Woman sentenced in drunken driving accident that left Fort Bragg soldier a double-leg amputee

Rhonda Sutton Bryant came face-to-face with her old neighbor for the first time since she hit him with her car.
April 9, 2014 4:12:38 PM PDT
For the first time since she saw him through her windshield and holding on for dear life a year and a half ago, Rhonda Sutton Bryant came face-to-face with her old neighbor.

Bryant finally got her chance to apologize to Sgt. Maj. Jeremy Bruns in a Cumberland County courtroom Wednesday morning.  It would be right before she pleaded guilty to Driving While Impaired, Serious Injury by Vehicle and Driving Left of Center.

An accident, with Bryant drunk and high behind the wheel, would change Bruns's life forever. She has said she wishes she could take his place.

"Mr. Bruns, I sincerely offer you my apologies from the depths of my heart," Bryant said through tears. "I'm sorry for everything you and your family have been enduring since that dreadful day."


That dreadful day was described by Bruns, a Special Operations soldier on Fort Bragg, and his wife during a visit to Walter Reed Military Medical Center in February.

Bruns, a decorated soldier who has survived nine deployments since 9/11 is in rehab amongst wounded soldiers, crippled on the battlefield.

Most think his injuries are a result of war.

Walter Reed has been home to the Bruns since November 10, 2012, and Veteran's Day weekend. That's when Bruns was attaching his kayak to the back of his pickup truck in front of his Calamar Drive home in Fayetteville. Around 10 a.m., his neighbor Bryant would come speeding down the residential street at 45 miles per hour, on the wrong side of the road. Bruns was pinned between Bryant's hood and his bumper for nearly an hour.

"She didn't stop when she hit me," Bruns recalled.

An accident report indicates he'd been pushed another 60 to 80 feet along the road before coming to a complete stop.

"My left arm broke and dislocated just smashing her window trying to get her to stop," he said. "At that time, my thumb was hanging off."

It would take between 45 minutes and an hour for emergency personnel to extract Bruns, while the entire neighborhood watched, and held a hysterical Jenny Bruns back.

"His blood was all over the road. It was horrible," she said. "He looked like a dead man. I would have died if he had died."

"I could actually smell my flesh burning on her engine," continued Bruns. "I pretty much felt if I closed my eyes, I wouldn't wake up again."

Bryant, at the time a 47-year-old military spouse, would be transferred to Womack Army Medical Center, while Bruns was stabilized at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, before heading to Duke, and finally Bethesda, Md., where he spent months confined to a hospital bed before beginning daily rehabilitation in the MATC.

"He's a survivor," said Jenny Bruns as she gazed her husband in their campus apartment. It's outfitted from ceiling to floor for an amputee and his caretaker, and decorated by her pieces of artwork and his military medals.


On Wednesday, after an intense campaign by Bruns and supporters to hold Bryant to the highest charges and maximum sentence, Bryant and Bruns had their day in court through a plea hearing packed with Bryant's church family and Bruns's biological and Army family.

Bryant was only originally charged with misdemeanors serious injury by vehicle and driving while impaired, in addition to a driving left of center infraction.

The Cumberland County District Attorney's Office said it was initially unaware of the seriousness of Bruns' injuries, and had to wait to pursue felony charges until a complete investigative file reached the office from the Fayetteville Police Department. The police department had to wait until they receive Bruns' certified medical records. This was all completed five months following the accident, and Bryant would serve an April day in jail following an arrest warrant issued in March 2013. She bonded out for $10,000, but blood alcohol results did not return from the State Lab until July of 2013.

In turn, a grand jury did not indict Bryant on felony serious injury charges until September 2013, nearly a year following the near-fatal accident.

On Wednesday Bryant's BAC was revealed to be a combined .10 the day of the accident. Part of that, .07, was due to alcohol consumed with cocaine shortly before the accident.

Through her attorney Benjamin LeFever, Bryant admitted to battling drug and alcohol abuse, and seeking counseling. LeFever asked the court to consider "intensive probation" in lieu of jail time for the mother, former Army spouse and Womack Medical Center employee. LeFever said Bryant often told him she wished she could take Bruns's place.

Jenny Bruns pushed back while reading her impact statement.

"Addiction is also not an excuse for criminal behavior because she could have stayed home, pre-arranged a ride or taken a taxi," she said.

Bruns told the court how the family's Army career, the couple's intimacy and quality of life had suffered. She also talked about an attempted suicide earlier this year. She took her husband's pain pills hoping to escape their horror story.

"When I felt my breath almost halt, I was a little scared of dying, but I also welcomed the possibility of permanent sleep," she said.

Jeremy Bruns also talked about a decorated military career cut short.

"Before I was hurt, I could max the Army physical fitness test and keep up with guys half my age," said Bruns. "Now I am drenched in sweat, walking a couple hundred yards and down slopes causing panic due to technical difficulty in navigating prosthetics."

"I lost the ability just to be normal," he said. "Everywhere I go, I'm a spectacle because it's hard to miss the guy with no legs trying to walk on prosthetics."

Superior Court Judge Claire Hill sentenced Bryant to the maximum sentence for a level one offender-16-29 months. Time could be shaved off the latter for good behavior.

At the end of the hearing, Bryant was cuffed, shackled and sent to State prison.


Vouching for his faithful congregant, Bryant's pastor said he was proud of her for owning up to her mistake.

"She's ready to do whatever it takes to rectify the situation," he said.

Purcell, a former 82nd Airborne paratrooper, also said it hurt his heart to learn about Bruns's service and sacrifice in light of this accident. He told her husband he would go to court with her while he tended to a much-needed job.

The family, he said, has been financially strained due to the accident, and Bryant's husband had some get a post-Army retirement job as a truck driver.

"I don't have any feelings of ill will against Ms. Bryant," said Jeremy Bruns following the hearing.

Bruns said he thought Bryant received a fair sentence under the current law, and he hopes his story sheds light on a safety message.

"It's not tolerable behavior to drive impaired."

The Bruns will head back to Walter Reed at the end of the week, returning to rehab at least through the summer. Jenny Bruns hopes to campaign for tougher DWI laws in North Carolina.

"Justice, righteousness, public safety....We have to take care of one another," she said.

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