She took a selfie in her pickup and 20 seconds later, she was dead

On Nov. 27, 2017, Lakin Ashlyn Gabel said goodbye to her family and left for her job in Williamsburg, while her mother, Roxanne stayed home to watch Lakin’s 3-month-old son, Harrison.

Lakin wasn’t wearing a seatbelt as she snapped a selfie and posted it to Snapchat, seconds before she lost control of her Toyota 4-Runner, which rolled a couple times on Route 33 — she was ejected.

Her father, Tim and brother, Tag was on their way to work at the family’s contracting business, also in Williamsburg, when Tim got an alert on his phone about a crash. Officers diverted traffic from the crash site, Tag saw a body bag and thought, I feel terrible for that family.

Tim told Tag to call his sister. She didn’t pick up so Tag tried her work and was told she wasn’t there. Lakin’s job was only a half hour away, so they knew something was wrong.

Tim turned the car around and went to the crash site. He got out and begged the officers to let him see the car or read the license plate. About 25 minutes later an officer started spelling out Lakin’s middle name, “A-S…”

Tim fell to his knees.

“That was the worst day of my life,” Tag said. “I think it will always be the worst day of my life.”

The family moved the day Lakin died. She was 21.

“I was just so out of it,” Tim said. “You don’t know what to do, you’re besides yourself, everything is foggy, waiting for her to come home—we still do.”

A week after her death, the family had to go back to work because of the recent move to Saluda.

Tim and Tag threw themselves into work. Roxanne was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. She took care of Harrison and went to Build-A-Bear workshop so he would never forget his mother’s voice. Lakin’s boyfriend, Alex, would visit the memorial site and leave love notes.

Nine months later, Harrison’s father filed for sole custody of his son. The Gabel family now sees Harrison twice a month.

“Friends say call them but once they do, they don’t know what to say,” Roxanne said.

Roxanne didn’t want any mother to experience the heartache and the trauma of losing a child the way she did so with the help of her niece, Tabitha Clark, they started a Facebook page in April 2018 to share Lakin’s story and spread awareness about the dangers of using social media while driving.

Roxanne shared her story about Lakin for the first time on Jan. 15, when she went to the State Capitol to advocate for a new bill, which would make it illegal for people to use handheld devices while driving. While it is illegal for drivers to text and check their email while driving, the law doesn’t apply to using social media, GPS or other distractions.

It was also the first time Roxanne saw her daughter’s Snapchat photo.

“I want to hear her name, I want to talk about her,” Roxanne said. “I don’t want to act as though she didn’t exist.”

The family was in the process of moving to a house 15 minutes away from the memorial site so Roxanne can be closer to her daughter.

“As a mom when you go through something like I’ve been through you do what makes you feel better, whether it makes sense or not,” she said.

In the family’s living room, there are bookshelves filled with memories of Lakin, from photos of her and Harrison to her personalized license plate and the last box of Teddy Graham crackers her father gave her before she died. The family kept Lakin’s first Christmas tree, which stays lit all year and decorated just the way she left it.

Even outside the home, the family is constantly reminded of Lakin. Each family member sees dragonflies consistently. Tim saw the end of a rainbow following her death, Roxanne saw butterflies when she took Harrison to visit his mother’s grave and a blurred face started appearing in the background of her photographs.

After the distracted driving bill passes, Roxanne said she will make it her full-time job to reintroduce the grandparent’s law in Virginia so she can spend more time with Harrison.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.