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Mother and inmate raise awareness of drinking and driving

LARGO

In May 2002, Eric Smallridge was a college student with big plans for his future.

The 24-year-old was athletic, popular and soon to be engaged.

Today, he's a prison inmate with a message for young people: Don't drink and drive.

"Don't throw it all away," said Smallridge, shackled hand and foot during a talk to Largo High School students Monday. "Don't risk it all by something avoidable."

Now 33, Smallridge was sentenced to 22 years in prison in 2003 after he was convicted of two counts of driving-under-the-influence manslaughter. Early on May 11, 2002 — the day before Mother's Day — Smallridge slammed into a gold Mazda carrying Meagan Napier and Lisa Jo Dickson in Gulf Breeze in the Panhandle.

Napier and Dickson, both 20-year-old college students and best friends, died at the scene. Smallridge had a blood alcohol level more than twice the limit at which a driver is presumed impaired in Florida.

On Monday, Smallridge joined Napier's mother, Renee Napier, who has made it her mission to educate as many young people as possible about the consequences of driving while intoxicated. Napier said she was able to forgive the man who killed her daughter after he apologized and took responsibility for his actions.

The two are giving a series of presentations in Pinellas County schools this month with the help of Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, who arranged for Smallridge's transport from a Panhandle prison and his temporary housing at the county jail.

Napier, 52, of Treasure Island, urged the students to use a designated driver or to call their parents if they find themselves in a situation where they, or their friends, can't drive. Don't worry that mom or dad will be angry over coming to get you, she said.

"They'd rather do that than get that knock at the door that tells them you're never coming home. Trust me," she said.

The message is especially important since Largo's prom is this weekend.

"We just want you all to make it back to school on that Monday after prom," Napier said.

Dozens of students crowded around Napier and Smallridge after the assembly to ask questions or thank them for sharing their story. Several teens hugged Smallridge, who wore a blue jumpsuit and was guarded by three deputies.

"It was very deep," said 17-year-old Brian Castle. "You don't realize how quickly things can spiral out of control, so you should think through all of your decisions."

Several students vowed afterward that they would never drink and drive. But many said they hoped their fellow students took the message to heart.

"I know so many kids who do this," said Shibovan Regan, an 18-year-old senior. "They think it's cool, and it's not."

In 2006, a judge agreed to let Smallridge serve his two 11-year sentences concurrently, which makes him eligible for release in 2012. He plans on continuing the speaking engagements with Napier once he gets out, he said.

"It's kind of humiliating to show people what I've been reduced to," he said. "But if it changes one person's mind, save's one person's grief, it was worth it."

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More information

To learn more about the Meagan Napier Foundation, a nonprofit created to raise awareness about the dangers of driving under the influence, visit the website at themeagannapierfoundation.com/.

Mother and inmate raise awareness of drinking and driving 05/09/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 12:12am]

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