COLUMBIA -- Walt Wilkins just smiles when asked how he will deal with high-profile cases that will come his way as the new U.S. attorney for South Carolina.
When you've survived a plane crash, he'll tell you, nothing else is quite as scary.
On July 13, 2003, the then- 29-year-old Wilkins was on his way with his new bride, Donyelle, to celebrate their honeymoon on Abaco, a small island in the Bahamas, when the twin-engine Cessna carrying them and eight other passengers crashed in rough Caribbean waters.
The plane landed belly first, and a woman and her young niece were killed in the crash. Wilkins quickly helped his wife and others out of the sinking plane; he didn't have a life vest but held onto the one he gave his wife to wear.
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Wilkins and his wife would spend much of the next two hours keeping the dead woman's two children, ages 4 and 6, from slipping out of their oversized life vests and losing consciousness while battling 5- to 7-foot waves.
They eventually were rescued by the Coast Guard. The ordeal left a lasting impression on Wilkins.
"It taught me a lot of lessons about life," the now-34-year-old Greenville resident said. "I don't bring religion into this office ... but it was by the grace of God that plane didn't topple over" when it hit the water.
In an interview Thursday with The State, Wilkins, who started his new job last week, discussed his family legacy, career and plans as the state's top federal prosecutor.
His first week on the job started with a bang with the indictment of a white state trooper accused of employing excessive force by using his patrol vehicle to strike a black suspect fleeing on foot.
Wilkins declined Thursday to discuss specifics of the case, noting it was being handled primarily by the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"We support the indictment, and we support the Department of Justice in the case," he said.
When Gov. Mark Sanford in January tapped Wilkins' predecessor, Reggie Lloyd, to be the new State Law Enforcement Division chief, it was a poorly kept secret in legal circles that Wilkins likely would be next in line for Lloyd's job.
Wilkins said he initially was a candidate for the top post after he joined the U.S. Attorney's office in 2005, but President Bush later nominated Lloyd, who became the first African-American in state history to be appointed to the federal post in a permanent capacity.
"That happened for a reason," Wilkins said. "I'm a much more effective leader now than three years ago."
Wilkins received strong endorsements this year from U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint. Legal observers say that was largely because of his family ties.
He is the son of William "Billy" Wilkins of Greenville, the former chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Virginia, and the nephew of David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada and former speaker of the S.C. House.
Wilkins credits his father, whom he described as "one of the brightest legal minds in the country" with advising him while he was attending Wofford College to go to law school.
The younger Wilkins also credits his uncle, David Wilkins, for being a "great mentor on many occasions." The former House speaker got him a job at the State House, for example, while he attended the USC School of Law.
As the U.S. attorney directing about 60 assistant prosecutors working in Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and Florence, Wilkins said he has the following goals:
• Improve education and cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in dealing with his office's "bread-and-butter" drug and gun cases.
• Continue emphasizing anti-gang initiatives. "We have Crips and Bloods, and we have MS-13 (gangs) in South Carolina."
• "Find resources and push" prosecution of white-collar crimes, including corporate fraud cases and investment schemes.
Wilkins' tenure, however, could be short-lived with the election of a new president in November especially if it's Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Typically, presidents tend to nominate U.S. attorneys from their own party.
"We're in the ninth inning of President Bush's term, and I'm a ninth-inning appointment," Wilkins acknowledged. But "I'm going to lead and make decisions as if I'm here for four years."