June 17--To Virginia native Steve Bauer, Robeson County was just a remote and drab stretch of Interstate 95 that stood between him and Myrtle Beach last year on Memorial Day weekend.
To the 134,000 people who make a home in this southeastern corner of the state, Bauer was just another stranger pushing through the north-south corridor on his way to more tempting destinations.
But Robeson County became Bauer's final stop. Early in the morning, 2 miles shy of the South Carolina border, Bauer, 54, ran out of gas. As he walked along a narrow shoulder to fetch a can of gas at a nearby exit, a woman from New York fell asleep at the wheel and veered off the road, instantly killing Bauer.
At the time, the incident was like so many others for the communities that envelop I-95. It posed a traffic hassle on a busy holiday weekend and warranted a brief mention in local media outlets.
Now, more than a year after Bauer's death, the people of Robeson County are coming to know Bauer's name, his legacy and the justice his friends say he was denied at the Robeson County Courthouse.
The driver who hit Bauer, 50-year-old Lori Ann Lawrence, was held responsible for a minor traffic violation: failure to maintain lane control. Johnson Britt, the longtime district attorney in Robeson County, agreed to dismiss the misdemeanor death by motor vehicle charge last October after seeing proof that Lawrence's auto insurer was paying a settlement to Bauer's family.
Bauer's friends, a collection of old and young that stretch across the country, say that's not enough. They wanted to see Lawrence jailed or, at least, her license revoked. To try and shame Britt, they bought a full-page advertisement earlier this month in The Robesonian, Lumberton's newspaper, and paid for a billboard close to the Lumberton courthouse. A Facebook page devoted to Steve Bauer's case has connected local residents with Bauer's friends and family.
"For our dear friend to drive through the state of North Carolina and get hit and killed; and the result being someone doesn't even get a point on their license, it's so hard to swallow," said Del Flint, Bauer's high school friend who now lives in Wilmington.
A dangerous stretch
The 182 miles of I-95 that snake through Eastern North Carolina are dotted with truck stops and cigarette outlet stores. For stretches, there's nothing at all.
Few travelers stop in Robeson County; most ready for a pit stop are lured to the restaurants, stores and amusements of South of the Border. Part of the interstate in Robeson County is so narrow that troopers try to avoid pulling over speeders and posing another hazard, said Britt, the district attorney.
"Once you come south of Fayetteville, 95 is more like an old highway, narrow and small," he said.
The interstate was a gift in its time, linking North Carolina with others north and south. Much of it was laid in the 1950s with grants from the federal government, and the last stretches were finished in the 1980s.
Little has been done since, and state transportation officials are desperate to widen the interstate, replace old bridges and freshen paving. They say that while it is less traveled than some other interstates, such as I-40, it had more fatalities from 2006 to 2009 than other interstate that run through the state. In 2011, Bauer and 23 others died on I-95 in North Carolina. About a quarter were traveling from other states.
A fair bit of Britt's day is spent cleaning up the highway's wreckage.
He prosecutes drug traffickers using I-95 to haul bricks of cocaine north and south. He also hands out fines and license penalties to those who ignore the 70 mph speed postings. He punishes those who drink and drive. Too often, he'll have to figure out what to do with the driver who pushed too hard and was lulled to sleep as he or she passed through his county.
Robeson County has the notorious distinction of often leading the state's counties in roadway fatalities. In the week leading up to the June advertisement in The Robesonian about Bauer's death, six people died in crashes in the county, Britt said. Two of the four crashes involved drivers who fell asleep at the wheel.
"A lot of families of victims fail to make the distinction between 'this is an accident' as opposed to 'an intentional act' that caused it," Britt said. "They don't understand why I don't send them all to jail."
Britt often dismisses a misdemeanor death by motor vehicle charge once he is sure that the driver's insurer is settling civil claims. In 2011, only half of the drivers charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle in North Carolina were convicted. Britt proved harder than most. In the last five years, he convicted 18 of the 31 drivers charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle in Robeson County.
"This was a tragedy," Britt said. "A lady fell asleep at the wheel. I dare say everyone who has driven has experienced that. Unfortunately, she hit him."
Because Lawrence, 50, had a clean record, the most punishment Britt could have ensured was a yearlong license suspension. He could have pushed for probation, but that would have depended on another state's probation system being willing to supervise her, which is never guaranteed for a misdemeanor conviction, Britt said.
Pushing too far
Steve Bauer liked to test limits.
In high school in Arlington, Va., he was a standout gymnast, working late into the evening on nights his other teammates didn't practice. His senior year, his team took the Virginia state championship.
He never wanted to do anything other than gymnastics, so he turned to teaching, a natural fit for his even temperament and likability with children.
In the early 1990s, Bauer opened his own gym in Northern Virginia. For nearly 20 years, he taught thousands of kids how to tumble and balance on beams.
"To Steve, those students were his kids," said Jody Rusher, a close friend. "He put everything he had into them."
Bauer was a confirmed bachelor who created a family through friendships. Friends say he was the glue that kept them all connected through the years, making sure each new of another's latest developments as they started families and advanced through careers. Bauer traveled to see his friends often and chatted with others during road trips as he zigzagged the country.
When he died, Bauer was headed to Myrtle Beach to housesit for an out-of-town friend and enjoy a warm weekend at the beach.
A night owl, Bauer left Virginia in the early hours of May 27, hoping to beat traffic and reach the beach by lunchtime.
As he pushed through Robeson County to the South Carolina border, his car was on empty. Bauer liked to push his luck, Rusher said.
"This was a big game to him, getting that little extra out of a tank," Rusher said. "It drove me crazy, and it became his demise...Such a stupid thing as this could take my buddy away."
Lori Ann Lawrence was pushing her limits that day, too. Her family was moving to Florida from New York that weekend, and she'd been driving through much of the night. She trailed her husband in their Cadillac, her 8-year-old daughter strapped in behind her, said her attorney, Jerry Beaver of Fayetteville.
Just before 6 a.m., she nodded off and veered onto the shoulder, plowing over Bauer. At first, she wasn't sure what she hit. She pulled over, called 911 and waited for a patrolman, Britt said.
A state trooper determined Lawrence wasn't speeding or impaired. He issued a citation for failing to maintain lane control and misdemeanor death by motor vehicle and sent the Lawrence family on their way.
Lawrence could not be reached. Beaver said the accident has haunted her, too.
For Bauer's friends, that is not enough. They want punishment.
Britt said the case is closed and nothing will be done to reopen it. He said that Bauer's friends are entitled to their rage, but he feels that he delivered the right justice in the case.
As for the heat he's getting, Britt said it is part of his job. He hasn't gone looking for the billboard and he doesn't use Facebook.
"I do take all of these cases seriously," Britt said. "But it's not the first time I've been criticized, and I'm sure it won't be the last."
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