Hundreds of students filed into the Largo High School auditorium, chatting and snickering as their afternoon program began. After a few minutes, the chatting stopped. The laughing stopped. The whole auditorium went silent.
It wasn't just because Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi came to their school and told a story about a 17-year-old from Brandon who drank, drove, crashed and killed three friends.
It wasn't just because Bondi showed them photos of the mangled car, and photos of the three victims, and told them she prosecuted the case herself.
The silence came as Bondi explained that she got to know the drunken driver, Matthew Durrell, after he spent a dozen years in prison.
And then, she invited him on stage.
Students knew they were going to hear from Bondi, but no one told them the program Thursday also included a felon.
Durrell, now 34 and on probation, told students he had been getting into trouble since he became a teenager. He flunked eighth grade, flunked ninth grade, and said he was drinking alcohol and using drugs early on. By 15, he was selling drugs, "and I didn't sell drugs because I needed money, I sold drugs so I could get some attention."
He went out with some friends one night when he was 17 and "got real wasted." After a party in the neighborhood, he drove off in his uncle's car. "We made it 2 miles from my house and we crashed."
He doesn't remember smashing into the tree very well. "But I do remember being in the hospital and having the chaplain tell me, 'All three of your friends died.' None of you want to hear that, believe me."
The 1995 crash killed Alan Vantine, 20, Frank Ildefonso, 19, and Jill Cook, 19, all of Valrico.
But, he admitted, it wasn't his last dumb move. He was released on bail, and went back to school, as a 17-year-old sophomore. Someone videotaped him in a neck brace, drinking beer at a party. Relatives of the victims were horrified. He got a 17-year prison sentence, and lost his driver's license forever. He was released from prison in 2008.
Now, he rides his bike every day to a construction job. Getting a job isn't easy with a felony record, he said.
Durrell said that when he was growing up in Brandon, everyone knew the story of Olympic diving silver medalist Bruce D. Kimball, who drank a dozen beers one night in 1988 and crashed into a crowd of youths in eastern Hillsborough County, killing two and injuring others.
"They used to show us the video every year. I was like, that'll never happen to me. It did."
To the high school students who were buzzing about the homecoming game scheduled for Friday, Durrell said this: "I never went to a homecoming. I never went to a prom. I went to prison out of 10th grade."
After his talk, sophomore Jessica Wallace went up to Durrell and thanked him for speaking. She said she lost a friend in a car crash, and she thought students needed to hear Durrell's story. "It'll open your eyes," she said afterward.
Sophomore Brenda Vargas and junior Itzel Jahuey are president and vice president of the "Live Free" club, which urges students to avoid alcohol, and which promoted Thursday's talk. They're also cousins. And when they heard Durrell discuss the accident, they each put themselves in his place for a minute, and imagined what it would be like if they did something stupid that cost others their lives.
"I won't forget it," Vargas said.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected]