BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — PEABODY — They were best friends who shared a love of cars, darts and having a good time.
Michael Fowler always drove, because his friend Daniel Walker didn’t have a license.
On the night of May 23 and into the early morning hours of May 24, Fowler, now 39, and Walker, 31, went to a darts tournament at the Swampscott VFW hall, then hopped from there to two other bars, the Moose Lodge in Salem and then the Courthouse Pub in Peabody, a prosecutor and a lawyer for the victim’s family said.
They consumed what the family’s lawyer described as “a waterfall” of alcohol.
By the time they were done, Fowler had a blood alcohol level of .24, more than three times the legal limit, as he drove his Hyundai down Walnut Street, a prosecutor said.
It doesn’t appear that Fowler even saw the flatbed tow truck parked illegally in front of 86 Walnut St., said prosecutor Susan Dolhun. He didn’t brake, didn’t swerve.
He crashed into the truck, and the impact decapitated Walker.
Fowler apologized yesterday, moments before a Salem Superior Court judge announced his sentence of 21/2 to three years in state prison.
“I know what I did and I can’t change it,” said an emotional Fowler. “I’m sorry to the family, and, like, Daniel’s a good friend. I love him.
“I disappointed my wife,” said Fowler, whose son was born while he was in custody awaiting trial. “I killed my best friend. I freaked out. I saw things that were unbelievable. No one should ever have to see that.”
Prosecutors were seeking a six-to-eight year prison term for Fowler, who pleaded guilty yesterday to charges of manslaughter, motor vehicle homicide while driving drunk and negligently, and leaving the scene of a personal injury accident with death resulting.
Dolhun, an assistant district attorney, said it was Fowler’s decision to run from the scene after the crash — passing not only an ambulance and EMT that had stopped to help, but a fire station and nearly four dozen houses where he could have asked for help — that led to her recommendation, along with a prior drunken driving charge in 2010.
When police did find him, about three-quarters of a mile away, covered in cuts and blood, Fowler continued to insist he was going home to his wife, who was due to give birth in two weeks, said the prosecutor.
At one point, he took a fighting stance, said Dolhun, and refused to cooperate as police tried to place him under arrest. He grew combative when he learned that hospital workers planned to take a blood sample, the evidence that would show how drunk he was that night.
But while Walker’s family had once been in agreement with the prosecution’s recommendation, said Dolhun, they now support the recommendation of Fowler’s attorney, Gary Zerola, for a 21/2 to three-year sentence, the term that Judge Howard Whitehead said he will impose next month during sentencing.
“It has been almost 11 months,” said Gail MacDonald, Walker’s aunt. “The saying is time heals all wounds; I respectfully disagree. Time has not healed the gaping wound that was ripped into my family. Some days it consumes your every waking moment.”
But at the same time, Walker’s family has been grateful for Fowler’s cooperation with their attorney, Terrence Kennedy, who said yesterday that he is preparing civil suits against the bars that he says overserved Fowler — who estimated he’d consumed 20 to 24 drinks that night — and the tow company that illegally left the flatbed on a side street overnight.
Kennedy said that without Fowler’s help, the suit would be difficult to prove.
“Those people have to be held accountable,” said Kennedy. “Mr. Fowler has been incredibly cooperative with us. We have nothing to offer him.”
Zerola, Fowler’s attorney, said he has wanted to take responsibility since the day he was arraigned.
“If he could have pled guilty the day he was arraigned, he would have,” said Zerola. “He wants to take responsibility. The first day he was in court he wanted to speak to the Walker family and apologize. Words just can’t explain the hurt and remorse he feels. He loved Danny like a brother.”
Fowler told the judge he still has nightmares and flashbacks about what he saw that night. He explained his decision to run: “My wife was having a baby,” he said. “Clearly I must have been out of my mind. I don’t know what happened. I saw him and he was in so much pain, it was just ... I’m sorry.”
Whitehead said Fowler’s apology and remorse seem sincere. But he also took into account Fowler’s decision to flee, his prior drunken driving arrest, and finally, Fowler’s age — “old enough to know better,” said the judge.
“His wife was about to have a baby and he’s out hanging out at bars,” said the judge. “I do think a state prison sentence is appropriate.”
Whitehead said that following the prison term, Fowler will be on probation for five years, with conditions that include community service. The judge said he wants Fowler to speak to high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving.
Fowler will also lose his license for the rest of his life.
The judge agreed to delay formal sentencing until April 29, to allow him time to make arrangements for child care. While out on bail and on house arrest while awaiting trial, he’s been the primary caretaker of the baby, while his wife works three jobs to support them.
The judge warned that if he gets into trouble or fails to appear, he faces up to 45 years in prison.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.