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Life and death, redemption hinge on sobering decisions

TAMPA - Editor's note: This story was originall published in The Tampa Tribune on Nov. 20, 2005. It seemed a small thing to be so conflicted about, but 19-year-old John Templeton Jr. debated his decision as he neared the Courtney Campbell Parkway en route to the interstate and Ybor City's nightclubs. Should he meet his friends like he had planned or stay at home with his parents in Dunedin? Maybe it was 12 years of Catholic schools, maybe his time as a Boy Scout, but John had a bad feeling. He pulled a U-turn in his new black Ford Explorer. He had been to Ybor once and knew that on a Friday night it didn't have much to offer someone not yet of drinking age. He would go home.
Then again, it had been a good day. He had finished his World Religions paper and turned it in two minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline. He had pocketed some cash working as shot-clock keeper for the men's basketball team at Hillsborough Community College. He pulled another U and headed back toward Interstate 275. At Club Hedo, all turned right. Although his friends got black, no-drinking X's on their hands, he got the pink-striped wristband — his free pass to be 21 for a night. "I was Mr. Big Shot, buying drinks for everyone," he remembers. He had a blast. Beers and shots, dancing, putting his buddies in headlocks. He can't remember when he left Club Hedo. He doesn't recall climbing back into the Explorer or heading for home driving north in the southbound lanes of I-275. He awoke with his arms pinned, wrists shackled to the metal bars of a hospital gurney. Uniformed men stood over him, their faces hard. Where was he? How did he get here? A rush of fear, and his heart began a panicked thumping. "John Templeton, you're in a lot of trouble," one of the uniforms said. "You killed a girl tonight. She was 18 years old, and her name was Julie Buckner." John Templeton Jr., blood-alcohol level .225 percent, didn't feel so drunk any more. He had been driving more than 70 mph on the interstate, the Florida Highway Patrol trooper said. Julie was traveling the right way, in a little gray Honda Civic. The last thing she saw was his headlights coming at her. "Can't you bring her back?" screamed the high school all-county basketball player, the University of South Florida business major whose future had been all but guaranteed. "You know, give her CPR?" "I might as well kill myself," he told the trooper. "I can't live with myself." Hours earlier, seven days before Thanksgiving in 2002, Julie Nicole Buckner fell in love with a chili-colored pair of Timberland boots at University Mall. "I've got to have them!" she told her sister Crystal. "They're just what I'm looking for." But at $100, they were way too much for a teenager working in telemarketing. Thankfully, Crystal loved them, too. The pair, two of three stairstep sisters dubbed "the triplets," were used to sharing. Crystal, then 21, Tabetha, 20, and Julie had always moved as one, more like best friends than sisters. Crystal was a size 8B, just like Julie. Split 'em and share. Perfect. Julie got to wear them first. The baby of a close-knit, five-generation Tampa clan — till her siblings started having babies — "Julie Bug" still lived in Lutz with her parents, Robert "Rocky" and Beverly Buckner. Mom and dad were on a Caribbean cruise, due to return the next day. In the meantime, Julie was at home in Lutz with her Nana. She had planned to go on the cruise, too, but when she got the new job, everyone agreed it would be bad form to take off so soon. Julie, home-schooled for three years, had earned her high school diploma in July. She didn't plan to sell salon tanning products all her life; she wanted to see the world. With a talent for dance and drama, she had melded her love of children and God by working with youth ministry teams at three Tampa churches. She had taken mission trips to Tampa's inner city and to Pittsburgh, helping with Sidewalk Sunday School programs. She was growing up. Julie and her mom were forging an adult friendship, playing cards and board games and trading gossip. When Crystal gave birth to Lluvia, Julie took over as her babysitter, fussing over her little niece every day. Yet at night, it was Julie who would not go to sleep without her Silky-Silk blanket. She had a silly side, too. One she indulged. She may have swooned over Vin Diesel, but she decorated her bedroom with Elmo. She loved that "Sesame Street" character; she secretly had him tattooed on her belly. But that wouldn't really surprise anyone. She had also gotten her tongue pierced — good girl though she was, she had a feisty independent streak. After Crystal and Julie made their partner buy, they headed out to the beach at Courtney Campbell Parkway with their boyfriends, Julie proudly wearing the new boots. Her guy was Gabriel "Gabby" Fernandez, 19. They had been dating since Julie was 16. After the beach, the four hit McDonald's for a late-night snack, then headed home to Crystal's. "She was going to spend the night," Crystal, now 24, says. But Julie changed her mind. About 3 a.m., she decided to follow her boyfriend to his apartment. Twenty minutes later, Crystal got a frantic call. "There's been an accident, a bad accident," Gabby shouted into his cell phone. "I think she's gone. I don't think she's going to make it." He had to call her back three more times — Crystal didn't want to believe him. "She's messed up, her leg is all messed up. They're putting her in a body bag," he told her. The two had been seconds from their exit at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He