- Associated Press - Sunday, October 11, 2015

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - In a perfect world, Laura Smith and Chad Mattson never would have met.

Laura would be looking forward to celebrating her son’s 22nd birthday. Chad would have been promoted, gotten married and maybe had a couple children.

Instead, on Sept. 28, 2009, Chad spent the day at a bar and Laura didn’t know she had seen her son for the last time.

That evening, Chad, who was drunk by then, struck Laura’s 15-year-old son, Taylor, with his vehicle, killing him.

“I couldn’t ever imagine as a kid that I would be a drunk driver,” Chad said in the visitor’s room at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton.

Laura was taking pictures outside her Panama City Beach home when she got the call. She and her husband rushed to the scene just a few miles away.

“As I was walking up to the flashing lights of the ambulance, I was dying,” she recalled. “I never gave up hope, but I saw his eyes and I knew.”

“I’m not the same person anymore. That’s the day I died.”

Taylor spent five days after the crash in a nearby hospital, his mom fighting by his side. When he died Oct. 2, he looked as if he were sleeping, Laura said.

An organ donor, Taylor has saved three other lives. Laura said she has met each of the recipients.

She often thinks about the person her son would be if he were still alive: Would he be in college? Would he have a girlfriend? He would have been 22 on Oct. 23.

At 15, Taylor was as typical as he was exceptional. He loved skimboarding and skateboarding. He was good at math and handsome, with a blond mop of hair that made him look like he was from California. He was excited about being taller than his dad.

“He was a great kid, had lots of friends and had a real sensitive part to him,” Laura said.

Family memories from that day on would never be the same.

“It’s a gray world,” she said. “You have good moments, but then there’s that little dark cloud. He should be here.”

When their older son, Ryan, got married in 2013, a photo of Taylor was incorporated into the bride’s bouquet. He would have been his big brother’s best man, Laura said.

Ryan had just started college when his family was turned upside down. He thought about dropping out, but his mom told him not to. He’s now an electrical engineer.

Although Taylor never made it to college, there is a scholarship at Gulf Coast State College in his name.

During the days sitting beside her son in the hospital, Laura had no room in her mind to think about Chad Mattson. Six years later, she still tries not to think about him.

“I want my days filled with Taylor in my head. I don’t want one ounce of my energy filled with Chad,” she said.

Sitting in the jail in his bluish-gray prison uniform, Chad said he never stops thinking about Sept. 28, Taylor and the Smith family.

“I constantly have to re-accept it,” he said. “I’ll probably never understand what the Smiths are going through. I can’t fathom it.”

In the hours before the accident, Chad’s life was “as good as it could be,” he said.

The 26-year-old had just been promoted at his job with a financial services company, was living on his own and had a supportive family who loved him.

On that day, he was conducting business from a bar, which was not unusual for him.

“It was a Monday,” he said. “I was at Hooter’s across the street from my work. There were two-for-one bourbons.”

As Chad left, he was arguing via text with his then-girlfriend. He got into his car, still texting and intoxicated.

“It was the perfect storm,” he said solemnly. “I was impaired and distracted.”

Driving on Thomas Drive in Panama City Beach about 6 p.m., he crossed into the designated bike lane and struck Taylor.

According to the report from the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, people surrounded a young man on the shoulder of the road when first responders arrived. Smith was unconscious, had a severely broken right leg and was bleeding heavily from the back of his head.

A witness told deputies Chad had fled on foot. They searched the area but couldn’t find him.

About two hours later, he emerged from a wooded area and surrendered, saying he had a panic attack, the report said. A deputy wrote he “smelled the strong odor” of alcohol and cologne on Chad.

In the woods, Chad said he started making phone calls to his family and his boss.

“I’ve been drinking and I think I hit someone,” he told them.

As reality set in, he realized the world he knew didn’t exist anymore.

“There will always be an asterisk by my name - DUI killer,” Chad said.

But whatever burden he bears, Laura said it is nothing compared to her family’s life sentence.

