Drinking and driving kills all too often at graduation time across the country and Manteca schools’ seniors are no exception to the potential carnage.
Motivational speakers lined up at a podium Friday morning to make their points, focusing on graduating seniors in the Every 15 Minutes program during a mock funeral for four students. Their lives were claimed by drivers who had been under the influence in a scripted multi-fatal crash at Manteca High School on Thursday.
More than 1,200 students from Manteca, East Union, Calla and Sierra high schools were seated in the darkened Calvary Community Church as student pallbearers entered with four caskets. The caskets represented the students who had been killed in the simulated crash between an SUV that crashed head-on with a passenger car on the school track in the MHS stadium.
Taking the microphone were CHP Officer James Smith, Senior Pastor Joey Macias, Superior Court Judge Tony Agbiani, retired Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Stevens, civil attorney Mirko Kozina and a still grieving 15-year-old Melissa Webster. Two parents read letters they had written to their deceased teens. Two seniors read letters they had written to their parents telling them of their love as if their deaths were real.
Manteca Detective Sgt. Steve Schluer organized the program.
Judge Agbiani – the parent of nine children in Manteca – told seniors they are making 1.8 second decisions on a daily basis from turning on a TV to opening a cell phone. You do it most of the time without thinking he said – you just do it.
“I’m talking about the 1.8 second choice that may change your life,” he said referring to drinking and driving.
Agbiani told of two young men he had met last summer named Anthony and Robert. The first went to his office and asked for an intern position on his road to becoming a lawyer. Robert, on the other hand, had gone before the judge in court after making a mistake – he had killed two people in an alcohol involved collision.
“Both had been asked to go to a party. It was a 1.8 second decision. It had taken Robert 1.8 seconds to decide to drink a beer and Anthony used his 1.8 second decision to take a soft drink and head home driving into his driveway while Robert drove into the side of a car,” he said.
He noted that both parents had written him letters, one a thank you and the other asking for leniency for their son upon his conviction for a DUI with fatalities.
“Anthony went to U.C. Berkeley and Robert was driven off in a van to DVI in Tracy,” he said. “They both made 1.8 second decisions.”
Robert was 18 years old when convicted and after serving his sentence for the two deaths he will be 40 years old when he gets out of prison. Robert’s parents couldn’t fix his problem for him.
“You don’t want to appear before me in court as I used to prosecute (serious criminals) and gang crimes,” the judge said.
“I live in this community and when you put my wife, my family and my friends at risk (with drinking and driving) my reaction to your sentencing is ‘too sad, too bad’ as it is with any judge I know,” he added.
Judge Agbiani noted that the Every 15 Minutes effort reflects the fatalities that occur four times an hour across the country. However, the National Highway Traffic Administration reports that every 90 seconds there is a DUI crash that only injures and maims its victims, changing their lives forever.
“This is not a video game where you can make a mistake and you die and come back – rather in real life it’s over and you don’t come back,” he said. “Those here who are 18 have lived 568 million seconds with an average of 1.6 billion seconds left in their lifetimes for a total of 2.2 billion seconds.”
“Do you want a 1.8 second decision to change your life?” he asked his audience. “Be smart, not stupid. It’s not worth it!”
Agbiani told of his brother who had been an all-star running back and broke the record for yardage but died due to a DUI accident.
Civil attorney Mirko Kozina told the students that following a criminal trial he will be there to take civil action against the DUI driver and their family with up to a $4 million outcome.
“Take a look at my face. I will do everything in my power to destroy your lives. It’s my job and I tell you I love it,” Kozina said.
Retired Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Stevens told of his history of going with a partner to notify parents that their sons or daughters had been killed in an alcohol-related crash. He said detectives always went in pairs of two because the distraught parents would often become violent and attack deputies for bringing the bad news.
Stevens told the students that the mothers long keep their sons and daughters rooms just as if nothing had happened. They have been known over the years to put their noses into their children’s clothes just to smell them one more time – as close as they could be in bringing back real memories.
The little brothers and sisters are equally affected he said, because they looked up to those older peers they lost and always wanted to dress like them and walk like them.
“When you die at 18 or 19 the young brothers or sisters find that’s where their memories are cut off – you become a ‘use-to’ and you will be forever 19 in their eyes,” he said.
The retired Sheriff’s lieutenant asked the seniors in the audience to look around at their friends asking them if they would do anything to save their lives. Most nodded and replied that they would. Then he asked that they take out their car keys and hold them up, giving them to their friends. His point was that a friend doesn’t let a friend drive drunk – be there to save their lives. Take their keys away, he urged.
“It’s the difference between being a grown up and being stupid,” he told them.
Stevens told a story of a party after a graduation several years ago that was alcohol free. Four grads showed up at the party under the influence only to find later that the non-drinkers had parked their vehicles in a way to block the four so they couldn’t drive away from that party under the influence.
Stevens concluded with a little tragic history of his own. When he was just 5 years old his dad was killed by a drunk driver. At the age of 9 his brother was killed in a car crash. And, when he was 16 a drunk piled into his uncle, killing him.