The pain of a mother who, nine years later, still mourns the loss of her daughter was apparent to Historic City News reporters this morning when 52 year-old Renee Napier of Treasure Island urged Bartram Trail High School students to use a designated driver if they have been drinking.
“Don’t worry that mom or dad will be angry over coming to get you,” Napier said. “They’d rather do that than get that knock at the door that tells them you’re never coming home … trust me.”
Napier has made it her mission to educate as many young people as possible about the consequences of driving while intoxicated after suffering through her own tragedy in the early morning hours of May 11, 2002.
Lisa Jo Dickson, a 20 year-old University of West Florida sophomore, was driving home around 2:00 a.m. Saturday morning, accompanied by her best friend, Megan. Dickson’s passenger was Napier’s daughter, 20 year-old Megan Napier — a sophomore attending Tallahassee Community College.
Eric William Smallridge was a recent University of West Florida graduate with big plans for his future. He was 24 years-old, athletic, popular and soon to be engaged.
Friday night, Smallridge attended a beer party on Casino Beach and continued to another beach party later that evening. He says that he felt “OK” to drive, so he got behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee and headed home. According to police reports, Smallridge lost control of his vehicle on Gulf Breeze Parkway and plowed into the Mazda occupied by the two young women; forcing them into the median and then crashing into a tree.
Both Dickson and Napier were sober. They both died immediately at the scene. Smallridge walked away from the wreck with barely a scratch. His blood-alcohol level was 0.201 — more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
Smallridge was sentenced to 22 years in prison exactly eight years ago today; after being convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol and causing an accident that resulted in the death of two twenty year-old girls in Gulf Breeze, Santa Rosa County, Florida.
Bartram students attend one of two sessions of a presentation of the life-changing tragedy; including some visual aids that clearly got their attention. As the seventeen and eighteen year-olds entered the school auditorium, they paraded by the actual remains of the Mazda that the two girls had been driving when they were killed.
Napier narrated a video the recalled her daughter Megan, her girlfriend Lisa, and showed images and recordings of those involved in the traffic homicide — including the judge and the assailant.
The students were respectfully listening and paying attention to Napier as she spoke and presented the video and a series of slides. However, all eyes were glued to the stage when uniformed deputies led the now 33 year-old Eric Smallridge onto the stage; bound in leg-irons that were shackled to handcuffs by chains, dressed in bright orange prison clothes and wearing soft rubber slide-on sandals.
Napier embraced the man who took her daughter’s life after speaking to the importance of “forgiveness”. The reaction from the students was attentive. “Eric is a good person and I believe he has a good heart,” Napier said. “It may have taken him going to prison to get to this point, but I believe he can do some good in this world.”
Her ex-husband, Philip Napier who is a Pensacola contractor, and did not attend, told reporters that he found himself at a crossroad after Meagan’s death. “I had to ask myself, are you going to harbor this anger and resentment all your life?” he said. “I had to pray about it a lot. The anger and resentment were eating my lunch. It was making me an angry, miserable type of guy, and I didn’t want to be that way, and I didn’t think Meagan would want me to be that way.”
Smallridge gave the students the desired “dose of reality” as he recalled exactly what was going through his mind the night of the accident, what sacrifices he made because of his poor judgment and the burden he carries knowing that his impaired driving killed two innocent passersby.
Five years ago, Circuit Judge Ron Swanson granted a petition by Smallridge that his state prison sentence be cut from 22 years to 11 years — allowing the sentence for the two convictions to run concurrently. Members of both families were there to support his request. Smallridge is eligible for release next year.
He plans to continue the speaking engagements with Napier once he gets out, he said. Napier told Historic City News that, although some people might not understand her feelings, she wants the man who killed her daughter out of prison while he still can make a life for himself and crusade against drinking and driving.
“It’s kind of humiliating to show people what I’ve been reduced to,” Smallridge said. “But if it changes one person’s mind, save’s one person’s grief, it is worth it.”
Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer