#IMATTER is a new initiative we have created to raise awareness and focus on the loved ones that we have lost from drunk, impaired, or distracted driving. Each month on our Facebook page we will share personal stories from victims and families that have been affected by drunk, impaired, and distracted driving. Our goal is to show communites across the nation that thousands of people suffer every year from an epidemic that is 100% preventable! We believe these individuals should be shared with and known by the world. Because no matter who you are, your life and your purpose is more than just a statistic. We all matter.
If you or someone you love has been affected by drunk, impaired, or distracted driving, we would be honored to share your story and your journey for everyone to see. You can send a brief testimony sharing your experience and a photo to Casey DeMott as Casey.DeMott_Marketing@TheKeriAnneDeMottFoundation.com, and we will share it in an upcoming #IMATTER post.
Scroll down to see all of our previous #IMATTER posts, or visit our Facebook page to see the current month's post.
James Harms was tragically killed by 2 drunk drivers in 2007. James' son Carl works in Jacksonville through his organization JAXImpact to reach out to victims and families that have suffered tragedies due to road traffic crashes. His support and outreach have helped countless families across the country share their stories and raise awareness about road traffic safety. Here is Carl's story about his father.
I’d like to introduce you to a hero, a Retired US Navy AQC (AW) he began his Naval career in San Diego California October 1968 graduating from Recruit Training Company 701, he was stationed at NAS Memphis from Jan to Aug of 1969, NAS Cecil Field Aug 1969 – Oct 1971 / Oct 1976 – July 1979 / Oct 82 – Oct 85 and Aug 89 – Jan 93, he served on the Aircraft Carriers USS FDR and USS America Oct 71 – Sept 76 and the USS Forrestal Aug 79 – Aug 82 and Oct 85 – May 89
Twenty-three year Retired United States Navy Aviation Fire Control Technician James Allen Harms, 56 years old, was an irreplaceable person never selfish; always giving or helping family, foe or friends... it never mattered to him as long as he could help! He gave the vast majority of his life to the United States Navy humbly serving our country from October 1968 to January 1993. Throughout his service he played a vital role in many aspects of our development and protection, providing us the Citizens of this Great Nation an opportunity to even let us freely be here today.
He was a dedicated blood donor to the Florida & Georgia Blood Alliance, on record, donating 14 Gallons of his own blood. Yet James Harms wasn’t just a dedicated Serviceman & Donor he was also the greatest friend and father to his children Tammy, James the II and myself, Carl Harms. Me Dad for so many years put ALL of us before himself with everything from the nominal to the most extreme the shirt off his back was never adequate for him. If we had tears he gave us a napkin, if we had a problem he had the solution, if we were cold he gave us warmth, if we had a frown he gave us a smile, giving and providing was his ambition no matter the consequences and SO MUCH MORE!! Even when he fell on hard times he would find a way to help, he was a true gift!
Just about every day we would take our daily trek to the corner store for a fountain drink. We only lived three houses apart and across the street from one another. With his classic silly grin on his face he’d make his way up the street to greet me, usually, while my back was turned working in the lawn. He was a consistent practical jokester and loved the shock value of catching you off guard, he’d sneak up behind me and poke my sides loudly stating, “Whatcha doing Little Boy”, ultimately causing me to drop everything I was doing. Of course, this would make him break out in his unique outrageous laughter. The remainder of the day we just spent enjoying each other’s company going to our Doctor’s appointments together, house hunting, clearance, and thrift shopping or just out driving around town to be out and about! One of our favorite past times was bargain shopping for just about anything, if he thought someone could make good use of something he would get it, just to be sure that he had it when someone would ask for it, he loved being needed and helpful to everyone and anyone!
I could sit a talk to him for hours; I loved his military stories and very detailed description of the USN Aircraft Carriers, the A-7E Corsair II Bombers and his, very interesting, experiences serving under the former Lt. Commander John S. McCain on-board the USS Forrestal, currently Senator John McCain. To say the least he was My Hero, a few months before his death I posted the following on “HomeofHeroes.com” to share my pride for my father with the world:
“My knight in shining armor, even when it’s tarnished, my strong and sturdy protector, to me, you are fearless. You chased the nightmares away when I was small and afraid, now I stand in your shadow, and I feel brave. Once I fit in the palm of your hand, and now I stand on my own two feet; but still I am dwarfed by the giant I see you to be. Hug me again, and don’t let go; my small hand is enveloped in yours. When you hold me I feel safe and protected, and I know that I am loved. I love you, Daddy. My HERO, America’s HERO, you gave up your freedom for years to ensure that OUR freedom was protected, there is an HERO inside you. I eat, drink, sleep, and live in peace today due to your sacrifices!”
