PAUL SMITHS - Sometimes bad decisions carry life-altering consequences.
Twenty-five people attended a victim impact panel at Paul Smith's College Thursday to hear four people tell their stories on how drinking and driving has affected their lives.
"One hundred percent of DWI accidents are preventable," Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said. "Every year, 17,000 people die in alcohol-related accidents. If a jumbo jet fell out of the sky once a week, would people still fly? That's what this is like - a jumbo jet falling out of the sky every week."
Mulverhill first brought the victim impact panel to Franklin County in December 2007. People charged with a drinking-and-driving offenses can be required to attend a panel as a term of their sentence.
Mulverhill stressed that the panel isn't about telling people not to drink; it's about encouraging them to make responsible decisions if they do decide to drink.
The first speaker asked to remain anonymous for this article. We'll call him Tom.
Tom's story began when he was 4. He had just met his best friend in nursery school.
"We grew up together," Tom said. "He was in every class of mine through high school."
After high school, both men joined the Marines. Two months into boot camp, Tom injured his knee and had to return home, but his friend stayed and was eventually deployed to Iraq.
For Tom, the holidays now harbor a guilt-ridden memory. It was December 2006 when Tom's friend called and said he was home on leave. He wanted to hang out with Tom, and he wanted to share the news he had just shared with his own family - two weeks prior he had married his high school sweetheart, who was a mutual friend of the two men.
The two friends met at a party, and Tom decided to run home after his fiancee called him. His best friend joined him, as did two others.
To return to the party, Tom avoided the main roads by taking a lesser-traveled back road. All he remembers are the loud sounds, a glimpse of the moment before the impact and darkness.
Tom woke up three days later in the intensive care unit of the Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. His list of injuries included two fractured vertebrae, a broken collar bone and broken ribs, one of which had punctured his right lung.
Injuries weren't the first thing on his mind, though. He asked his brother, who was there when he woke up, about the condition of his passengers.
They were all OK except his best friend, who had died.
Tom was out of the hospital five days later, and police arrested him immediately and charged him with vehicular manslaughter. Troopers had his blood tested for drugs and alcohol after the accident.
"I saw his (best friend's) mom shortly after that," Tom said. "She gave me a hug, and when she gave it to me, I knew that was the last time that was going to happen. I have not seen her since."
Tom served time in jail, and he did probation and drug court. He got off probation six months ago, but the relationships the accident destroyed may never heal.
"It was completely preventable," Tom said. "I could have walked from that party. I was right down the road. I could have saved lives."
After Tom spoke, Mulverhill asked attendees to think of five people who are important to them and pick two of those names.
"Imagine that those two people were just involved in an alcohol-related crash," Mulverhill said. "Two in every five Americans are involved in an alcohol-related crash. You got to choose your two. Was it an easy choice?"
The second speaker also asked to be anonymous. We'll call him Dave.
In December 2010, Dave was going through a difficult breakup that made him feel disoriented and troubled. When a friend called and said she wanted Dave to celebrate her birthday with her, he invited her over.
After an evening of dinner and bloody Caesars, a mixture of clamatto juice and vodka, Dave's friend left. He had a few more drinks and finished the night off with a prescription sleep aid called Ambien.
"Apparently, during the night I got up - I don't remember anything about it - and drank more alcohol," Dave said. "I got up at my regular time, about quarter to 6 in the morning, feeling really foggy. I hopped in my truck at about 7 o'clock and headed off to work."
The last thing Dave remembers is looking down to change the radio station about a mile from his house. His truck swerved and hit the left guardrail, so Dave jerked the steering wheel to the right and hit another car head on.
"She was trying to evade me," Dave said. "All I remember was noise followed by silence. I looked down at my leg and it was bent at about a 90-degree angle. I couldn't see ahead of me because the airbag went off and blocked my view. I was in and out of consciousness."
The woman Dave hit suffered serious head, knee and ankle injuries. She was airlifted to Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, Vt.
A trooper showed up at the hospital and gave Dave a breathalyzer and asked to take blood. After that, Dave went into surgery and had rods put into his knee and hip. He spent two days in the hospital; the woman he hit was hospitalized for nine days.
About a month later, an officer showed up at Dave's home and arrested him on seven charges, including aggravated vehicular assault and aggravated driving while intoxicated. He served six months in jail and five months of probation.
He said he was lucky to keep his job after the accident.
