Seniors Hear Emotional Message On Drinking And Driving

BERLIN – A then-18-year-old Pennsylvania high school
graduate in Ocean City for the annual Senior Week ritual who struck and killed
a pedestrian, another recent high school graduate, in June 2005 was back in the
resort area this week to preach the dangers of drinking and driving to the
senior class at Stephen Decatur High School, which is preparing for its prom
this weekend.

Last year, Benjamin Walter pleaded guilty to vehicular
homicide, DWI related, and was sentenced to over five years in jail, all of
which but 12 months was suspended. As part of the plea arrangement, Walter is
also required to spend 40 hours a year for three years making speeches at high
schools and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) events about the dangers of
drinking and driving and how the tragedy has forever changed his life.

He has completed about 19 of the speeches, mostly around
the Pennsylvania area where he lives, and this week made a similar presentation
at Decatur, not far from where the accident occurred. In front of a screen
displaying vivid images of the horrible tragedy, an emotional Walter told the
assembled Seahawk seniors a momentary lapse in judgment forever changed his
life and urged the local students to make good decisions as they prepare for
their prom this weekend and beyond. The following is a synopsis of the roughly
two-hour presentation.

Seeds Planted
In Senior Week Choice

High school graduates have been flocking to the resort to
blow off steam for almost as long as there has been an Ocean City and Walter
and his friends were no different. Neither were Justin Sheftel and his friends,
but one of them was not coming back.

“Back home, it’s a tradition to come to Ocean City for
Senior Week,” he said. “Me and my friends planned the trip for two years. My
parents knew I’d be drinking and they told me to be responsible, but in the
anticipation and the celebration, some very bad decisions were made.”

Like many parents, Cindy Walter wrestled with the decision
to let her son come to Ocean City for Senior Week with his friends before
relenting.

“He begged me to go, telling me things like ‘it will be my
last vacation for awhile’ and “everyone else is going’,” she said. “I really
struggled with letting him go and to this day, I wish I had said no. I gave him
the usual message about don’t drink and drive, but the message I should have
given him is don’t even drink because you’re not old enough and it’s illegal.”

One Bad Decision Changes Lives
Forever

Walter said he had been in Ocean City for three days
before the fateful night of June 15, and like many Senior Weekers, he had been
drinking and partying a lot in the days leading up to the tragedy. The day of
the tragedy, he and his friends went from their apartment on 94th
Street to a party on 1st Street where he proceeded to get
intoxicated.

“Prior to leaving the party, I fell down a flight of
stairs, which should have been enough of a sign that I should no longer
consider driving,” he said. “My friends drove me back to 94th Street
and to this day, I wish I had stayed there. Maybe Justin would be alive if I
did.”

But Walter didn’t stay there, despite his inebriated
condition. A short time later, he received a call from friends asking him to
pick them up at a party. He quickly grabbed the keys to the car and headed out
the door with another friend on his way to a date with destiny. “What happened
next forever changed my life and the lives of the Sheftels,” he said.

Walter said he remembered pulling on to Coastal Highway
and heading south. As he approached the intersection at 77th Street,
a group of young people stood on the median and attempted to cross the highway.
Some of the group made it across the lanes of traffic, but Sheftel was not as fortunate.

“He stopped when his Red Sox hat blew off and he went back
to retrieve it,” he said. “The next thing I can remember is the windshield
shattering. I hear that sound every night.”

Walter said he went into shock at that moment, made a
quick U-turn and headed back to 94th Street. He then ran back into
the condo and told his friends he had just hit somebody on Coastal Highway, but
they thought it was just a joke. He told them to check out the car and he
joined them when they did.

“When I saw the windshield and the blood, I knew he was
dead,” he said.

Eleven minutes after the collision, Walter got back in the
car and returned to the scene. He told an officer at the scene he was the
driver and he was handcuffed, put in a police car and taken to police headquarters
where he was questioned by detectives.

“I remember talking to them, but I was seeing the accident
over and over,” he said. “It was a nightmare – a bad dream.”

For many others connected with it, the tragic accident was
just as much of a nightmare. For example, Ocean City Police Corporal Doug Smith
was on plainclothes duty and was one of the first on the scene as part of the
department’s traffic safety unit.

“What I saw was a mangled, bloody, horrible scene,” Smith
told the Decatur seniors this week, emphasizing the details so the message
would sink in. “What I saw wasn’t a person. I didn’t see Justin. It was a
bloody pulp. I know it’s wrong to say that and it’s probably hard to hear it,
but that’s what it was. I know I will remember that night for the rest of my
life because of what was under that tarp.”

