WNYT.com

Addiction counselor charged with murder in DUI

Updated at: 11/28/2012 4:35 AM
By GILLIAN FLACCUS and LINDA DEUTSCH

(AP) TORRANCE, Calif. - The convertible hit Phillip Moreno so hard that it knocked him out of his shoes and lodged him in the windshield.

As he lay dying on the hood, police said, Sherri Lynn Wilkins kept going another two miles until other motorists swarmed her car at a traffic light and grabbed her keys.

Wilkins, who was charged Tuesday with murder and driving drunk, told police she struck the man after leaving work and panicked. Police said her blood alcohol level was more than double the legal limit.

Her arrest on a street corner between home and her job as a drug and alcohol counselor seemed to be a return to a dark past that Wilkins once celebrated leaving behind. The convict and recovering addict had recently gone back to school, gotten a job and was reuniting with her family, including a new grandchild.

"It’s a really tragic situation for both parties," said her neighbor, Crystal Witherspoon. "I’m trying to understand it myself, because from what I knew of her, she was a kind-hearted person. She was trying very hard."

Tami Jimenez, a recovering alcoholic who worked with Wilkins, said the case serves as a bitter reminder for all addicts about the dangers of relapse.

"I’m headed for a meeting tonight," she said. "It’s unfortunate and it’s tragic and it’s sad, but it’s a reminder that the disease of addiction can take you out at any time."

Wilkins’ arraignment was postponed until next month at a brief court hearing Tuesday. She was ordered held on $2.25 million bail.

Twenty members of Moreno’s extended family attended the hearing and spoke afterward of the fun-loving man who adored the Lakers and the Raiders and was a whiz at remembering sports statistics. Moreno was nicknamed "Chud" because of his love of Budweiser beer and spent his last day watching college football with friends.

"We thank the citizens who stopped Wilkins and gave him some peace in his waning moments," family attorney Kevin Danesh said outside court. "Anyone who would dare to drink and drive, let this be a lesson to them."

Danesh said the family is also seeking answers about where Wilkins was before the accident. Her boss has said it was unlikely she was coming from work, as she told police, so late on a Saturday.

Moreno had three beers at a bar called The Branch Office just a half-block from the accident scene on Saturday and left around 11 p.m. to walk home, said bartender Virginia Zarate. Less than an hour later, police swarmed the streets, tracing their way back to the initial impact, she said.

"We started seeing a bunch of lights and we went out, and the cops said it was a hit-and-run, but we had no clue who it was," she said as a memorial of balloons, flowers and candles sprouted up down the street.

Wilkins’ arrest shocked friends, who said she was working to rebuild her life after a criminal record stretching back more than 20 years.

She attended Loyola Marymount University, where she was enrolled in an alcohol and drug counseling certification program and was hired by Twin Town Treatment Centers a year ago to work with other addicts in a group setting, said David Lisonbee, the company CEO.

She ran evening sessions at the Torrance location and consistently received high marks on evaluations by patients, he said. Wilkins often stayed late to meet one-on-one with patients who were struggling and helped one client with homework assignments after realizing he couldn’t read, Jimenez said.

"We’ve gotten some calls from people saying, `She really saved my life,’" Jimenez said. "Everybody loved Sherri, the employees, the patients, just everybody loved her."

Most recently, Wilkins was thrilled with the birth of her granddaughter _ her first grandchild _ but struggled with ankle pain from an accident and was considering surgery to fix the problem, Jimenez said.

On her Myspace profile, Wilkins noted that she had been drug-free for 11 years, was a Buddhist and was planning trips to Chicago to see her daughter, a medical intern, and to Hawaii.

"I used to be into drugs very heavy, with that came terrible choices, the loss of all my family and freedom. Today four of my children are in my life," Wilkins wrote.

Lisonbee, her boss, confirmed the woman in the Myspace profile was Wilkins.

Court records show Wilkins was convicted of first-degree burglary in 1989 and a month later of having narcotics while in custody. In 1994, she was convicted along with a co-defendant on one count of burglary and given nine years in prison.

In 2001, Wilkins was convicted of having a controlled substance into a jail or a prison, said Luis Patino, spokesman for the California Department of Corrections.

Prison records show she was paroled in 2008, he said.

Two years later, Wilkins was arrested for hit-and-run after she knocked over a power pole that was then hit by three other cars, said Assistant City Attorney Patrick Sullivan.

She had no alcohol or drugs in her system, however, and the case was dismissed when she and the owners of other vehicles reached an agreement, he said.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)