Lance Pohlman would pay anything, he said, to sleep at night with a clear conscience.
"I tore the door off my jeep and stepped out onto the street," he told Steamboat Springs high school students at an assembly Friday, referring to the immediate aftermath of his one-mile drive under the influence of alcohol in Grand County two years ago. "Then I heard this sound. A woman screaming. And I don't mean like a little girl screaming at her brother. I mean the most awful, blood-curdling scream you can possibly imagine. Then there were flashing lights coming from everywhere. My chin was cut open. I was bleeding pretty bad. Some officers took me and stuffed me in their car real quick, and asked, 'Have you been drinking tonight?'"
Pohlman said that at that point, after the sobering-impact of the head-on collision, he'd almost forgotten that he had indeed been drinking.
"As we were pulling away to go to the med center, because I needed stitches, one of the officers stuck his head in the window and said, 'Make sure this murderer knows he killed two people tonight.'" Pohlman paused, looked up at his audience, and took a deep breath. "I'll tell you. The words made my stomach drop. I'd never heard anything so horrible in all my life."
After having his chin stitched by a nurse "who wasn't too happy" with Pohlman, the young man was put in a holding cell.
"I don't know if any of you have experience with jail," Pohlman said to the students. "Basically I was in a 10-foot by 15-foot concrete block with a stainless steel toilet. And as I sat in there, I started to get mad. Coming from a good Christian family and home, I believe in God. But that night I got real mad at him. I was pretty sure he'd forgotten about me.Then one of the officers told me, as if it was supposed to cheer me up, that I'd only killed one person, not two."
Pohlman's audience was silent; a few students were bouncing their knees nervously. All eyes were upon him. He was at the high school as part of Red Ribbon Week, during which students are encouraged to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
After his parents drove to Winter Park from Michigan and scraped together $20,000 bail, Pohlman spent a few months at home before returning to Grand County for court.
"There I was, facing 24 years in the penitentiary, 20 years old, and I had no idea what was happening," he said. "To top everything off, the family of the girl I'd killed was in the courtroom. There were about 50 of them, friends and family. So it was me, my mom, my dad, my lawyer, and all these friends and family members (of the girl). They all took turns going to the front of the courtroom and telling me just what they thought of me."
Pohlman is now living in a halfway house in Craig, where he was sentenced to spend five and a half years after serving six months in jail. The reason he's not in jail is because the judge saw he was willing and able to do something constructive with his mistake, he said.
He is currently involved in a $750,000 lawsuit because of the helicopter costs, surgery and hip replacements of the survivors.
"One girl had to have both hips replaced," Pohlman said. "The other broke every bone in her face."
A wave of gasps and murmurs rushed through the group of students as Pohlman asked them to look at the person sitting next to them, and imagine they could be responsible for that person's death.
"Yeah I know," he said, "you're all tough. But look at that person next to you, and tell me if you think you could handle killing them."
To reach Bonnie Nadzam call 871-4204 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org