Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly identified Flemming Williamson, 42, the victim of Jose Garcia's crash.
Their evenings all began so innocently.
Michael Gagnon was at his cousin’s bar in Oregon, eating, drinking, and celebrating the holidays with his family, knowing they’d be spending the night at the hotel next door.
Jose Garcia was the designated driver for his fiancee and her friends, who were going out on the town.
Michael Rose was making a typical stop at happy hour after a day of appointments with clients, meetings that went well.
Adam Weisner was doing what he figured most people his age do on a Friday night — drinking at a buddy’s house and later at a local bar. As he remembers thinking, it was a beautiful night for a motorcycle ride.
For all four men — now inmates at Toledo Correctional Institution — their nights out would end in tragedies they never saw coming. Seven strangers would be dead, one paralyzed for life, four others injured.
Now locked up, the four have put together a simple, but powerful, video they hope to show to as many people as possible — driver’s education classes, high school students, driver intervention programs for DUI offenders, Alcoholics Anonymous groups, anyone.
Their message: “Don’t drink and drive. We have no excuses for what we did. No one does.”
In the video and in an interview last week at the prison they now call home, the four men told their stories, not looking for pity, not trying to get a break on their sentences.
Each seems to have accepted his punishment and, from behind the bars and concrete walls, desperately wants to convince others to avoid their deadly mistake, to “play the tape all the way through” before they turn the ignition key after drinking, as Rose put it.
“There is so much to lose when you drink and drive,” said Garcia, 31, who was convicted in Lucas County in 2009 of aggravated vehicular homicide for hitting and killing a bicyclist, Flemming Williamson, 42, of Toledo. “All because of drinking, I’ll have to deal with the death of another man on my hands for the rest of my life.”
Their victims’ families are forever marred by their losses. Their own families are torn apart by the tragedies as well.
Packing a punch
Randy LaFond, director of Talbot Services in Toledo, an alcohol education firm that runs three and six-day intervention programs for individuals convicted of drunken driving, said the video’s message is a powerful one. Talbot recently began showing the video to classes.
“This past weekend we had a young lady in tears. It just had such a powerful impact on her,” Mr. LaFond said. “These folks are not bad people. They just made a very bad choice, a drinking and driving choice that cost their victims their lives, and now these folks are in prison. It cost them their lives, and it was so unnecessary.”
The video packs a much stronger punch than the professionally produced movies Talbot typically shows, he said, in part because the stories are real and they’re local, familiar to many of those who hear them.
“I am very grateful they had the courage to do it,” he said.
Of the four men, Gagnon, 29, is serving the longest sentence — 43 years for causing a wrong-way crash on I-280 in 2007 that killed a Maryland woman and four of her six children.
The former construction contractor and college student from Adrian said he has no recollection of getting into his brother’s pickup truck, getting food at the drive-through window of a nearby Taco Bell, and heading north in the southbound lanes of the interstate. After the last round of shots arrived at the bar that night, he blacked out — something he admits had happened to him before.
“The next thing I remember I woke up and I was inside my truck and I had a paramedic over the top of me,” Gagnon says in the video.
“My first initial reaction was, where’s my brother? I knew at the time I must have been in an accident, but it didn’t occur to me I was driving.”
When his cell phone rang, a state trooper took it from him and told his brother that Gagnon “had just killed a whole family.” He said he was dumbfounded — and angry. Why would the trooper say that? The hate-filled stares and comments he later got at the hospital prompted him to finally ask a nurse the next day if it was true.
“She didn’t have to say anything. She just started crying,” Gagnon recalled. “That’s when I lost all control and that’s when I felt like hell came crashing down on me. Everything that was ever going to happen in my life or was happening, I knew was over. The whole reality was I had just killed four children under the age of 10 and a mother.”
More than five years later, he said it’s difficult for him to fathom how he destroyed five lives — Bethany Griffin, 36; Jordan Griffin and Haley Burkman, both 10; Lacie Burkman, 7, and Vadie Griffin, just 8 weeks old.