My father, James Harms, was a hardworking, giving, and loveable man. He always tried to put a smile on others’ faces to match the big grin on his. He was easy going, sympathetic and solid all the way around. Sadly, his grin would disappear as my mom suddenly passed in 2005. It was just as hard as anyone could imagine, but he tried hard to stay positive. A breakthrough came a little more than year later when his smile returned and little by little becoming the same silly man, I recognized.
Saturday evening, April 21, 2007, Dad left Jacksonville for Louisiana; I last spoke to him when he called me from an I-10 rest area near Milton, Florida. At 3:36 a.m. Sunday, April 22, my father, Retired US Navy AQC(AW) James Allen Harms, was killed in a four-car collision involving TWO separate drunk drivers on I-10 West at mile marker 35 in Gulfport, Mississippi. A young lady returning from a Stomp Event at an area casino, where she recalled drinking four Grey Goose vodkas with Red Bull chasers and possibly smoking marijuana prior to driving, started the crash. On I-10 West approaching Highway 49 just before the Three Rivers Road overpass, she clipped the first car, forcing it into the concrete barrier, into the path of my father, and forcing her into the grass just off the interstate. As she was yelling obscenities at bystanders and began to run from the scene on foot, the second drunk driver crashed into the rear of my father’s car at approximately eighty miles per hour, without attempting to slow down. The force sheared the seat pin, forcing my father into the windshield and over the rear seat all while still wrapped in his seat belt, and out of his pants.
The initial drunk driver was quickly apprehended using her vehicle registration. She was found hiding under the covers of her boyfriend’s bed. She denied driving the vehicle, claiming a friend had borrowed the car. The second drunk driver had to be extricated from his vehicle and transported to a local hospital. He was uncooperative and intoxicated, and law enforcement had to get a warrant for a blood draw, which yielded 0.10 percent blood alcohol content hours following the crash but to this day has never been charged. The first drunk driver, who caused the initial crash, had 0.09 percent blood alcohol content hours later. She first ran through a muddy field to her mother’s house, and then to her boyfriend’s house, where she was found hiding.
On Sunday, April 22, at 4:24 p.m., while sitting in my recliner, the home phone rang. The caller ID read: Harrison County Coroner’s Office. A gentleman identified himself as Gary Hargrove with the coroner’s office and he had one question: “Do you know James Harms?” Reluctantly answering, knowing that the coroner calls for only one reason, I said, “Yes, that’s my father.” He said, “I’m sorry to inform you that James was killed early this morning on Interstate 10.”
It was mostly a blur from this point. All I remember was shock, crying and yelling. I remember calling his phone multiple times after receiving the call because I didn’t want to accept that this was true. I hoped that at worst Dad was carjacked and someone else was behind the wheel, not my father! Moments later, I received word that the authorities had someone in custody for drunk driving and fleeing the scene. Anger quickly sank in, then eased off to crying repeatedly, and then back to anger! For the next three years, I would not leave my house. I had lost my foundation and had sunk into a dark depression to the point where I just wanted to give up on life. I would drag myself out when needed and travel from Jacksonville to Gulfport for hearings and constantly ask for answers, only to be turned away and overlooked every time.
Of the two drunken drivers, one was charged for DUI manslaughter and fleeing the scene. She was sentenced to ten years but was released after serving only four years. The second drunken driver was never even cited or charged. A year following the fatal crash that claimed my father’s life, the second drunken driver was involved in yet another drunken crash; he fled the scene of that crash. This time he was apprehended, charged with a first offense for driving under the influence (despite his involvement in the April 2007 crash), and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The second driver was never mentioned or charged by Police Department or the District Attorney for his involvement in the crash that claimed the life of my father.
April 6, 2009, the first DUI driver plead guilty, was pregnant and twenty-three when she was sentenced to a ten year prison term. She admitted she had consumed several alcoholic drinks at a Biloxi casino before the 3:36 a.m. crash. She also admitted that while out of jail on bond, she had gone out partying and drinking alcohol and had posted pictures online on her MySpace page. Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson imposed a twenty-year prison sentence for DUI causing death and five years for leaving the scene, suspended fifteen years of the twenty five year term and ordered both terms to run consecutively for a total of ten years.
