of the tree they hit is still deeply scraped; the scars have yet to heal for the tree or for Amber.
"Taylor was a very outgoing person. He had an awesome personality, someone you always want to be around. You could always count on Taylor to make you smile," cried Amber.
Taylor and Amber had been friends for more than a year, and their families say they were just about joined at the hip.
"It's hard to lose anyone, but under the circumstances, it was very difficult. I wish I could change what happened, every day. If I could bring Taylor back, I would," Amber said.
"The hardest part is the just the heartache. The heartache for everyone that was involved," explained Kim Lever, Amber's mother. "I didn't think that we would ever get to a day where we didn't cry every day."
At the time of the accident, Amber was just 16. By law, she could only drive with one friend in the car. That day, there were five. And it wasn't the first time she had been caught. In Juvenile Court, Amber entered an admission of second-degree vehicular homicide. This time, she was sentenced to one year behind bars.
"It was nerve-racking the first day of court, I was very nervous and scared," Amber said.
"What was going through your mind when he said 'a year in jail?'" asked Katie.
"What am I going to do for a year in jail?" Amber responded. "I didn't know what to expect. A year in jail ... that's a lot of time. It was all kinds of emotions. I was sad, I was angry."
"It was almost surreal, like I misunderstood what he said. I just know what a wonderful child that I have, and I know that she didn't deserve to be in a place like that," added Kim.
Amber spent two weeks in a youth detention center before her family and friends packed a courtroom to ask for her release in July. Even Taylor's mother, Dana Banker, spoke through tears in front of the judge.
"I'm so thankful for Mrs Dana. She is an angel sent from heaven. I think that's why I'm sitting here today," Amber said.
"My heart bleeds for Dana, I love her. She is a wonderful woman. I pray that I could be the woman she is," Kim said.
Amber was released in time to attend a candlelight vigil on what would have been Taylor's 18th birthday.
The judge ordered her to say a few words to the crowd.
"I made a mistake, and I have accepted all the responsibilities for that mistake. I know that teenagers drive with too many people in the car all the time. But I hope you all can look at me tonight and learn ... it's not worth it," Amber told the crowd in July.
Part of Amber's probation is to talk to other teen drivers. For the first time, she shared her story with other teens at the Columbia County Sheriff's Office. News 12 was there.
"It's been a struggle, as you guys can imagine. I was just going a little too fast. I turned on the road and I hit some gravel -- when I hit the gravel, I lost control of the car and then we hit a tree," Amber explained to the crowd, choking up at the memories of that day.
"Everyone went to the hospital, and in conclusion, my friend Taylor passed away," she cried.
The other teens listened silently as Amber shared the rest of her story through tears.
"You think something like that could never happen to you. You think, oh I'm just gonna ride with them, it's just going to happen one time, that's not going to be me," said Angelica Concepcion, a student at Lakeside High School taking part in the Columbia County Youth Leadership program. "You can ruin everything with one stupid mistake."
"I feel like it actually got to people, and it just makes me feel good," Amber said.
"I think, Katie, that I'm very proud of Amber with the way that she's handling what happened and taking responsibility for what happened," explained her mother, Kim.
And it won't be the last time Amber speaks out; she knows she has a powerful message for teen drivers. The site of the accident, the broken tree, is just a few hundred yards from Amber's home. As she leaves her neighborhood each day, she's forced back to that sunny, summer day.
"It's gotten a lot easier now. At first it was a reminder of the accident in itself, but now it's like Taylor, and I know Taylor's in heaven," she said.
Amber is in the middle of her senior year. She's still on probation and can't get her license back until she's 18.
Taylor would be 18 now, and his mother told us he would be in school working toward his dream of being an oral surgeon.
Mrs. Banker said if Taylor could have stood in that courtroom and spoken for himself this summer, he would have hugged Amber and told her to carry on with her life and make it the best she could. Mrs. Banker says speaking out to other teenagers is a way to do that.
Amber and some of Taylor's other friends will be holding a fundraising car-wash for Taylor's mother. If you would like to help, it will be Saturday, Nov. 5 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Advance Auto Parts on Columbia Road in Martinez.
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