According to TxDOT, 121 people were killed by drunk drivers in Harris County this year alone, making it the top county in Texas for DUI deaths. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reports Texas leads the nation with a total of 1,438 drunk driving deaths per year. As we approach the holidays, driving under the influence tends to rise, and it’s important we’re mindful of these statistics - if not for yourself, then for those around you.
Eric Stephens, a Precinct 2 Parks Caretaker, is an advocate with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Every year, he visits high schoolers around prom time and meets with Houston Texans football rookies to discuss the dangers and impacts of driving under the influence; but this wasn’t a venture he’d seen for himself until a few years ago.
On July 19, 2014, Eric and his family were preparing for their youngest daughter’s birthday celebration. “I’ll be turning double digits!” said Jade Stephens excitedly to her father. That morning, Eric and his wife, LaKeitha, gifted Jade brand new sneakers that she would later wear to her party. The cell phone she was promised wouldn’t arrive until the following week.
Later that day, they met with dozens of friends and family members at a local arcade for Jade’s early birthday celebration. They shared laughs and enjoyed each other’s presence all while celebrating another year of Jade. As the evening wound down, they said goodbye to their guests only to find the birthday girl had wandered off. After searching the arcade, they found her playing ski ball alone, content as can be, yet determined to win tickets. LaKeitha promised to take her back on her actual birthday, and she willingly obliged.
As they packed the last of the cupcakes and gifts in the trunk, Eric’s son, Mikhail, and Jade hopped in the back seat. His wife slid her shoes off and relaxed in the passenger seat. The family approached a red light just a couple miles away from home - an intersection Eric stopped at hundreds of times before. The car was quiet as the kids slept in the backseat. As Eric proceeded through the now-green light, the quiet was disrupted by a loud scream from his wife. A white Ford F-350 barreled through the intersection and t-boned them causing their vehicle to spin violently. When it finally came to a stop, Eric briefly assessed himself and saw that he was pinned in. He immediately turned around and saw Jade, who was originally sitting behind him, was now in Mikhail’s lap despite the seatbelt she had been wearing. “Queen,” the name he often called her, “you good?” he asked frantically, but received no response. “Queen!” he insisted as he saw the color to her skin changing rapidly.
LaKeitha, who is also a nurse, rushed out of the car, ignoring the glass cutting through her bare feet, to tend to their daughter. Seeing severely injured patients was not foreign to her; however, seeing her own daughter in that state was. The driver of the F-350 approached Eric’s car belligerently, screaming obscenities while his passenger dumped empty beer bottles into the woods.
Paramedics finally arrived and Life Flighted Jade to the nearest hospital. Eric, his son, and wife were all taken by ambulance. The driver and passenger of the F-350 were arrested, and the driver was later sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Jade, on the other hand, did not survive the crash. Eric explained that the hardest part about the whole experience was the ride home from the hospital realizing they would never see their daughter alive again. The empty box of new sneakers was still laying on her bed when they arrived at home. The cell phone delivered, never used by Jade.
“That guy that killed my daughter is going to get out of prison and he’s going to be able to live a long and productive life,” said Eric. “He’ll probably be able to walk his daughter down the aisle, he’ll be able to attend his son’s wedding, and he’ll probably even have more kids. What will my baby be able to do?” he continued. “We have a life sentence that we have to deal with until we close our eyes and see her again.”
Jade was known for her animated, witty, and kind spirit. She loved making people laugh and even helped her dad with his stand-up comedy skits. She was a young lady, whose future was looking bright and was very loved by her family. “She wanted to be an actress and dance. She was in drama and had the lead in the school plays. She had it at a young age,” Eric smiled as he described his daughter.
When asked what he wanted the readers to know, he said this: “People can read this article, people can listen to me talk and tell this story, they can see all the statistics, and everything that happens on the news, but it doesn’t hit you, until this happens to you. I would see this happening in the news and think, ‘this is sad,’ but then I would just go about my business, but until it knocked on my door, that’s when I took it seriously.”
Eric urges readers to change their behavior now before it’s too late. Call a cab or a ride-share driving service. Call a friend. Designate a sober driver. Spend the night. Do anything, but drive home under the influence. “If you drink and drive, there’s a possibility that you are going to kill somebody, and you chose to do that.”
For more information, visit MADD.org. To find safe options for getting home, visit SoberRides.org.