December 10, 2012, she was released on Earned Release Supervision (ERS), after serving three years, eight months, and five days of her ten-year prison term. ERS is an early release incarceration component of the Truth-in-Sentencing statue passed into Mississippi law in July 1995.
December 10, 2013, she was rearrested, a couple hours following an e-mail I sent to Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) officials, Mississippi Governor, Harrison County Courts and sentencing Judge, containing public pictures/posts that I obtained from her public Facebook account and photos from a Gulfport Night Club Facebook. Based on the e-mail contents, MDOC issued a warrant on her for violating the terms of her ERS. She returned to Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, where she faced a possible maximum incarceration until February 4, 2019, and the earliest release date of May 21, 2014 (according to MDOC records).
Selfish remorse is all that's ever been shared by the driver, her friends and family. To them the victim's son is the monster, because they believe I took something from them, when in fact the only loss here was my father! Two days following her arrest, I received private messages from her friends and family via Facebook mobile private messenger expressing their displeasure with me.
On March 22, 2014, I was notified that she was being released after serving only three months and thirteen days for violating the terms of her ERS, this would be the completion of her sentence (per MDOC) and the beginning her five year probation. Surrounded and supported by the same enablers that blamed the victim’s son for their pain, she received an opportunity from the Mississippi judicial system to serve minimal time and learn right from wrong; to "Take Responsibility" rather they choose to think that their short period was the only loss.
Who was truly suffering the effects of her irresponsible actions? She along with her friends and family were forced to face, live, write, touch, hear and see her incarcerated due to her “Irresponsible” actions for a mere four years, one month and eighteen days of her ten year sentence and now enjoy a future with new days beside her. My father along with his friends and family were forced to live a “Life Sentence” due to her and the second driver’s “Irresponsible” choice that early morning, as of March 26, 2017, nine years, eleven months and five days, and no chance of facing, living, writing, touching, hearing, or seeing a future beside him ever again.
I knew it was coming but honestly couldn’t really prepare myself for it! Following her release my heart was telling me to try again, give her another chance to accept what her role was in my father’s death. I wanted nothing more than for her to change for the better not just for herself and her family but also for those around her as she reenters the world. My mind was telling me that I should be angry but my heart knew that “time” is entirely too valuable to sit back and waste on anger, nothing seriously can be accomplished while concentrating on changing what has already been done. Could I stop it from happening? No! Can I do anything about it now? No! Can I make sure that she won’t go out and kill another innocent victim? No! However, I can hope that my father’s life was worth more than a short stay in prison without learning right from wrong! I want nothing more than my father’s song to continue to be one of loving and caring for one another but if his song is to continue, then I must do the singing. I have found that special way allowing me to sing my father’s song loud and clear. Knowing I’m doing something to keep his memory alive keeps me passionately busy, allows me to tell my sacred story, adds joy to my heart, brings an array of beautiful loving people into my life, and has rewarded me with a meaningful life again. I hope my voice will echo in many hearts, therefore, making sure my father is never erased from our memory. My house was built on a strong foundation and that foundation was demolished at the hands of others! This is truly a reflection of my mind after this tragedy; I felt lost in my mind and conflicted in my heart!
March 11, 2015, approximately one year following her release she tested positive for opioids (or opiates) and THC (marijuana) and was incarcerated for five days. March 29, 2016, a George County deputy was on routine patrol around 4:40 a.m. when he spotted a truck and trailer, with a lawn mower loaded on the trailer, stuck in a ditch along Highway 26. The deputy stopped and while speaking with the three individuals in the truck he noticed lawn mower tracks leading back to a County Barn belonging George County Board of Supervisors. Once again, approximately a year apart along with two other suspects she was taken into custody and charged with grand larceny.
June 9, 2016, she appeared in front of Circuit Judge Lisa Dodson, the original sentencing judge in her involvement of my father’s death nine years prior. I provided my second Victim Impact Statement to the courts. Her revocation hearing was deferred to August 4, 2016 pending a grand jury indictment on the grand larceny charges she was facing.
