Driver in DWI fatality, speaks to students at alma mater
Standing before juniors and seniors seated in front of him in the auditorium at his alma mater, Caledonia-Mumford High School, Justin Walsh, a 2005 CM graduate, described the horrible and painful events that occurred on April 7, 2007, when he was the driver in an automobile accident that took the life of his best friend, 20-year old Christopher Paladino. Walsh told the students that he lives with the reality that his friend is dead because he made a decision to get behind the wheel of a vehicle after he and Paladino had been drinking at a party. The pain caused by rehearsing the events of that night are why Walsh speaks to students.
"Four years ago I was sitting in this same auditorium listening to a similar story. I thought this was the kind of thing that happened to someone else, someone with problems. This story is coming from me; Iím not a stranger and I hope it will touch home," he told the students.
Walsh told his story of feeling invincible, much like all teenagers do in high school. A successful three-sport athlete, he says he and Paladino began drinking alcohol as sophomores in high school, thinking it was just a normal right of passage. At first he drank when out at parties or with his friends but admitted that soon it was about drinking with the sole intent to get drunk. The two teens attended parties in and around town with the friends where everyone was consuming large amounts of alcohol. After graduation Walsh went on to SUNY Brockport to play football and Paladino enrolled at Genesee Community College. The drinking and partying continued and as a result, Paladino was arrested for DWI and lost his license.
That didnít stop the teens from continuing their irresponsible abuse of alcohol; it just meant that Walsh had to do the driving. With his parents away on vacation in Florida, Walsh wasted no time in inviting a crowd of friends to his house for a party. Everyone was drinking heavily, he admitted to the students. After everyone left the party, he and Paladino continued to drink. Then they received an invitation from a girl down the road to come to her party. They did and there they drank even more. On their way back home, with Walsh behind the wheel, he didnít negotiate the curve in the road and crashed, flipping the vehicle upside down.
Walsh says he vividly remembers his friend saying, "Whoa," but the car came to a stop upside down, he looked over at the passenger seat and Paladino wasnít there. Walsh climbed out of the vehicle and found his friend lying on the side of the road.
"That was the last time I saw my best friend," he said, holding back the emotion.
The rest of the events that unfolded included an ambulance ride to the hospital where nurses wiped the blood of his best friend off of Walshís hands. Police came to interrogate him and test his blood for alcohol. His injuries were minor and he insisted on attending Paladinoís funeral.
"I went to Chrisí funeral to bury my best friend. I thought I knew what pain and suffering was but this was the hardest thing Iíve ever done. All I remember is watching the casket carrying my best friend going in to the earth," he recalled.
Walsh was later charged with vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in Livingston County jail. There he says he had time to think.
"It was then that I realized that all of my bad decisions in life happened while I was drunk."
He looked at the sober faces in front of him and said,
"Four years ago I was in that same seat listening to the exact same story. I never thought this would happen to me. I lost my best friend; Iím living proof that this happens. Iím talking to you so you wonít make the same mistake," Walsh told the students.
He has told this story to students in dozens of schools but says it hasnít dulled the pain of its reality. He only hopes teens will listen and make safe decisions.
Walsh is junior at SUNY Brockport majoring in exercise physiology and doing a good job of rebuilding his life in the aftermath of the accident.