Mom shares how she forgave the drunk driver who took the life of her daughter; man convicted in the case urges teens never to drink and drive.
If you shined a light across Calhoun County and asked anyone who has ever taken a drink and gotten behind the wheel of a car to raise their hand, more than a few would go up.
Back in May of 2002, Eric Smallridge, a senior at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, with promising future, made that decision to drive home from a casual evening of beer drinking with some of his buddies - a decision he has regretted ever since.
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That Friday evening was like many others for 20-year-old best friends, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson. The girls graduated from Gulf Breeze High School together two years prior and Meagan had moved to Tallahassee. She was back in Pensacola that weekend and enjoying some time with Lisa. Earlier in the day, Meagan joined her mom, Renee, for lunch and planned to sleepover at her twin sister’s apartment. Around 11 p.m., Renee, called to encourage her daughter to stay in town for Mother’s Day on Sunday.
“I told her I wanted at least two out of four of my kids with me on Mother’s Day,” Renee recalls.
Meagan and Lisa had been babysitting that evening, then headed out to Pensacola Beach. “They were looking at the sky,” Renee says, adding during the phone call, her daughter described how beautiful it was that night. They chatted briefly, said “I love you,” then told each other goodnight.
That was the last time Renee would ever speak to her daughter.
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The same evening, Eric agreed to meet some friends on Pensacola Beach for a few drinks. While attending high school in Tallahassee, Eric was a star soccer player who enjoyed a good time. Drinking and driving was a choice he made occasionally. During his college years at FSU, the partying increased and his grades suffered. He decided to make a new start in Pensacola to get away from the party crowd and bring his grades up to earn his degree. He moved, met a girl, fell in love and planned to marry her. He was excited about his future. Every now and then, like this particular night, he would drink, but nothing like the old days.
After having a few drinks with his pals on the beach, Eric, 24, prepared to head home. When his friends took off, his truck wouldn’t start. He phoned a local buddy, Mike, who arrived. While jumpstarting Eric’s truck, he noticed Eric seemed under the influence. “You okay to drive?” Mike asked. Eric was quick to respond he was fine and would call the next morning to let him know he made it home okay. Unfortunately, he never made that call.
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The paths of Eric Smallridge, Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson crossed at a red light. Their vehicles collided and, within four seconds, two families were changed forever.
Renee Napier receives a hug from a Blountstown High School student as she stands in front of the wrecked car her daughter, Meagan Napier, and best friend, Lisa Dickson, were riding in the night they were killed by a drunk driver in Pensacola.
Eric knew something serious had happened when paramedics wanted to draw blood. “Why?” he asked.
The paramedic responded, “Don’t you know? There are two dead girls in that car!”
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As knocks came on doors, families were crushed across the panhandle. “Ironically, we had Meagan’s visitation on Mother’s Day,” says Renee. “I wound up having all four of my kids with me, but one was in a coffin. Over 900 people attended - the most the funeral home ever had.”
Eric was charged with DUI manslaughter and opted to fight the charge, alleging the girls cut him off that night. During the trial, his buddy, Mike, who jumpstarted his truck that night, took the stand. Eric was stunned when Mike was asked if he knew the girls. Mike lowered his head, “They were like sisters to me.” Eric had no idea. Mike still carries guilt for not taking Eric’s keys that night.
A jury convicted Eric and he was sentenced to two 11 year sentences, one for each girl. The judge opted for consecutive sentences meaning Eric would serve 22 years. He told the family how sorry he was, but never really owned up to being responsible for the deaths of the girls. A few months later, that changed.
Renee forgave Eric and told him so, but her heart was broken by the death of her daughter. She could have stayed in bed, but chose to live for her other children. And she thought a lot about Eric. She knew he didn’t intend to kill the girls. She knew he made a bad choice.
“Nobody won,” she told students gathered at Blountstown and Altha high schools on Monday afternoon.
She thought about her own son who was the same age as Eric. “Am I so arrogant to think my own child couldn’t make a bad decision?” she asked herself.
The Napiers and Dicksons went back to court and asked for Eric’s sentence to be reduced to 11 years concurrently. The judge granted their request.
Eric Smallridge at trial.
Instead of being bitter, Renee and Eric now work together to educate students on what they stand to lose from a night of drinking and driving.
Eric, clad in his prison blues and handcuffs, told the students Monday his story. “It’s not worth the risk...my luck ran out...we always had a plan to get to a party, but hardly ever had a plan on getting home.”
Renee urged students, “You love your friends and you’ve got their back...love them enough to take their keys.”