ORPHANED 2: A drunk driver killed Nathaniel Britt's mom and dad 15 years ago. … See what he has to say about his parents’ killer

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Air Education and Training Command Safety Directorate

While 4-year-old Nathaniel Britt slept peacefully at his grandparents’ house in San Antonio, Texas, a nightmare unfolded a couple hours down the road in Austin. A drunk driver sped 65 mph down East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard headed in the wrong direction. He smashed his Chevy pickup truck into Tech. Sgts. Maurice and Audra Britt as they rode together atop their motorcycle. The violent collision between truck and motorcycle proved no contest. Maurice, 36, died at the scene. Audra, 38, passed away six days later. The 21-year-old drunk driver? He fled on foot.

This tragedy on April 5, 2009, orphaned Nathaniel, and two years later Torch featured him on the cover of its March/April 2011 edition. More than 15 years after losing his parents, both of whom were Airmen working at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Nathaniel, better known as Nate these days, has now graduated from high school. And he has plenty to say about the incident that changed his life forever.

“I don’t have many of my own memories of my parents,” he said somberly. “I have flashes of them here and there. But I don’t really remember them.

“I don’t know them.”

He paused for an uncomfortable moment or two, as if digesting the cold reality of his own words.

“I was 4,” he said almost apologetically.

While Nate struggles to find his mom and dad in his own memories, like some cruel game of hide-and-seek, he still does know plenty about his parents. His grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-sister made sure of that.

“In a way I was blessed to have so many family members who wanted to take care of me,” said Nate, who was raised by grandparents Ronald and Carol Lee, Audra’s parents, and spent multiple summers in Kentucky with his other grandparents, Maurice’s parents Dantine and Joyce Britt. “Some kids in my situation become wards of the state and end up in foster homes. I was surrounded by people who not only loved me, but also knew and loved my mom and dad. I liked hearing their stories about them.”

While listening to tales about his parents proved to be mostly a positive, an unintentional negative slowly surfaced. A lot of people who lose loved ones naturally honor them by talking about their strengths. They don’t typically discuss their weaknesses, mistakes or frailties. Because of this understandable but imbalanced reporting, Nate said he put his parents on an unscalable pedestal.

“So, as I got older, I felt self-inflicted pressure to live up to these perfect beings,” he said. “Sometimes it made me feel bad about myself because I thought I would never be as good as they were.”

In other words, it’s not easy being the son of Superman and Wonder Woman. Even on the night Maurice and Audra were killed, they had been riding with Cycles in Action, a San Antonio based motorcycle “gang” that fights for such causes as homeless children and Habitat for Humanity. His parents seemed to be saints, and he felt hard pressed to measure up to their aura.

Talking to Dania, his half-sister from Maurice’s previous relationship, helped Nate through this. Dania was 18 when her father died, so she knew him on a different level than Nathaniel.

“Dania adored our dad; but since she was older, she got to see that he wasn’t perfect,” Nate said. “Finding out that my dad made mistakes felt like a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. It was actually nice to hear he was human.”

While friends and family describe Maurice and Audra as outgoing social butterflies, Nate describes himself as more of an introvert.

A defense mechanism?

“That might be one logical conclusion,” Nate said.

And he had reasons to have his defenses up. A little over two years after the drunk driver stole his parents from him, his grandfather, Ronald, a retired Air Force master sergeant, passed away after suffering from a stroke. Some family members believe the drunk driver claimed another victim as they said it was no secret Ronald never got over losing Audra. Little Nathaniel, who was 7 at the time, only knew he had lost another loved one.

“In some ways, it’s been worse losing my granddad,” Nate said. “I was old enough that I have vivid memories of him. I really miss my granddad.”

Grandma saw the impact.

“He did confide in me shortly after his grandfather died that everybody he loves leaves him,” Carol said. “I tried to comfort him by telling him I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Ronald’s death left Nathaniel with his grandma as his sole primary caregiver.

