"I didn't mean to kill anybody. I did not set out that night to kill anybody, but my choices did," Adam Cochran told students at Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology.
Cochran, a 42-year-old Bulloch County resident, admits that his actions in Savannah on Nov. 4, 2004, caused the deaths of three people. After pleading guilty to three counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, he served seven and a half years in prison, paroled after half of his original sentence. Free since May 2012, he now mows lawns and does pressure washing for a living, work that isn't barred to him as a convicted felon, he said.
Charter Conservatory Assistant Director Benji Lewis scheduled Cochran to speak after learning about his message from Bulloch Alcohol and Drug Council Director Joyce Stubbs.
"It just goes to show you, we are more than an academic institution," Lewis told the assembled students. "We're also a place where we like to apply these life lessons. This is a life lesson standing to my right."
Cochran has spoken to schools and adult groups in several eastern Georgia counties and even one school in Florida, all of his own volition.
He doesn't charge a fee.
"The judge did not sentence me to do this. My parole officer did not tell me to do this," Cochran explained after speaking in the Charter Conservatory assembly Thursday afternoon. "I actually took it upon myself. It's actually a way for me to give back. I took a lot. OK? It's a way to help me heal, being a teaching tool."
The wreck - Cochran says drunk driving is never an accident - occurred after an evening of bar hopping in Savannah. He says he had five beers and two liquor shots over several hours and had stopped drinking about an hour and a half before he got in his Ford Mustang to head home, walking about two blocks to where he had parked.
"Not once did I stumble, I didn't feel inebriated, and I took it upon myself that I was OK to drive, and I wasn't. I wasn't," he said.
A blood test after the crash showed his blood alcohol level as 0.10, which was once the threshold for drunk driving in Georgia. Now 0.08 is the line for a DUI charge when a driver over age 21 is stopped by police. However, it's just 0.02 for drivers under 21, and no specific blood alcohol reading is required to charge a "less safe driver" of any age, especially after an accident.
After getting behind the wheel that night, Cochran turned onto the U.S. Highway 17 connector over the Savannah River. Realizing that he was about to cross the Talmadge Bridge and that he did not need to go to South Carolina, he said, he turned around, into the wrong lane of the divided highway.
He crashed head-on into a station wagon carrying three women returning home to Ridgeland, S.C., from a church bingo event. Driver Rose Marie Rivers, 65, and friends Arlene Chaneyfield, 51, and Helen Heyward, 82, died instantly.
Cochran was also cited for speeding and driving the wrong way, according to media reports at the time. But it was the DUI charge that took the vehicular homicide counts to the felony level.
"Things like what I did can be avoided," Cochran told CCAT students. "That night I had plenty of people that would have come and got me, but no, I was selfish. I could do it."
Noting a mixed age group in the room, he said he was speaking especially to the 11th- and 12th-graders, and maybe some 10th-graders, as he advised them to get in trouble with their parents rather than make a really stupid decision.
"If you're doing something you shouldn't, off drinking, I'd much rather call your mom to come get you and deal with the consequences than to come identify you in the morgue," Cochran said. "Trust me."
But his message is not limited to "don't drink and drive." In fact, he talked as much or more about distracted driving. He says he was also "multitasking," reaching for a music disc, as he drove into that fatal collision.
Cochran relates this to texting while driving. Talking to the students, he noted that police can check phone records after a wreck and easily determine if someone was talking or texting. He worked for T-Mobile prior to his prison sentence.
"Don't think they don't know. They know everything. This little thing you've got right here," he said, holding a phone, "will tell on you. ... If you get a text, pull over. I do it all the time."
Other distractions, such as reaching for a pen, adjusting a stereo or interacting with passengers, can also get someone killed, he said.
Generalizing further, to a message he hopes can mean something even to younger children, he urged them to think about how poor choices can affect their lives and the lives of others.
"Remember, there are three other families who live daily without their aunt, their mother, their best friend because of me," he said. "So always think about your choices because someone on the other end of your choice could get hurt or killed."
His choices, he said, also adversely affected the life of his daughter, now 20, who already lived with her mother in another state.
But his wife at the time of the crash stuck with him and visited him regularly in prison, missing only four visitation days in seven and a half years, he said. They are still together. He counts her among his blessings.
"The Lord has blessed me in several ways," Cochran told the students. "One, to give me the strength to stand up in front of you and open myself up to you, and it takes a lot to get up here and relive this."
He used to be nervous when he did these programs but isn't anymore, he said. The essence of Cochran's story remains the same, but how he presents it varies as he adjusts his message to the audience.
"The Lord lays it on my heart what I'm going to have to say that day," he said.
While still in prison, Cochran spoke to about 2,000 adults in a Georgia Men's Advance program at the Rock Eagle Center in Eatonton. He also certified as a firefighter and actually spent the last couple of years of his sentence outside the gates, living in prison-system fire stations that serve external communities.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.