Peninsula Professional Services investigator Doug Cymek
agreed the scene was one of the worst he had seen in all his years. He referred
to the pictures on the screen as he addressed the students.

“What you’re seeing here is the G-rated version,” he said.
“This was a horrific accident. It’s one of the most horrific things I’ve ever
seen.”

Not long after the accident, one of Walter’s friends had
the unenviable job of contacting his parents in Pennsylvania.

“Imagine getting that call at 12:30 a.m. and hearing your
son hit a pedestrian and the pedestrian is dead,” she said. “It was my worst
nightmare, but if I was getting that call, some other family was getting the
other call.”

Cindy Walter said she and her ex-husband, Ben’s father,
arrived in Ocean City sometime early in the morning on June 16 but they were
not allowed to see their son because he hadn’t seen a commissioner yet.

Finally, around 7 p.m. that night, Walter was brought in
to the courtroom in handcuffs and shackles.

His mother tried to make contact with him, but he
resisted. “He said ‘Mom, I don’t deserve a hug’,” she said. “What do you say to
him? I wanted to hug him and make it better, but I also wanted to shake him and
scream at him.”

Judge Makes Wise Sentencing Decision

Walter was charged with vehicular homicide- DWI related
among other traffic violations and appeared for trial last year. Between the
accident and the trial date, Walter was placed in a Pennsylvania hospital for
psychological evaluation and remained there for 10 days while doctors worried
about the possibility of him taking his own life.

When the trial date arrived, Walter said the memories of
the accident came rushing back like a flood as he prepared to enter the courthouse.

“I remember shaking so bad knowing it could be a long time
before I saw my family again,” he said. “Then I saw Linda and Elliot Sheftel in
court and I realize how much pain I had caused them.”

Walter ultimately pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide-
DWI related and a pre-sentence investigation was ordered. Walter was later
sentenced to over five years in jail with all suspended but 12 months. As a
condition of the plea bargain, Walter was required to do 40 hours of speeches
at high schools and MADD functions in each of the next three years, which he
began in January

Harsh Reality in
Jail

“My first four days in jail, I didn’t know which way was
up,” Walter told the Decatur seniors on Tuesday. “All my life, it never
occurred to me I would sit behind bars for homicide by vehicle, but that’s
where I was. Getting behind the wheel that night was like putting a weapon in
my hands.”

Walter said the toughest part was when his mother came to
see him in the jail.

“The first time I saw my mother on the other side of that
glass, my heart was broken because I knew my mom’s heart was broken.”

Worcester County Jail Warden Ira “Buck” Shockley told the
Decatur students he remembered the day Walter was brought to the jail.

“To see a young man come in the jail with all that pain
and hurt, should be a message for all of you,” he said

The Aftermath and
the Message

With the Decatur prom tomorrow night and the local
students’ own Senior Week just around the corner, the hope is the 300 or so
seniors in attendance got the message.

Vice Principal Tom Zimmer led off the assembly on Tuesday
with a message of his own.

“You’re going to have a lot of decisions to make in the
coming days and weeks, and many of you will make the wrong decisions,” he said.
“I only hope your bad decisions don’t end up killing you or somebody else.”

The strongest message on Tuesday came from Walter, who
spoke from harsh experience as he addressed the Decatur students.

“If you choose to drink and drive, you can end up in my
shoes, or worse, Justin’s shoes,” he said. “We all need to look out for each
other and help each other make the right decisions. What I can tell you is that
drinking and driving ruins lives and ends lives. I know that because I live it
everyday.”

When the assembly was over, Decatur Principal Lou Taylor
thanked the Walters and the other guests, and also thanked the majority of the
senior class for their undivided attention during the riveting presentation. He
also took the opportunity to chastise the handful of students who found humor
in the tragic story.

“Some of your classmates have laughed during this
presentation although I can’t recall one moment remotely humorous,” he said.
“Unfortunately, those same people who laugh at things like this will be the
same ones to end up like this young man. There is nothing funny about any of
this.”

Taylor reminded the seniors of some recent history.

“In
my 13 years as principal at Decatur and 16 years as an administrator, I’ve
spoken at eight funerals in this very auditorium,” he said. “I’ve had to face
those families, and I’ve been woken up in the night by those phone calls.” 

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