A victim’s view
Kurt Anselmi, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., attorney representing Danny Griffin, Jr., who was injured in the crash that killed his wife and children, said the video Gagnon and the others made doesn’t diminish the damage they caused, but he hopes it can be valuable to others.
“You can’t undo the tragedy, but is it valuable what they’re doing given where they’re at now? Certainly,” Mr. Anselmi said. “I think particularly young people seeing the consequences of these crimes, of these horribly poor choices may impact their decision to make similarly horribly tragic choices.”
Rose, 48, was an architect and owner of an investment real estate firm in Columbus. He said he’d long known he had a drinking problem — he’d been arrested for drunken driving four times over the years — but said he’d never faced severe consequences. He convinced himself he had a successful business and knew how to manage his drinking.
On May 15, 2008, he stopped at happy hour, which led, as it increasingly had, to a night of drinking. He got belligerent in the bar, was asked to leave, and stormed out to his car. He drove off angry and fast — striking two people in the parking lot. Rachel Widomski, 28 at the time, would be paralyzed for life.
“I remember the impact of their bodies hitting my car and the disbelief that I had,” Rose said. “... I was scared to death. I kept on driving. I remember driving down the road, asking myself, ‘Did that just happen? How could that happen? That didn’t happen.’ ”
Arrest, jail, court appearances with media cameras trained on him, his family’s utter disappointment, and a 15-year prison sentence came next.
“I went from having a wonderful life to now being told when to go to sleep, when to wake up, when to eat, what to wear, what I can and can’t do,” Rose says in the video. “But that’s the reality of my situation, so my goal here is to open your eyes to the consequences of drinking and driving.”
‘Saving Our Youth’
The men, who participate in an A.A. group at Toledo Correctional, worked with inmate Kevin Green, who helped produce similar videos on other topics under the title “Saving Our Youth.” Capt. Mark Green, who works at Toledo Correctional, provided the video camera and arranged for the men to film their stories in a classroom at the prison.
Mike Jones, a retired Blade reporter who works as an instructor at Talbot Services, reached out to Gagnon after his 2008 conviction, believing he had a valuable story to tell. He said he would tell his classes Gagnon’s story, but he knew it would have more impact if they could hear it straight from “a guy in his 20s with his future obliterated.”
This spring, he received a copy of the DVD in the mail from Gagnon. He hopes people hearing the inmates’ stories will realize that drinking and driving is “an all-in bet,” as he likes to refer to it. “Most of us think it will never happen to us,” Mr. Jones said. “In Texas Hold ’em you can have a really, really good hand. Odds are, you’re not going to kill anybody. Odds are, you’re going to get home, but the bet is all-in. It’s everything. It’s your entire future. It could be your life.”
Weisner, a quiet 26-year-old from Bryan, faces the shortest prison sentence of the four men — six years for killing a woman he met the night of his crash and gave a ride to on his motorcycle. He rolled through a stop sign, accelerated, then crashed trying to outrun a police officer. His victim, Andrea Andrews, 41, of Napoleon, was a mother of three.
“Never. That’s a simple decision,” Weisner said when asked if he would drink alcohol when he’s released. “It’s not that I condemn other people for drinking, but it’s something I can do without.”
His plea in the video is heartfelt as he tells viewers prison is no place they want to be, a place where you don’t even have a name, just a number.
“I hope you will not pity me, though, because I deserve to be here,” Weisner says.
Time to listen
Garcia, the father of two young children who now visit him in prison, said he knows some people may dismiss his good intentions because of what he did, but he accepts that.
“Don’t matter how you look at me, just listen to my story,” he said simply.
Gagnon, who will be 67 when his prison sentence is done, sums up the group’s message as the video concludes.
“Remember our stories and the pain they have caused,” he says into the camera. “There is no excuse for what we have done. You have no excuse either.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-213-2134.