“To be honest, if I had a choice, I would have definitely declined that role,” said Carol, who turns 71 in December. “I would have rather had Audra and Maurice back. I was an empty nester, and it took a lot to go back into that role of raising a 4-year-old. But I didn’t have a choice, so I did my best to raise this young man in a way that would make my daughter and son-in-law proud. He’s a hard worker, an honors student and an all-around good kid, who has a strong faith in God and a compassionate heart. I’m proud of who he’s become.”

For his part, Nate says he is grateful for his grandmother and that she did a great job raising him. He said they bonded through things like the church and cooking together, especially when the meal prep involved anything with bacon and cheese. That said, he also pointed out that if there were any drawbacks, their dynamic might have contributed to some of his social awkwardness around his own peer group.

“I believe parents in general start out a little behind because they are raising their kids in a generation they are not really accustomed to,” he said. “My grandmother was even at a bigger disadvantage because she was two generations behind with me. She’s a lot more old school. Her friends are older, their kids are older, and because of that I hung around a lot of older people. I’m more comfortable with older people. But that’s not all bad. I get told a lot that I am mature for my age and have good manners. Those are good attributes. But they are not necessarily the best way to make you fit in or be cool with the popular kids at school.”

While Nate says he remains cautious socially, he did step out of his comfort zone during his senior year of high school at the urging of his uncle, Aron Lee, a retired Air Force master sergeant who teaches 8th grade at Hobby Middle School in San Antonio. Uncle Face, as Nate calls him, encouraged him to ask a beautiful, popular girl, who is aspiring to be a model, out to prom.

“I decided to just go for it, and to my surprise, she said yes,” Nate said. “Then I kinda panicked because now I had to make all these plans to pull it off.”

When he told his friends he had a date for prom, nobody believed him at first.

“It was that stereotypical, ‘Yeah, I have a date. She’s a model. But she goes to another school,’ ” he said.

So some jaws dropped when he showed up with her at the dance.

“We had a great time,” he said, seemingly still surprised by that outcome.

Aron was proud Nate stepped out on a limb and took pleasure in serving as his wingman.

“I’ve tried to be there for Nate and my mom, but it wasn’t always easy when you are in the Air Force,” said Aron, who had followed in his dad and sister’s footsteps.

When Maurice and Audra were killed, Aron got a two-year humanitarian assignment to San Antonio to help his parents with Nate. However, by 2011, he already had an assignment to Germany. Then his dad died unexpectedly in September of that year. Aron left for Germany in December, dreading leaving his mom and Nate behind.

“Life is tough, but our family has been resilient,” Aron said. “Nate and my mom came to visit us in Germany, and later when I was stationed in North Carolina, he spent a couple of summers with us. Nobody was ever going to replace his parents, but collectively we did what we could to fill the void.”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Nate admits that he would sometimes get a bit envious watching his friends or even strangers interact with their parents.

“I wanted my dad to teach me to shave; I wanted my mom to tell me how to talk to girls,” he said wistfully. “But I know I’m blessed. And I’m happy to be in this family.”

Life keeps moving, and for Nate that meant beginning college to pursue a degree in animation. He hopes that by sharing his story, maybe it prevents even just one person from drinking and driving. But he’s also practical.

“It’s tough because people aren’t ignorant about the dangers of drinking and driving,” he said. “It’s one of those commonsense things you are taught throughout your life – kinda like being told to look both ways before you cross the street. You see the warnings all the time. In a perfect world, people would heed all the warnings and not drink and drive. But we don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, my mom and dad would still be here.”

And what of his parents’ killer?

In February 2010, a judge sentenced Mario Hernandez-Rodriguez to 13 years in prison for intoxication manslaughter and another five for fleeing the scene. He is still serving his time but should be released by 2029.

“I hold him no ill will,” Nate said of Hernandez-Rodriguez. “I think about my parents being killed almost every day. And sometimes I get angry that they were taken by something so stupid, so senseless and so easily preventable. But I don’t get angry at him. In a weird way I kind of empathize with him. Being in prison likely keeps him from his family. I lost my parents. It’s awful. So I know how that feels. … And I just wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”