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Driver in 2009 fatal alcohol-related car crash encourages teen drivers to make safer choices

LARGO — As a montage of news footage from the accident played on theater-sized projector screens, Melissa Daddio sat in the front row, listening to her own voice narrate the most regrettable moment of her life. • The auditorium at Indian Rocks Christian School was silent Thursday morning, except for Daddio's soft sobs from the video playing through the speakers — and her even softer cries as she watched from her seat, perhaps only a day away from a years-long prison sentence. • The mini-documentary and her appearance at the school was a moment of relived grief for Daddio, who as a teen driver in February 2009 killed her boyfriend.

Daddio, then 19, was drunk and behind the wheel of her car after a night partying with friends. She crashed. Her Hyundai wound up sideways against a building in St. Petersburg. Her boyfriend, Ryan King, was a passenger. He died from his injuries.

Her first year in nursing school, her hopes of someday starting a family, leisurely weekends flashing fake IDs at bars with friends — all that was gone.

"All that changed the day I crashed my car and killed my boyfriend Ryan," she said.

After the video finished, Daddio stepped on stage, a crowd of about 200 middle and high school students, some of them teary-eyed, looking on.

"I live with the pain every day," she said. "The accident replays over in my head like a bad nightmare."

The speech to these students, say her parents, is a step toward absolution.

"The way for her to heal is for her to replay some of these nightmares," said Mary Daddio, her mother.

It was also a way for her to send a message to the assembled students.

Perhaps some of her sorrow would transfer to them, her regret pre-empting a tragedy of their own.

After the lights came up, rather than scramble back to class, many stayed behind to write messages on a poster board with King's photograph on it and to thank Daddio for telling her story.

Natasha Sol Cruz, 14, a freshman at Indian Rocks, hugged Daddio and passed her a note — a list of Bible verses — a message for her to keep strong and to thank her for her courage.

"It could change decisions," Cruz said. "We should be careful."

The video production and speaking engagement was arranged by Bruce Murakami, founder of the organization Safe Teen Driver.

Murakami formed the organization after his wife and young daughter were killed by a speeding teenager in Tampa 11 years ago.

After meeting with Justin Cabezas, the then 19-year-old who caused that 1998 crash, Murakami offered forgiveness in exchange for his apology and pledge to raise awareness about reckless teen driving.

Daddio contacted Murakami after King's mother, Denise King, sent her a link to his website, safeteendriver.org.

Like Murakami, King has channeled her anger into a higher calling, a warning to other young drivers.

"My family has chosen to forgive Melissa," King said.

Daddio's appearance Thursday comes at a critical moment of her life after the accident. This morning, she will face a judge in the Pinellas Criminal Courthouse and receive her sentence for driving-under-the-influence manslaughter and DUI causing serious bodily injury.

She could get more than 15 years in prison.

But, Daddio said, that doesn't matter.

"If only I can save one life. Hopefully these kids will listen to me," Daddio said after her speech. "Maybe this is my purpose now."

Driver in 2009 fatal alcohol-related car crash encourages teen drivers to make safer choices 04/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 9:01am]

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