Vincent Neil Wharton, lead singer for the heavy-metal band Motley Crue, is known to his fans as a hard-driving rock 'n' roller who once bragged that he drank a case of beer and a half a fifth of gin on his days off.
He is no longer bragging.
Seven months after the 23-year-old Redondo Beach resident was arrested after an automobile accident that killed a fellow musician and left two other people seriously injured, Wharton, along with other group members, has taken a public stand against alcohol abuse and, more specifically, drinking and driving.
Under a plea-bargain arrangement reached last week by Wharton and the accident victims, the group's new message is likely to be repeated often in coming months.
Wharton, who uses the stage name Vince Neil, on Wednesday pleaded guilty to charges of vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving stemming from an accident Dec. 8 on the Esplanade in Redondo Beach.
The singer, accompanied to the South Bay Municipal Courthouse in Torrance by his girlfriend, entered the plea after the Los Angeles County district attorney's office agreed not to seek a prison term for Wharton, provided he does community service while on probation and makes restitution to the surviving victims and to the dead musician's family.
Commissioner Francis J. Hourigan ordered Wharton to return to court on Sept. 20 for sentencing after the county Probation Department completes a report on how much money the victims are entitled to and what types of service the singer should perform.
Superior Court Judge Edward A. Hinz Jr. is not bound by the agreement but is expected to approve it, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Kelly. Wharton could have received a maximum prison sentence of four years and eight months, the prosecutor said, and if he violates the conditions of his probation he still could face prison.
Wharton was arrested Dec. 8 after his red, 1972 Ford Pantera went out of control in the 600 block of the Esplanade and collided head-on with a Volkswagen. His passenger, 24-year-old Nicholas Dingley, a drummer for the band Hanoi Rocks, was killed. The driver of the other car, Daniel L. Smithers, 20, of Hermosa Beach, and his passenger, 18-year-old Lisa Hogan of Rancho Palos Verdes, both suffered severe head injuries.
Investigators said Wharton, who had only minor injuries, registered a .17 blood-alcohol count after the accident. A driver is considered legally intoxicated at the .10 level.
After entering his plea, Wharton, on the advice of his attorneys, declined to be interviewed. Outside the courtroom, according to Lisa's Hogan's mother, Lynn Hogan, Wharton walked up to her daughter and said, "I'm very sorry this happened. I have been praying for you."
During the court proceeding, Hourigan cautioned the lawyers representing the victims that while they could submit recommendations to a probation officer on how much restitution they believe their clients are entitled to, and what probation conditions they feel should be placed on Wharton, the final decision rests with Hinz.
If the victims are not satisfied with the judge's decision, their attorneys could attempt to collect more money through civil suits already filed. The suits do not specify dollar amounts.
Kelly told the commissioner that both of the victims understood and agreed that if Wharton is to make restitution, he "must be free and have the ability to perform in rock concerts."
As for community service, he said, the singer and his band have already scheduled a concert for Aug. 24 at the Forum in Inglewood to benefit the Palmer Drug Abuse Program, Los Angeles Inc. Smithers is employed by Palmer.
Lynn Hogan said after the hearing that she will request that Wharton spend time with people who are receiving therapy for brain injuries. Her daughter was in a coma for 28 days after the accident and is still receiving treatment, she said.
"I think it would be very difficult for someone to go into one of these wards and come out the same type of person," she said. "It would be hard to sit with these kids that are trying so hard with therapy and keep the attitude that you want to drink and drive."
Hogan added that she would probably also request that Wharton be forbidden to drink alcohol while on probation.
Smithers' attorney, Stuart Fest, said that he, too, believes Wharton should be required to spend time with people undergoing therapy for head injuries. He added that the attorneys' decision not to seek jail time for Wharton probably boiled down to a value judgment.
"Frankly, it's a tough one, morally," he said. "I know Dan Smithers had to struggle with his emotions that said Neil should be punished to the full extent of the law. Neil owes two debts--one to society, and the other to the victims. If society extracts its fullest punishment, he can't pay his other debt."
Wharton's publicist, Bryn Bridenthal, said the accident has had a profound effect on the singer, whose boast about heavy alcohol use came in a 1984 interview. "I've observed a lot of changes," she said. "He seems more subdued and disciplined. . . . I feel he has really been traumatized by this. He gets depressed easily."
Bridenthal said the entire rock band is already involved in the effort to tell their fans about the dangers of drinking and driving. "They're not saying to people, 'Don't drink,' but they are saying 'Don't drive and drink. Don't be an idiot,' " she said.
One sign of the Los Angeles-based group's effort appears on the inner sleeve its latest album, "Theatre of Pain." The sleeve reads: "To All Crue Fans: If and/or when you drink--Don't take the wheel. Live and learn."