Pam Bondi wanted nothing to do with Matthew Durrell, but for years she told his story.
As a young prosecutor, Bondi had pushed to send Durrell to prison for as long as possible for driving drunk at 17 and killing three friends the day before Mother's Day 1995.
Bondi gave presentations to schools, telling students about the stupid decisions that led to the deaths of Jill Cook and Frank Joseph Ildefonso, both 19, and Alan Vantine, 20. They were riding with Durrell when he wrapped his uncle's car around a tree.
But Bondi could never imagine she and Durrell would become allies in a quest to stop future tragedies, that Durrell's journey toward self-destruction would turn toward redemption. She could not know that after years of bitterness behind bars, Durrell would decide it was time to grow up.
She wasn't ready when he reached out to her one day in court.
Bondi — now Florida's attorney general — had pushed to send Durrell to prison as long as possible for the fatal crash. He was 17 when it happened.
Durrell broke his neck in the crash. After Bondi saw him on public access television holding a beer and wearing his halo neck brace, she filed an emergency motion. She went to court and got his bail revoked.
She worked to see that he wouldn't taste freedom until after he turned 30.
Sentenced to 20 years in prison, Durrell wasn't a fan of Bondi either.
He gambled and sold drugs while in prison, wallowing in the misery he'd created.
Then one day, about six years into his sentence, after a Christmas visit from his mother, Durrell looked around and took stock of all the inmates who kept returning to prison. He realized that if he didn't change, he'd end up just like them.
Durrell immersed himself in self-help books and decided to make something out of the tragedy.
He was released after 12 years in prison and moved to Pasco County, still facing a year of house arrest and 10 years of probation. His driver's license had been revoked for life.
While Bondi was talking about his case to students, Durrell began speaking on his own at monthly victim-impact panels. Long after he completed his required community service, he continued telling his story, trying to stop others from making his mistake.
Durrell got a job in construction and pedaled his bicycle 10 miles to work and back.
One day, he went to court to ask for a change in the ankle monitor he was required to wear because it was interfering with his work. Because she was the original prosecutor, Bondi made an appearance.
After the hearing, Durrell's attorney, Tim Taylor, told Bondi that Durrell and his mother wanted to talk to her.
“I have nothing to say to him,” she replied.
But Taylor pushed. Bondi relented.
Durrell and his mother wept and hugged her.
“Thank you,” he said, “for saving my life.”
Soon after, they teamed up to bring their message to teens. Bondi gives the same talk she gave to high school students before. But now, when she's done, she suggests they might want to hear from Durrell. And as students gasp, Durrell steps forward to talk about his experience.
Durrell went to court on Thursday to ask that his probation be terminated early. Bondi wasn't there, but she was rooting for him. She told the prosecutor handling the case how much he's done to turn his life around. And she celebrated when the judge granted his motion.
The next day, the pair talked to Plant High School students on the eve of the school's homecoming dance.
“See these pictures?” Bondi said as she stood in the gym before blowups of the mangled red car. “This is a Toyota Supra. And the yellow tarp is a young woman named Jill underneath. ... In the back seat was a high school young man named Frank. In the front seat was Alan. And the driver was a young man named Matt Durrell.”
Durrell, she said, “devastated three families all because of one stupid mistake about getting in the car and drinking and driving and doing drugs.”
“I can talk to you all day long, and you're not going to listen,” Bondi said. “Let me let you hear from Matt Durrell.”
Durrell stood up from his seat in the bleachers and walked toward Bondi.
The principal quieted the students, telling them to listen.
“I grew up in a good home, good family,” Durrell said. “A lot of choices I made in life were bad ones.”
He told about going to Ybor City that night with a fake ID, and then going home and getting the car his uncle had left at his house.
“I don't remember a lot,” he said. “I was wasted. I was really wasted.”
He said he went to a small party at the home of Alan Vantine, whose parents were away. He jangled the car keys there and offered to take his three friends for a ride.
Vantine, Cook and Ildefonso jumped inside. They didn't even make it three blocks.
“When we wrecked, I thought we hit some mailboxes,” Durrell said. “And the first thing that popped in my head was, 'Who do I call to fix the car?' I had no clue what happened. So then I'm laying there. This girl was tapping me on the face, and she was like, 'Stay awake, stay awake.' ”
Then he heard sirens, and they put him on a stretcher and into an ambulance. Next came the helicopter ride to the hospital, and the MRI. He remembers asking about his friends and being told not to worry about them. But eventually a hospital chaplain told him he was the only survivor.
“At 17, you don't want to hear something like that,” he said. “Alan I knew since I was 8 years old. Frank I knew since I was 13. Jill I knew since I was 15. ... It wasn't like three strangers. ... Alan I grew up with, best friends.”
His parents hired a lawyer, who suggested he go back to school while he awaited disposition of his case in court.
He said he initially didn't do well socially. He used to sell drugs but stopped, so his routine was disrupted.
The he smoked a joint on his 18th birthday, and two weeks later he was selling cocaine. Five months later, still awaiting court action, he was spotted drinking on the public access television program.
He ultimately was sentenced to prison. His attitude changed there, but after he got out, it took a few years to get used to living on his own.
“Whatever I do, what I did never goes away,” he said. “And it sucks. It sucks waking up every day with it.”
In court on Thursday, Durrell barely spoke at all as the mother of his friend Alan, Christina Collette, spoke on his behalf while the sister of Ildefonso, Helena Hernandez, spoke against ending his probation early.
“I'm very sorry,” Durrell told the court, quietly.
He wanted his actions since prison to speak for themselves.
Hernandez acknowledged Durrell's progress, but said, “Frank's potential will never be known. ... The death of my brother had many consequences.”
If Durrell were truly remorseful, she said, he wouldn't try to end his probation early.
“I would expect Matt to gladly serve his probation.”
But for Collette, Durrell deserves to be freed from probation.
“Matt, like the rest of us, will suffer for the rest of his life,” she said. “I would like to see this book closed. I believe my son would want that.”
No longer required to perform community service, Durrell still speaks to victim-impact panels and joins Bondi to talk to schools.
That's because he ran into a woman in a grocery store once who told him that whenever she drinks too much, “I think of you and I go home safe.”
Bondi and Durrell said they've heard from students they've touched.
One boy told Bondi he was sitting next to another student during one of Durrell's talks. The other student, who used drugs, kept mumbling to himself, “I'm never doing drugs again. I'm never doing this again.”
Durrell said a girl in one school pulled him aside and asked what she should do about her mother driving drunk. He said his best advice was refuse to get in the car. He said he hopes this shocks the mother into stopping.
On Friday, after the talk at Plant, a student told Durrell, “Man, I'm making a lot of bad choices.”
“I thought he was going to cry,” Durrell said. “I said it's never too late for making some good ones.”