Mother Of Deceased Daughter Travels Florida With Man Responsible; Talks To Students About The Tragedies Of DUI
By Fran Hunt
Special to Greene Publishing, Inc.
It is always disheartening when someone is killed on the roadway due to the irresponsibility of driving under the influence. But, imagine a mother who has a young daughter killed by a drunk driver. She forgives the man and then travels throughout the state with him to discuss the tragedies, pains and sorrows associated with the effects of drunk driving with high school students.
This is the story of Renee Napier and Florida Department of Corrections Inmate Eric Smallridge, who were in town last week to talk with county students from Madison County High School.
The program was held Thursday morning, March 10, in the Madison County High School gym. It was, to say the least, a very touching and sobering topic for everyone present, bringing the largest percentage of those present to tears and the students set to thinking seriously of what could happen when driving under the influence.
Sheriff Ben Stewart started the program by introducing Napier.
Madison County High School Principal Ben Killingsworth introduced Madison County Sheriff Ben Stewart.
Napier followed Stewart and she spoke about the pain and the memories which haunt her even today, almost nine years after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She also spoke of self-control and forgiveness.
She began by thanking Stewart. “Without the sheriff, this program would not be here for you today,” she said. “We hope this topic is something that you will carry with you always. Today, you will witness the sorrow, pain and suffering involved with driving under the influence. It is up to you to decide if you want to be the difference.”
A video presentation was then shown of the actual crash scene and vehicle in which her daughter, Megan, and Megan’s best friend, Lisa Dickson, were killed. It showed the headlines during the trial and a tearful and apologetic Smallridge, who, when the sentence of 22 years in the Department of Corrections was handed down at the conclusion of his trial, finally realized that not only was he responsible for the lives of two beautiful, 20-year old college girls and how all of the dreams they had of the future were gone, but he had also thrown his life away and damaged beyond all repair the families of the girls and his family.
Napier then began to talk of the night her daughter was killed. “It was a weekend of excitement. Megan was at the house with her identical twin sister and they were buzzing about their older brother’s wedding. It was Mother’s Day weekend in 2002, and their brother was to be married in June. The girls were to serve as brides maids at their brother’s wedding. It was May 10, and we had planned to make Mother’s Day special and spend it together to celebrate. I still recall our last conversation, which ended on a positive note, with ‘I love you and I’ll see you tomorrow’ but we never saw each other alive again after that conversation.
“You have always got to remember, end all conversations positively. You never know if that conversation will be your last. Early in the morning on Mother’s Day, we got a knock on the door. An officer informed us that there had been an accident and Megan had died at the scene.
“We figured that when Eric rear-ended their vehicle, there was so much force from the impact, it pushed the back end of Lisa’s car into the back seat, broke the backs of their seats, throwing them into a reclining position and instantly breaking their necks. Megan was in the passenger’s seat and when the vehicle spun around, it hit a tree, impacting the passenger side door. That was the final blow that killed them.
“On Mother’s Day, we were in the funeral home. Megan, my daughter, was in a casket. Our family and friends spent the day there. I couldn’t have made it through the day without them. Megan’s funeral was on Monday. Lisa’s funeral was on Tuesday.
What was to be a weekend of joy and making memories was transformed into a weekend of tears, in just a matter of seconds.
“Eric’s blood alcohol content that night was .202. Two beautiful young girls were killed; all of their dreams and plans with them. Eric was sentenced to 11 years for the death of each girl, to be served consecutively. That’s 22 years, followed by eight years of probation and permanent revoking of his driver‘s license. I didn’t feel like he intentionally said “I’m going out to kill someone.” He made a bad decision and I didn’t feel there were any winners with the outcome of the trial. Two good things did happen in the courtroom that day, I forgave Eric and he apologized to both families. He was a good college senior with good grades. He was from a good family. It was just a selfish decision he made, a decision that cost two lives.
“Someone dies in Florida everyday as the result of drunk driving. If you are going to drink, have a plan. How are you going to come back safely? Have a designated driver who has not been drinking, not the one who is the least drunk; when you’re older, call a cab; stay where you are; call your parents to come and get you, sure they will be mad, but they would much rather be mad at the time than have you killed in a crash and mourning the rest of their lives because you were killed as the result of a drunk driver or being drunk yourself and getting behind the wheel,” she said. “If you have a friend who is planning on driving drunk, take their keys. DUI is a risk. If at the conclusion of this program, you come and tell me honestly, that you will not risk driving drunk, then Megan’s memory lives on to serve a purpose.