saw the guy's headlights, saw them going straight for Julie. The Ford smashed into Julie's Honda nearly head on, sending it spinning into a car in the next lane. She was wearing her seat belt but the collision knocked her halfway out her car door, and her body slammed against the highway and median as the Honda spun and slid. By the time Gabby got to her, Julie's clothes had been ripped away and she had been tossed from the car. He saw the guy who had hit her stumbling, incoherent. Gabby wanted only to cover his girlfriend's naked body. Crystal and Tabetha hiked the blocked-off interstate, blue and red lights flashing all around them. But the state troopers wouldn't let the two near Julie. They called their Nana, hoping an older adult could intervene. Hysterical, Anita Buckner called her eldest granddaughter, the girls' half-sister Jennifer Mallan, 35. Please do something, she pleaded. Jennifer, a pastor at Without Walls International Church, hurried to I-275. She remembers how cold the night air felt. She saw Julie's nearly unrecognizable Honda and a sheet-covered bundle nearby. Highway patrol Cpl. Frank Burke told her she really shouldn't look under that sheet. "'But how will I know for sure? How can I assure her parents it's really her?" A paramedic gently lifted the white sheet and pulled out a long, dark brown lock. Julie's hair was one of her most arresting attributes. Jennifer closed her eyes and prayed for her sister's soul. Julie's face had been cut to the bone, her skull and neck broken along with several ribs, her breastbone, shoulder bone and both legs. Her left leg and arm were nearly amputated. The tip of her left index finger was gone. She was pronounced dead at 3:25 a.m. Nov. 23. With scrapes from his seatbelt on his chest, belly and hip, John was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital. He was later booked into the Orient Road Jail on charges of driving under the influence manslaughter, vehicular homicide and driving on the wrong side of the road. "I didn't mean to kill anyone. I shouldn't have been driving. I know better," he told Burke at the hospital. "My parents will hate me. What will her family think of me?" A single chili-colored boot lay by the crumpled Honda. Someone retrieved it, and it made its way back to Crystal. A month later, the mate was removed from the car, no longer needed as evidence. One boot looks brand new; the other is torn and stained. Crystal keeps them in a box in her closet. "It's something I treasure," she says. "It reminds me of the last night I had with my sister." It had been a perfect vacation for Rocky and Beverly Buckner. They cruised the Caribbean for a week, visiting the pristine beaches of St. Thomas and St. Martin islands. After disembarking at Cape Canaveral, the couple were eager to return home and get ready for Thanksgiving, a boisterous, joy-filled day with family. They tried to reach Julie or Rocky's mother, Anita, in Lutz but got no answer. They tried Crystal and Tabetha. No answer. Strange, Beverly thought. Finally, Rocky got his son's wife on the phone. She sounded distressed, tearfully telling them something had happened and they needed to get home right away. "Tell us," Rocky begged. "It's all right. Just tell us." Julie's dead, Toniann Buckner said. An accident early this morning. A drunken driver killed her. Beverly pushed the words into a closet in her mind and closed the door. She went numb. Rocky ricocheted through emotion after emotion in the next hours: shock, pain, anger, grief. "It's an unbelievable feeling. It's devastating. It's like she's there ... and then she's gone," Rocky, now 52, recalls. "It's like the whole world has stopped." Then he thought of that boy. Nineteen years old. A kid, just like Julie. He called Burke and told him he wanted to speak with the father of the boy who killed his daughter. He wanted to console him, father to father. He wanted to get a message to John Templeton Jr.: He didn't blame him. He knew the young man would have to carry a terrible burden the rest of his life. Beverly, now 44, didn't share her husband's need to forgive. "I know he didn't intentionally kill Julie," she says. "But I think it was a very bad decision, a decision he made that took my daughter's life." In time, the couple, both devout Christians, would have to learn to respect each other's opinions. But for now, it was important to Rocky that he extend his hand. John Templeton Sr., husband of 24 years to Meg, a nurse, and father of John, Shawn and Maggie, remembers getting the message and making that call to Rocky less than 24 hours after Julie's death. "I was prepared to throw myself down and let him stone me. Yet, he spent most of the time comforting me, because all I could do was cry," John Sr. says. "There is no one like Mr. Buckner. You could go a whole lifetime and never meet anyone like him." He and Meg joined some 500 mourners for Julie's funeral at Without Walls on the day before Thanksgiving. They sat in the back, listening to eulogists share their memories of a vibrant, loving teenager on the cusp of womanhood. At the end of the service, the two sets of parents embraced. John Sr., never a big drinker himself, hasn't had a drop since the night of the wreck. "Drink does too much damage," he says. "It killed a beautiful young woman, altered the promising life of an incredible young man and caused undue damage to two of the best people I've ever met. Out of respect for Julie, I can't do it." Fifteen months later, on Feb. 11, 2004, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas contemplated the tough case before him. He had to decide the fate of an obviously remorseful