This weekend, juniors and seniors at Cumberland County High School and Stone Memorial High School will don their tuxes and formal gowns, smile for the camera and make memories that will last a lifetime at their respective proms.
But earlier in the week, law enforcement, health and education advocates met with the students to encourage them to make good decisions so that their dream night would not turn into a nightmare.
“Alcohol and drugs take away all the things that make life worth living. It numbs you. I couldn’t feel peace or serenity. I couldn’t feel love for my fellow man,” said Eric Wright. “Your lives can be spectacular. You can enjoy all the wonderful things in life, but you can’t do it with your head in a bottle.”
Wright recounted his own “nightmare” night in 1997. He has no memory of the night. What he shared came from eyewitness testimony and police reports. The evening began with a night on the town with his friends and ended with a woman dead and Wright in a coma facing months of rehabilitation and criminal charges for vehicular homicide.
Wright and friends were in Knoxville drinking at various clubs and bars. At some point in the night, he decided to drive home to Athens, TN. There, he had an argument with his girlfriend and left his home driving to Cumberland County. He made a stop in Crossville at a store and continued north on Hwy. 127 where he struck another vehicle head-on while negotiating a curve. The other car was driven by a mother of three who was on her way to work at 6 a.m. that morning.
Wright woke up three days later in the hospital. He’d been in a coma and on a ventilator. His legs were shattered from his feet to his hips. He had 23 screws, two stainless steel plates and a titanium rod from his knew to his hip in both legs. He was confined to a wheelchair for three months before he was able to use a walker, then a cane and walking with leg braces for a year. He spent nine months in outpatient rehabilitation in Knoxville learning to walk again.
While he was recovering, he was served with a $5 million lawsuit. He had also been indicted for vehicular homicide, a class B felony with a sentence of 8 to 12 years requiring at least 33 percent of the sentence to be served.
“This was just from a night of partying,” Wright told the teens. “This wasn’t with malicious intent on my part. I wasn’t going out to try and hurt someone. I was just going out to have a good time with my friends. See how this just does not seem worth it?”
In September 1998, Wright pled guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court. He was sentenced in October, with the victim’s family requiring several special conditions.
Wright served 180 days jail at the Cumberland County Justice center and 12 years supervised probation by Department of Community Corrections, which would have been 12 years house arrest, essentially. Wright was released from that probation and turned over to state probation after 13 months. He was on probation for nine years.
He lost his license for three years and performed 1,000 hours community service. He also lost his license to work as a laboratory technician because of the code of ethics required. He had to earn that back over several years.
There were also conditions requested by the family. Wright paid more than $30,000 in child support to the woman’s children. He was also required to take a Bible encased in plastic and opened to the Ten Commandments and place it on her grave. He was required to visit her grave one day a month for the length of his probation.
The judge also ordered Wright could not drink while on probation and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a week.
“I was angry,” Wright said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do on Friday and Saturday nights if I can’t party with my buddys?’ And when he told me to attend AA meetings, I thought, ‘I’m not an alcoholic. I can stop any time I want to.’”
Wright has now been sober 16 years. He earned back his professional license and his driver’s license. He married, adding, “I love my life today. I absolutely love it. I have a wife who supports me and loves me dearly, and I love her, too.”
“My world was so small when I was drinking,” Wright said. “It’s strange how it happens. Your world keeps collapsing in on you. Alcohol and drugs will take everything from you.”
Cumberland County Sheriff’s Deputy Tom Howard was on the scene of Wright’s wreck, one of many fatal accidents he has responded to in his 20 years as a deputy. In that time, more than 300 people have been killed in traffic accidents in Cumberland County. About half of those have involved driving under the influence.
“We do not want you to go through that,” Howard said.
Howard recalled another terrible accident in 1997, where a man had been drinking and was driving. He hit a truck hauling a cattle trailer. That driver was paralyzed.
The driver was dead at the scene. In the car with him was his brother, who was also killed, and a young girl, the driver’s cousin, and another woman who survived, but was forever scarred by what she experienced.
“What we’re doing here today is just asking you to make good decisions,” Howard said. “Don’t drink and drive. Don’t get in the car with somebody who drinks and drives, because that might be the last decision you ever make in your life.
“That will cause myself, Casey [Cox], the sheriff to have to do the worst thing we do in our jobs, and that’s to knock on somebody’s door or meet them at the hospital and tell them that they’re never coming home again.”
Sheriff Butch Burgess told the teens, “I pray to God you never see the things we see.”
The pre-prom educational program has been held in Cumberland County for more than ten years, and had made the following offer every year.
“If you get out here on prom night, or any other night, and you get in a bind, call 911 and tell them to have me to call you. I will come and get you or I will somebody to come get you,” Burgess said. “If you get out here on your own, somebody will come get you, but you won’t go to the same place.”
Students were invited to take the Prom Promise, promising not to drink and drive prom night. The were also encouraged to take the no texting pledge, promising not to text while driving and to keep their mind on the road ahead.