August 4, 2016, Judge Dodson revoked her probation and deferred her sentencing to February 13, 2017. Her arrest and indictment were the basis of her probation violation. At the request of the District Attorney’s Office, I provided my third and final Victim Impact Statement to the court in response to the June 9, 2016 hearing. February 13, 2017, sentenced her to serve the remaining fifteen years of her original twenty-five year prison term, her unrelated grand larceny charges were still pending at the time of her resentencing.
In the days following my father’s death and feeling that I needed help, I reached out to local organizations and quickly realized that most were focused so much on fundraising that I couldn’t get the help I desperately needed. I then finally discovered a local grassroots homicide survivor’s organization that offered group support, grief camps, and counseling. I discovered that my healing came from sharing my pain; I became committed to educating myself in advocacy and started taking training courses through Office of the Attorney General’s Florida Crime Prevention Training Institution to assist victims in my community.
I continue to share and educate through my community awareness program JAXImpact, Inc.
My goal is not to blame the system but to become a part of the system in hopes of making it better. I dedicated my life to becoming a victim advocate, and I continue to help others as a victim specialist with the State Attorney’s Office of the 4th Judicial Circuit.
Strength, the will to overcome, and resilience, the ability to adapt to challenges or change, work in tandem to promote healing and allow people to move forward after trauma, tragedy, or setbacks. Strength. Resilience. Justice.—reflects a vision for the future in which all victims are strengthened by the response they receive, organizations are resilient in response to challenges, and communities are able to seek collective justice and healing. Our efforts cannot succeed without local law enforcement, victim advocates, prosecutors, probation and parole officers, child and family services, community leaders, community members, educators, coaches, parents, and others. Everyone plays a role in serving victims. We are more likely to achieve justice when organizations have the strength and resilience to provide comprehensive, wraparound services. We must come together as Americans to build a culture that values understanding, inclusion, and diversity. We need communities—workplaces, houses of worship, neighborhoods, civic and recreational centers—to be places where individuals are known and supported, regardless of their differences, so that instead of fear, there is empathy. When we are able to do this, our entire community will be a safe and welcoming space for all people.
Emily Cook was killed by a drunk driver at 15 years old. Her mother Mary Kelley shared her story, and how Emily's legacy inspired her to create the organization 15 For Life to fight against drunk driving. Here are Mary's words about her daughter:
"This is my Beautiful daughter's story. Emily Elizabeth Cook.
Gainesville, Florida. Crash occurred on December 13, 2014
Emily Cook was a Freshman at Gainesville High School As a weight lifter in her high school. She had an amazing sportsmanship to support her team. As a 15yr old, Emily was a very vibrant young lady who lived life to the fullest. Her charisma and charm along with amazing beautiful smile brought happiness to everyone she met. There was nothing Emily wouldn't do for her family and friends. When you met Emily, you became her friend for life. She always had a way to make people feel important. On December 13, 2014 Emily got into a vehicle with an adult who had been drinking. Her life was taken instantly. The driver was later found to be two times over the legal alcohol level to be driving. The driver was later convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years prison time and ten years’ probation time. Ever since that night, life has never been the same. The driver imposed a death sentence on Emily and a life sentence on Emily’s friends and family. Every day brings a constant reminder that our family is broken. Day after day we are forced to feel this void that we must live with, a void that was forced upon us- a void that can never be filled. Emily is the youngest of our children, the last child living at home. We now know the true meaning “Silence is deafening”. The loss of Emily has been so devastating not only to her siblings but her nieces and nephews who are so young. We pray the will always remember their Aunt Emily who loved and adored them.
An Author once wrote this poem:
”Life is not always nice to us. People take too many things for granted. Not very many people think if I do this will it affect others. Nowadays everyone just thinks about themselves. It makes me feel and look at life differently. I think of life like a blessing. When you lose a lot in your life including love ones you think a lot differently. You process everything before you do them. I just hope that everyone started to figure out what life really is, it is not anything to just say oh I will die one day and when it happens it happens. People have different looks on things than other people. Some people think you only live life once. That is true, but you have to live it right.”
That Author was Emily Elizabeth Cook, written by her in the eighth grade, just 6 months before her death.
We have created this organization 15 For Life to fight against drinking and driving. We will continue to educate our youth on the dangers of drinking and driving. OUR YOUTH CAN CHANGE THE WORLD."
Thank you Mary for bravely sharing Emily's story. Her legacy lives on because of your work. She will always matter.