Convicted of three counts of DUI manslaughter and facing 45 years in prison, speaker Mark Sterner knew he was in trouble after his 1994 spring break went terribly wrong.
“I was going to be the first one in my family to graduate from college, but now I was going to be the first one going to prison,” Sterner said.
Sterner spoke to a packed house at Cosford Cinema Feb. 26 about the dangers of drinking and driving.
He started his presentation by asking many questions that aroused cheers and grins about drinking, but his last question left the room silent: “How many people have killed their three best friends while driving?”
Sterner was a 21-year-old senior at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I. He had three months left until his graduation, and he and four of his fraternity brothers decided to enjoy spring break on Sanibel Island, Fla.
“We wanted to experience a spring break like on MTV and on the movies,” Sterner said.
They even had a system of safe driving: One brother would be the designated driver each night. The only problem was that there were five brothers and six nights.
“None of us wanted to miss out on the last night of spring break, but it was the last night of fun for my friends,” Sterner said.
While the five friends started their night off downing numerous shots of Jagermeister, they ended it crashing and rolling in their car at 60 m.p.h., less than two miles from their rented condominium.
“Life is all about choices,” said Sterner, who said that because he was the “least drunk,” he decided to drive. “My friends made bad choices by driving with me drunk. I made an even worse decision by driving them.”
One passenger was crushed to death by the car and two others were killed as a result of being ejected and hitting a tree. Police said they would have survived if they had been wearing their seatbelts.
Sterner was thrown 40 yards from the vehicle. He lost one-third of his blood, had nine broken ribs, a broken pelvis and tree branches punctured his arm and foot. He was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Meyers where a nurse called his mother at 3 a.m. telling her to come as quickly as she could. “I can’t guarantee he’ll make it,” she added.
After a few weeks spent in and out of consciousness, and moments where he was declared clinically dead, Sterner was eventually tried and convicted on the three counts of DUI manslaughter. Sentencing was lenient because of the wishes of his friends’ parents. He only received three years of the possible 45-year sentence, but due to Florida’s prison placement policies, he was still jailed with murderers and rapists.
“Every day I feared for my life,” Sterner said.
Life was not much better after release from prison. He suffers from constant emotional pain and thinks about the crash daily.
“I’m the reason my friends are dead and that’s my real punishment,” Sterner said. “That’s my life sentence.”
Sterner has spoken to more than a million people about his accident and drunk driving as a requirement of his former sentence and now as a professional speaker during the past 12 years.
“I do this so you don’t have to bury your friends,” Sterner said. “It was the last night of fun for my friends. Do you think it was worth it?”
Students took the message seriously.
“It puts into perspective what can and does happen to college students,” Julio Rios, a junior, said. “It makes you think twice about getting into that car.”
This speaker was a part of Pier 21’s “Destination: Safe Spring Break 2008” sponsored by Gold Coast Beverage Distributors.
“We’re not naive enough to think students won’t drink,” Nanette Vega, assistant dean of students, said. “We just want them to be responsible.”
Christopher Nielson may be contacted at email@example.com.