At 15, she lost her sister to a drunk driver; at 26, she fights to forgive the driver who struck her

Lauren MacNaughton
Lauren MacNaughton

OCEAN SPRINGS -- Lauren MacNaughton's back hurt so bad she didn't realize the skin and bone under her left eye had been shaved off when she was struck by a hit-and-run driver.

She had a broken back, a six-inch gouge in her face, a dislocated hip and knee and nerve damage to her wrists. She had other injuries as well, but she doesn't like to talk about them.

MacNaughton, 26, was walking across Government Street in front of Mezo's Juke Joint the morning of Dec. 16, 2012, when a woman driving a white SUV slammed into her and drove off. The driver, Lisa Belen Sanchez, was arrested on U.S. 90 after police got a description of her vehicle and the damage it sustained upon impact.

"I was almost across the street," MacNaughton said in an exclusive interview with the Sun Herald last week. "I had like one more step to go

to get on the sidewalk. I was helpless. I couldn't walk. I felt like I had been left on the side of the road like a piece of trash, like I wasn't worth anything."

What's even more bothersome for MacNaughton is the driver was impaired.

"I didn't think this could happen to me," she said, tears streaming down her face. "I was 15 when a drunk driver killed my sister and her fiance's brother. It hurt. I never wanted to have to go through anything like that again. I just never thought I'd end up like this."

On Jan. 11, Sanchez pleaded guilty to a felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident. Before her sentencing, she apologized to MacNaughton for what happened. A judge sentenced Sanchez to 10 years in prison, with five years under house arrest and five years under post-release supervision. The judge also fined her $1,000, ordered her to pay $6,811 in restitution and issued directives for Sanchez to be screened to determine if she had an alcohol or substance abuse problem.

MacNaughton had a hard time accepting Sanchez's apology when she (Sanchez) reactivated her appeal of a misdemeanor DUI conviction in the case. The Sun Herald contacted Sanchez's attorney, W.F. Fred Hornsby, Thursday to ask about the renewed appeal. On Friday, Hornsby withdrew the appeal, and the lower court's judgement in the case now stands.

"This changed me," MacNaughton said. "I used to be spontaneous. I used to be fearless, outgoing. I was never bitter. I've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I don't think it ever goes away. I'm scared to even go outside sometimes. And I'm scared to death to cross the street."

Hornsby said Sanchez is sorry about what happened.

"Lisa wishes to express her 'most sincere and heartfelt sympathy to Ms. MacNaughton,'" Hornsby said in an email. "Lisa has prayed for Ms. MacNaugthon since the moment she learned of her injuries and was thankful for the opportunity to address Ms. MacNaughton in court and tell her in person these feelings. Lisa will continue to have Ms. MacNaughton in her prayers for years to come."

MacNaughton says she'd love to forget about the accident but has daily reminders because of the pain she still suffers.

"The pain triggers my PTSD," she said. "When it happens, I just cry."

The crash

A witness saw the SUV slam into MacNaughton and called police to provide a description of Sanchez's vehicle and the damage to its front end.

MacNaughton said she was walking to a friend's place down the street to stay the night when she was hit. MacNaughton doesn't drink and drive because of what happened to her sister and her friend.

Police found the SUV's broken headlight and fog light assembly at the scene. They arrested Sanchez after spotting her driving on U.S. 90 east in the damaged vehicle.

Sanchez, a former real estate agent, acted surprised when police showed her the damage to her vehicle. She told police she never saw MacNaughton in the road and thought she'd hit a limb.

She also told police, reports say, that she'd just left Mezo's Juke Joint, where she'd "drank a few" drinks. In addition, she told authorities she had taken the prescription antidepressant, Zoloft, and the prescription, Adderrall, a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorder, prior to the crash.

Police arrested her on charge of misdemeanor DUI and felony leaving the scene of an accident.

In their reports, police said Sanchez fell asleep and had to be placed in a chair for her own safety.

Another officer noted how Sanchez was having trouble sitting up straight and that he was "worried Ms. Sanchez was going to fall off the bench and cause injury to herself."

MacNaughton said her father saw Sanchez being escorted into the hospital for a blood test.

"She was stumbling all over the place and couldn't keep her eyes open, but he didn't realize then it was her," MacNaughton said.

A look at the appeal

Sanchez pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor DUI charge in Ocean Springs Municipal Court on Feb. 27, 2013, meaning she did not admit guilt but agreed there was evidence to convict her. Municipal Judge Matthew Mestayer found her guilty, fined her $524.50 and ordered her to pay $283.50 in court costs. He also sentenced Sanchez to two days in jail, but suspended the jail time and placed her on six months probation along with a six-month suspension from driving privileges.

On March 25, 2013, Sanchez first appealed the DUI conviction in Jackson County Court.

But Sanchez never showed up for the trial on March 11, and County Court Judge T. Larry Wilson upheld the lower court's ruling in the DUI case.

Hornsby filed a motion on Nov. 6 saying he didn't know a trial date had been set until the Sun Herald contacted him about the judge's decision to dismiss the appeal. Hornsby argued he was never informed of the trial date, though there was an agreement for him to be notified. He asked the judge to set aside the decision to dismiss the appeal.

Wilson allowed Hornsby to reactivate the appeal after a mutual agreement between the Ocean Springs prosecutor and Hornsby.

District Attorney Tony Lawrence was following the appeal to see if Sanchez got the judgment set aside.

Had Sanchez won the appeal, Lawrence said the double jeopardy clause would have no longer applied in the DUI case and his office could "go forward with a (felony) DUI causing injury case."

MacNaughton said she always thought she would avoid any issues with an impaired driver. On the morning of the accident, she was walking to a friend's house to stay the night because she'd had a few drinks with her friends.

"I was always the one at the parties taking people's keys away," she said. "I'd be the designated driver if I got to a party and saw that nobody could drive. I am very much against that, more so because of what happened to my sister."

MacNaughton said her goal is forgive so she can move forward with her life.

"I'm not there yet," she said. "But I have to forgive her to transform myself from a victim to a survivor. To me forgiveness is not to say it's OK what you did, but it's releasing me from being the victim. That's where I am right now."