“We’re like a car with three wheels; we need that fourth wheel.”

In April 2010, Chad appeared in court. He was told not to look at the Smith family.

“It took every bit of me not to go to them and say, ‘If I could trade lives with your son right now, I would,’ ” he said.

He can’t.

Instead, he is required to serve 15 years, the same number of years Taylor was alive.

The Smith family was asked what they thought the sentence should be. They chose the maximum 25 years, but Laura said no amount of time would satisfy her.

“It’s like asking what you think your son’s life is worth,” she said. “It will never change the fact that Taylor’s gone.”

Chad was 27 when he started his prison term. It was a sobering thought to know that the next decade and a half would be spent sharing a 7-by-13-foot cell with another inmate, eating the same food every day and doing personal things such as showering and going to the bathroom with no privacy.

“I knew that was going to be my fate,” he said. “One hundred and eight months . that’s a mortgage term. Each day is like the one before.”

Behind Chad are his parents. Despite everything, they still love him.

“It haunts us every day,” said his mom, Rita. “I still have my child. . I have a child that’s killed a child.”

She believes her son’s prison sentence is fair. Although Rita knows it’s an impossible wish, she hopes for her son’s forgiveness.

“I wish they knew that he’s not evil. He’s not that person,” she said.

As part of his sentence, Chad must give drinking and driving presentations when he gets out of prison.

He decided not to wait 15 years to share his story. With the help of his family, girlfriend and even his lawyer, he started the “I Chose” movement.

On the I Chose website is a video interview of Chad in his prison uniform and his writings. He often submits op-ed pieces to local newspapers. Most of his writing is dedicated to reminding people, namely high school students, not to drink and drive or text and drive.

“That’s where the pattern develops,” he said.

An app under development will encourage people to pledge not to drive impaired. Chad wants to expand the movement into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and continue the efforts well beyond his incarceration.

“This is about preventing someone from becoming Chad Mattson,” he said. “I can speak from that firsthand experience. I want people to understand you’re putting lives at stake.

“I would love to say that it was the first time I drove drunk,” he added. “It wasn’t a traffic stop. It went straight to the worst case scenario: I took someone else’s life.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 28 people are killed every day in drunken driving crashes in the United States.

Chad said he would like to visit schools in his prison shackles to illustrate the severity of the crime, but the Smith family will not give him permission to leave the prison.

“Maybe it would help,” Taylor’s mom said of the presentations. But she said she doesn’t support any outings while Chad is in prison.

“First I want him to pay the price,” she said.

Rita and Chad’s lawyer, Mark Upton, has given speeches at a handful of high schools around prom time to ask students to pledge they won’t drink and drive.

Chad, just two months away from 33, will be in his 40s when he leaves prison. He and his girlfriend, Tara, a softball coach in Pensacola, would like to get married and maybe have some kids.

And one day, he’ll have to tell them about his choice.

“We all have choices to make in life. . I made the wrong choice,” he said.

In 2011, Laura’s husband and Taylor’s father, Shawn, sent a message via the prison chaplain to Chad saying he had forgiven him.

It was a moment of hope for Chad.

“I remember leaving the courtroom. . They said they would never forgive me as long as they live,” he recalled.

Laura said her husband still has a lot of anger but told his wife he sent the message. Laura still hasn’t made up her mind.

“I’m not saying I do or do not,” she said. “I don’t know what the future holds. Maybe one day I’ll want to see him face to face and see if he’s remorseful.”

Chad has sent the Smith family at least two long letters since he has been in prison. It took Laura a year and a half to gain the strength to read the first one.

“I just don’t know what to believe,” she said. “I don’t give up hope on anybody. I believe events can change you, for the good or the bad.”

For now, Laura and her family try to live through each holiday, birthday or milestone without Taylor.

“It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s emotionally and physically draining each day. I’ve aged 20 years in the last six.

“It’s just this shell of a life. There’s nothing that can replace it.”

___

Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, https://www.newsherald.com

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