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Drunk driving tale hits home with Bloomingdale students

Matthew Durrell, 35, spoke at Bloomingdale High School on Thursday. In 1995, he drove drunk and killed three friends.

ERNEST HOOPER | Times

Matthew Durrell, 35, spoke at Bloomingdale High School on Thursday. In 1995, he drove drunk and killed three friends.

This speech was different.

Matthew Durrell had looked DUI offenders in the eye and warned them about consequences. At meetings sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, he had urged them not to make the kind of mistakes that landed him in prison.

At high schools, he had told teens bad choices can ruin families and kill friends, like his three friends who died when he spun out into a tree during a drunken joyride.

But when Durrell, 35, stepped before students at Bloomingdale High Thursday morning to again offer his cautionary tale, everything was different. For the first time in 17 years, he returned to his school, the place where he struggled in class but succeeded in the halls as a fun-loving party guy.

This is where he satisfied his need for attention by doing drugs and selling them. This is where he returned after that horrific Mother's Day weekend in 1995 wearing a back brace — and guilt.

This is where he turned to coach Scot Tipton a year later in the weight room, told him he was going to prison and walked home never to return to Bloomingdale High.

Until Thursday.

"It's surreal," Durrell said after his presentation. "It's something to be back here. Usually, I don't miss a beat, but I got choked up a couple of times today."

The effect on the students seemed just as significant. When Durrell shared how he crashed his uncle's Toyota Supra on S Dover Road, killing Alan Vantine, Frank Ildefonso and Jill Cook, the students murmured and nodded, familiar with the rural road that's just miles from their campus.

As principal Sue Burkett noted, this wasn't some stranger from another city. This was a Bloomingdale Bull who had lived in the same world they live in today.

After his speech, the students flocked to Durrell, thanking him for the inspiration he provided by reliving the pain of that night and the choices that forever altered his life and the lives of four families.

"It was inspiring," said Bloomingdale sophomore Isaiah McIntyre, the school's star quarterback.

His story resonated with the kids even though they walked into the gym not knowing they were going to hear from Durrell.

The students gathered for a lecture from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi about the perils of drinking and driving.

Flanked by photos and poster-sized stories about the crash, Bondi explained how as a young Hillsborough prosecutor, she worked the case — and how her outrage grew when Durrell was spotted drinking beer on a public access cable show that focused on teen parties — after the crash.

"I wanted to bury him under the jail," Bondi said.

Durrell received a 20-year sentence and in the years that followed, Bondi repeatedly spoke to student groups, holding up Durrell as the poster child for what can go wrong when teens believe they're invincible.

When Durrell earned an early release in 2008 after serving 12 years for DUI-manslaughter, he asked to speak to Bondi at a hearing. When she obliged, he hugged her and said, "Thanks, you saved my life."

She soon began to see the man she had vilified for so long in a different light.

Now she has him step from the shadows, surprising students as he moves to the podium to offer his testimony.

Durrell talked not only of how drinking and drugs ruined his early life, but the horrors of prison and how he will never forget about losing his friends and the impact on their families.

Burkett, the principal, said she felt compelled to bring Durrell in even though it meant students would miss class.

"The teacher in me wanted him to have closure," Burkett said.

Durrell, who had told Bondi more than once he wanted to return to Bloomingdale, seemed to receive that closure.

But if you ask the students, Durrell gave more than he received on this particular day.

That's all I'm saying.

Drunk driving tale hits home with Bloomingdale students 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 4:32pm]
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