“For those of you who may wonder how I could forgive Eric, forgiveness is the only way to find true healing,” she added. “Otherwise, you live with hatred, bitterness and anger. Theses are hideous emotions and they will do the most damage to you. It will eat you up like cancer.
“We forgave Eric and our two families (us and Lisa’s) went before the judge who sentenced Eric and asked him to drop the two consecutive 11-year sentences to two concurrent 11-year sentences; which means, rather than getting out in 22 years when he’s in his forties, he’ll be out in 11 years when he is in his thirty’s and he can still be young enough to live a very productive life,” she said. “I have been telling this story since 2004. But I always felt that somehow, something was missing that would give the talks an even greater impact. I felt that students were only getting one side of the story, so the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida county sheriffs and judges made it possible for Eric to join me in my travels, spending his nights at the different county jails so he can tell his side of the story to the students. It was a lengthy process, but in 2010, the first school we spoke at together was the Gulf Breeze High School, where Megan and Lisa attended together.”
She then introduced Smallridge, who was escorted out by Correctional Officers Morris Washington and Victor Davis.
“I hope after hearing this, you all make your decisions better than I did. These shackles and handcuffs are just some of the consequences of drunk driving. I hope you all pay attention to this, because if you don’t, you can end up like me. I didn’t pay attention. I didn’t take drunk driving seriously. It was a tragedy when we heard about someone being killed by a drunk driver, but I thought it would never happen to me, not in a million years. We never looked at the reality of it all.
Sure, some of our friends were involved in wrecks, but we looked at it like it wasn’t DUI. It was credited to either the rain or driving too fast, anything other than DUI. We always chose to drink and drive, even in the Jefferson County area. There were always big bon fires and keg parties there. We were lucky for many, many years. But, all it takes is one time to change your life and the lives of others.
“I came from a good family, my dad was a military man, my mom was on the school board and my brother was a sheriff’s deputy. My parents had the pre-paid college plan was for me, I was a good student with good grades and my life was all mapped out for good things to happen. But I began hanging with the wrong crowd and making the wrong decisions more and more. My grades had started to slip, I kept tempting fate, I kept going out, I kept drinking and I kept driving home afterward.
“I was 24. There was no school that week, so me and a few friends of mine decided to go to the beach and drink all day. We drank all day and when the bar closed at 2 a.m., I went out to get into my truck and it wouldn’t start. I never had problems with my truck. I should have taken that as an omen that night, but I called my friend to come out and give me a jump start. When my friend got there, he asked me if I was okay to drive and I said I was. He asked if I was sure and I told him yes, I had done it before. I told him I didn’t want to leave my truck there overnight; I had the big rims and a new sound system and I told him I would be okay. I drove off, I was speeding. The radio was up and all of my good intentions went right out the window.
“I rear-ended a car and Megan and Lisa were killed on the scene that night. I thought nothing would ever happen to me in a million years, but it not only happened to me, but to Megan, Lisa, their families and my family, it happened to us all. We are all paying the consequences now.
“In the courtroom, my friend, Mike, who jump started my truck, was asked by the judge if he knew the two girls. He lowered his head and in tears he told the judge, “Yes, I loved them like they were my sisters.” It’s been over eight years and he still carries the guilt with him. He thinks he’s partially to blame because he jump started my truck that night.
“It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. I was lucky for eight years, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen to you the first time driving under the influence of pot, or alcohol, or whatever. You have to decide; are you going to have a positive impact, or a negative one?
“In a split second, everything changed. I am living proof that it can happen to you. If you have a drink, driving is simply not an option. Don’t risk it, not even once, because it only takes a split second to go from a great future to being Inmate P22679. Please don’t ever hesitate to designate a driver or to call a cab. Otherwise, you may be riding in a police car, or, God forbid, a hearse.
“I have to live with the fact that I’ve taken two lives due to my ignorance. Hopefully, their deaths will not be in vain. Are you willing to throw your lives away over something so avoidable like I did?”
Napier then informed those present that the vehicle the girls were killed in was out in front of the auditorium.
She said she used it to fully illustrate the fact and the reality of drunk driving.
Following the program everyone came to their feet and applauded and the students began to file forward to hug and thank Napier, hug her and promise, that thanks to their efforts, they promised never to make the decision to drink and drive.
Afterward, Smallridge’s dad, Gary, spoke of the tragic incident and how a negative situation could be taken and turned around into a positive impact. A teary-eyed Smallridge said, “Any time someone can take a negative and turn it into a positive to try and save lives and keep this from happening to other families, it’s a good thing. And when those two families went before the judge and asked him to decrease Eric’s sentence, well, words could never express how I felt. There are just too many emotions to mention.”