Shonni Abernathy's sordid past, filled with drug use and failed attempts at recovery, came to a head in 2012 when a meth lab explosion killed three people in Goose Creek, he told a judge Wednesday during a sentencing hearing in federal court.
Abernathy, 41, will spend 30 years in prison for his crimes, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel ordered. He was the last of four defendants to be sentenced in connection to the blaze.
Abernathy pleaded guilty last year to one count of conspiring to make more than 50 grams - or almost 2 ounces - of meth and one count of making meth near a school.
He faced a potential life sentence on the charges, due to two prior felony drug convictions.
In May 2012, flames ripped through the 16-unit building at Pine Harbour Apartments where Abernathy lived.
His 19-year-old daughter Morgan and Sammy Garbe, a 4-year-old cousin she was baby-sitting, died in the blaze. Joseph Raeth, a 69-year-old military veteran who lived in a neighboring unit, was also killed.
During Wednesday's hearing, Abernathy's attorney, Cameron Blazer, asked the judge for mercy, considering his client's prior struggles with addiction and the pain he's suffered having lost a daughter and a nephew in the fire. Twenty years in prison would balance the harm he's caused without keeping him behind bars longer than necessary, she said.
"Mr. Abernathy made choices that endangered himself, endangered his wife, endangered his children and the community at large - and he knows that. He will suffer an emotional and moral punishment that will follow him for the rest of his days," Blazer said. "If this court's intention is that Mr. Abernathy should be released from the Bureau of Prisons before he dies, then what marginal value is there in a sentence that exceeds 20 years?"
Reading from a prepared statement, Abernathy told Judge Gergel that he grew up around drug users and tried his first hit of meth when he was 26.
Addictions to the drug snuck up on him, he said. Multiple attempts to get clean all ended in relapses.
"It's been a struggle for me and everyone who loved me. I was fighting a losing battle," Abernathy said. "I wouldn't wish being an addict or living with one on anybody. It's a terrible disease, and one I hated even while I was getting high."
Abernathy's voice broke as he described the hours that transpired before the blaze at Pine Harbour Apartments.
He shot meth the night before, then later fell into a deep sleep, he said. Abernathy expressed frustration in knowing that if he had been awake when the fire started, he may have been able to save the lives of his daughter and his nephew.
"I know I played a role in their deaths and I'm so sorry. All I can do is promise to spend the rest of my life free of drugs and say every day how truly sorry I am," he said.
Abernathy and a second man, Gerald McCabe, both escaped the flames. McCabe was sentenced in September to 25 years in prison on the same charges as Abernathy.
Abernathy's common-law wife, 37-year-old Alberta Pierson, and Michael Still, 20, also were charged and pleaded guilty in January to buying more than 9 grams of pseudophedrine base, an ingredient typically used to manufacture meth, in a 30-day period.
Pierson and Still were both sentenced to one year probation on the possession charges, court records show.
During Wednesday's sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Phillips said Abernathy manipulated those around him in order to feed his own "selfish interests" by cooking meth.
Abernathy's crimes escalated over the years as he sank deeper into his addiction, Phillips said. He asked the judge to impose a lengthy sentence as a means of deterring others from meeting similar ends.
Multiple family members of those affected by the blaze attended the hearing. The father and grandmother of Abernathy's 4-year-old nephew both implored the judge to set a lengthy sentence.
The result of Abernathy's addiction was rooted in his own choices, the child's father, Richard Morrow, said. If released from prison, Abernathy is bound to relapse again, he said.
The child's grandmother, Teresa Shenot, said she's healed some in the two years since his death. But she doubts her pain will ever fully go away.
"I go to Sammy's grave and I pray and talk with him. Morgan Abernathy is buried right next to Sammy, and I pray for her, too. Morgan was the only one who tried to save Sammy. Three men were in that house and they all ran out. ... I have no compassion or pity for Mr. Abernathy after what he's done. I'm pleading for justice. Help bring some closure to our family," she told the judge.
Before making a decision, Judge Gergel told those in attendance that it was his responsibility to set a sentence that was "sufficient but not greater than necessary."
Thirty years in federal prison toed the line between both causes, he indicated.
"I have some hope that the remainder of Mr. Abernathy's life will be filled with purpose and that he'll deal with his addiction," Gergel said at the hearing's conclusion.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.
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