Toler gives reality lesson in drunk driving

John Toler speaks to Oak Hill Academy students and staff, discussing the perils of drunk driving.
Staff Writer

John Toler was a young man with a bright future ahead of him.

He started drinking alcohol in high school with his friends.

After graduation, he started classes at Itawamba Community College and living on campus. Due to excessive drinking, he didn't go to class and lost his scholarships. While attending a party, he became intoxicated and made the decision to drive home. He never made it. He took the life of another person driving a vehicle and was taken to jail. All the dreams of the future ended that night because he chose to drink and drive.

"I coached John Toler in little league," said Mike Bunch, who is a sponsor for Toler. "I watched him grow up. I hugged him and laughed with him. When this tragedy happened, I told him I would come with him and be his sponsor. This happened 10 years ago."

Bunch said this is a condition of his parole, today at OHA is his 17th time to tell his story. He only has one more in February and he could stop. But he won't. He wants to continue reaching out to young people, telling them the truth about drinking and driving.

"I had everything," Toler said. "I was that guy in high school everyone wanted to be friends with. I did everything right. I was in church youth group, I was an athlete. I was popular. And I liked to go to parties. I started drinking in high school."

Even being on academic probation at ICC didn't stop Toler from drinking and cutting class.

"I went back home and went to East Mississippi Community College," Toler said. "I lived at home and had my parents to answer to. I was back to making straight A's. So I went to Mississippi State, lived on campus and went right back down that same road."

He said at his 23 birthday party, 800 people showed up. He didn't know 800 people, but there was alcohol, so everybody came.

"I got obliterated that night," Toler said. "I drove afterwards, hit another car and killed a man. Because of me, driving drunk, that man would never go home to his family again."

Toler said he was 23 years old and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was ordered to serve 10 years in Parchman Penitentiary. He was in a room with 216 other men he did not know and did not want to be around. He said one bad decision can lead to a dark place where no one wants to be.

He was a model prisoner, took classes, and was granted probation after serving four years of his sentence.

"I lost everything," Toler said. "And when you go to prison, your family and friends serve that time with you. They suffer, too. The decisions you make today impact the rest of your life. If you make good decisions, you will have good things happen. If you make bad decisions then you have to face the consequences."

He said all young people think that will never happen to them. He was there to tell them it can happen to anyone, because it happened to him.

"I've lost so many opportunities," Toler said. "I will always be an ex-convict. I have had job interviews where everything was going good, until they saw I had served time. I had a great interview, thought I was qualified and would be considered for the position. I had left a folder, went back to get it and saw my resume already in the garbage."

Toler can never own a gun or have a gun for any reason and can’t vote. But the latter right may be granted back to him in time.

"Please listen to your parents," Toler said. "They love you, they have your best interest at heart. Your friends don't. I know it's fun to go out on the weekends, but it won't kill you to stay home. It might be boring but it's better than being in a cell, and not being able to do anything you want to do."

Bunch said he and Toler are a team. He asked him how many of those 800 people who were at his birthday party that night still keep in touch. Toler said two, that are still his friends after that night.

"Stand in the gap with your friends," Toler said. "If they are drinking, take their keys. Drive them home and deal with parents tomorrow. I'm 34. I never thought I would go to prison. Choices have consequences. The next time you even think about drinking and driving, remember me and don't do it."