"The only reason my company kept me was my track record," Dave said. "You should never get behind the wheel, even if you're a little buzzed. When you hurt another person, it's a terrible feeling. It's a lot of regret."
After Dave spoke, Mulverhill pointed out that the speakers had all made decisions that had lasting effects on the lives of others.
Not everyone has a choice, though.
When Maryann Dunlavey's oldest son, Brandon, said he was going to the mall with his girlfriend on April 4, 2006, Dunlavey said it was fine. As the time crept closer to 10 p.m., she began to worry.
That's when the phone rang. Someone had called to tell her Brandon had been in an accident. After several frantic phone calls, the Dunlaveys learned he was at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh.
When they arrived there, a tall male nurse walked into the waiting room and told the couple to follow him. The nurse brought them to a door that had a piece of paper taped over the window.
"I said to the nurse, 'Is my son dead?'" Dunlavey said, her voice quivering. "He said, 'Yes.'"
The nurse asked them if they were ready and opened the door.
"I walked over to my son, and one eye was partially open," Dunlavey said. "I looked him in the eye and said, 'Wake up. Wake up.'"
A priest entered the room and performed the last rites.
When a state trooper came in, Dunlavey asked him who killed her son. The answer sickened her. It was Charles Peryea, whose blood alcohol was determined to be 0.12 percent at the time of the accident. The legal limit in New York is 0.08 percent.
"Six months prior to killing my son, he (Peryea) had gotten into a DWI accident," Dunlavey said. "We went to the trial, and he never even said he was sorry."
Peryea was sentenced to five to 15 years. He is up for parole in two years, and Dunlavey will be there to make sure he stays behind bars.
"There's one question you have to ask yourself when you've put those keys in that car and you're drunk," Peryea said. "Could you handle the pain that people go through because of your selfish decision? Because it happens just like that."
After Dunlavey spoke, Mulverhill shared a thought with the attendees.
"People say time heals all wounds," Mulverhill said. "That's bull. These things don't go away. It never gets better."
Mulverhill then asked attendees how many of them know someone who's been involved in an alcohol-related crash. Ten people raised their hands.
"You've suffered, yet here you are," Mulverhill said. "It's got to stop."
The last speaker, Todd Farrell, explained that he always saw himself as a responsible drinker.
"I was one of those people," Farrell said. "You work hard, and you play hard. I was very familiar with the bar scene, but I always had a designated driver."
Farrell didn't have a designated driver when he went to a motorcycle rally in Tupper Lake in 2006, though.
"I met a couple friends and we had a couple of drinks," Farrell said. "I don't remember anything. I woke up in Fletcher Allen."
Farrell soon learned that he had been in an accident and that the woman who had asked him for a ride had died at the scene.
"Imagine knowing that you did that," Farrell said. "I have been seeking counseling. It's hard to understand what happened. It's hard to live your life every day knowing you took someone's life."
Farrell was charged with vehicular manslaughter and DWI. In court, the mother of the young woman, her sister and her sister's child were all present.
"I was going to say something to them, and I turned to look at them," Farrell said. "What can you say to the family of someone you kill? She's never going to have another Christmas or another birthday."
The felony arrest cost Farrell his job. He also had to go on probation and pay $32,000 restitution for the victim's funeral and hospital bills.
A lack of employment and a license, combined with no job, meant that Farrell violated probation several times before settling the debt.
"I remember I had to call my daughter's school and ask them to watch her," Farrell said. "I had to tell them her dad's going to be in the paper. I'm there for her, but look what I did to somebody else's daughter. This is the only thing I can do make sure someone else doesn't have to go through what I put that family through. I relive this every day."
As people filed out of the room, one of the attendees, Jessica Bordeau, told the Enterprise that alcohol wasn't a factor in her arrest.
Wiping tears from her eyes, she explained that she took an excessive amount of prescription pain killers and muscle relaxers before putting her daughter in the car and getting behind the wheel. Bordeau then passed out in the middle of an intersection.
"I think it should be known that it's not just drinking," Bordeau said. "I could have killed my kid. I've wrecked my car three times because of pills."
The arrest was Bordeau's second time being charged with driving while ability impaired. Bordeau said she has now been sober for 14 months and is going to school to help people with chemical dependencies.
"People always think it's all about alcohol, but it's not," Bordeau said. "It's crazy how some of these kids are so addicted. Pills are just as dangerous."