young man who accepted responsibility for the death of an innocent young woman. The father of three himself — ages 22, 19 and 16 — he knew that any one of his children could be on either side of the situation. In his seven years on the bench, Barbas had never seen so many people appear for a victim or a defendant. Nearly 20 witnesses spoke during the 3 1/2 -hour hearing. Dozens more crowded the courtroom, awaiting his ruling. He could give John Jr. up to 15 years in prison. He heard Jennifer Mallan, the sister who had identified Julie at the accident scene, and her husband, Rob, ask for leniency. They didn't think prison was the answer, and that John would best serve society and Julie's memory by community service and restitution. He knew that Julie's father also wanted leniency, but not her mother. She could forgive, but she felt some punishment was in order. At least five years. Her two daughters agreed. Barbas had watched as Burke, the state trooper, testified for the defendant — a rare sight. John Templeton Jr. had demonstrated his regret from the moment he became aware of his crime, Burke had said. The judge had watched as John himself turned to the Buckners and told them how very, very sorry he was. The defendant was contrite, utterly sincere in his apology. Another rarity. Twice Barbas had to excuse himself, collect his emotions. When the testimony concluded, Barbas went to his chambers to puzzle out a decision. "I knew it would be difficult, no matter what I did," he says. "All I could see were the wasted lives of two young people who had such tremendous potential." When he returned to the courtroom, Barbas turned to the defendant. He had fashioned a sentence, he told John Jr., that "involves some punishment, sends a message out into the world and gives you an opportunity to work your way out of it." Two years of prison and two years of house arrest followed by 11 years of probation. He would have to complete 1,000 hours of community service speaking to his peers and teenagers about the deadly consequences of underage drinking and driving. He must attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three days a week and pay $10,000 in restitution. His driver's license was permanently revoked. And he must carry with him at all times a photo of Julie Buckner, a photo of her family's choosing. John Templeton Jr. was taken away that day to the Orient Road Jail. In the end, with good behavior and a modification of his sentence, he would serve a little less than 10 months behind bars in the county jail and state prison. Barbas, now a civil court judge, says he's regretted many decisions over the years. But not this one. "This is one of those people who earned a second chance, and from what I heard, he hasn't disappointed me," the judge reflects. "Today, I don't see it as just two wasted lives. I see that something good can come out of something horrible." In the year since his release, John Jr., 22, has completed nearly 400 hours of community service. He has told and retold the story of how so many lives unraveled because he got in his Explorer drunk on a cold November night. He has spoken at more than 100 locations: high schools, churches, juvenile detention facilities, youth camps, community centers and college campuses. He never thought he would get on with his life, but he has learned, like so many before him, that time heals. He says he will continue to honor Julie's memory by working to stop underage drinking long after his sentence is finished. "I owe that to her and her family," he says. "The damage I've done is beyond repair, but maybe I can make a difference by preventing someone else from doing it." He has a job as an account coordinator for a title insurance company. He has to be driven to the office each day, to his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, to his speaking engagements and to Mass on Sundays. One day, if he gets married and has children as he hopes, he will have to tell them why Daddy can't drive them to school and soccer games. That will be a hard one. Becky Gage, a victims' advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving who worked with the Buckner family, says in her 12 years with the organization, she has never seen a more remorseful defendant. "You could tell he was devastated by this, and I don't often see that. He's out there talking to peers, someone just like them, and he's showing them how, in one heartbeat, everything can change." Gabriel Fernandez moved this year to Miami, where he manages a restaurant and writes poetry in his free time. He was tired of reliving the memories of that night and wanted a fresh start. He believes Julie watches over him and all her loved ones from heaven. The Buckners sued Club Hedo over allegations it served alcohol to a minor. The club settled out of court in March. Julie's bedroom remained untouched for about a year before her mother could bring herself to clean it. Now, a favorite stuffed Elmo sits on Beverly's dresser. She says she has learned to forgive John Jr. but doesn't think his reduced sentence sends a strong enough message to young people. Her husband says he hears about John's path to redemption and it pleases him. Maybe kids will keep drinking, but after hearing John and Julie's story, maybe they'll call a friend or a parent before they get behind the wheel. "She is the voice in his ear, saying, 'Look, you caused this. Now you need to do something about it.' I believe he's doing just that." On southbound I-275, just past the Hillsborough Avenue exit, a small sign also speaks: Drive Safely, in memory of Julie Nicole Buckner.
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