Valerie Morin would have been 28 years old this year.
The boy who was driving the car in which she died 12 years ago is now a man of 29.
I don’t know where he is today or what he is doing, but I know where he was and what he was facing on March 7, 2000, nine months after that fun-filled, sun-soaked carefree day in June 1999 turned to tragedy on a back road in Hampden.
I know what he was doing on that March day because I was in the courtroom where he sat as a defendant and I’ve never forgotten the gut-wrenching pain that filled that room.
This week the state is reeling from the loss of four young people killed in three separate fatal accidents last weekend. Gov. Paul LePage has declared this month Young Driver Safety Awareness Month and officials and community members are once again tossing around ideas about how best to get through to the brains of our distracted and imprudent teenage drivers.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers is holding community brainstorming sessions at Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices throughout the state starting on Tuesday, Jan 17, in Bangor.
There is talk about increasing the length of time that a teen driver would have to possess a driver’s license before being allowed to ferry around underage passengers. It’s now six months.
What few may remember is that it was the death of Valerie Morin, a sophomore at Hampden Academy, that first touched off efforts to adopt that graduated license program, designed to ease young drivers into full driving privileges, limit their distractions and reduce their urge to show off.
It would appear that was exactly what then-17-year-old Adam Beaulieu was doing that June day. Beaulieu also was a sophomore at Hampden Academy and had passed his driver’s test just 44 days earlier.
He and others were celebrating the end of the school year at a pool party and he, Morin and another young man jumped in his car to go pick up another friend and bring him back to the party.
On the way back, according to police reports and courtroom testimony at the time, Beaulieu was driving 80 mph down Kennebec Road, passing cars and swerving from one side of the road to another. He turned onto Monroe Road in the wrong lane.
According to courtroom testimony, Morin was pounding on the seat begging him to slow down, as were the other passengers.
Beaulieu didn’t. He lost control of the small car, which traveled 50 yards in reverse before it slammed into a tree. Morin was sitting in the back seat, which was pushed forward 4 feet. She died at the scene.
And so it was that Beaulieu sat nine months later inside a Bangor courtroom facing a juvenile charge of vehicular manslaughter, wearing his purple-and-white Hampden Academy varsity letter jacket, sobbing uncontrollably and gasping for breath as he tried to formulate an apology to Morin’s mother and father.
And so it was that Valerie Morin’s mother stood tearful in that courtroom facing Beaulieu and the rest of us trying to make us understand in just a few minutes the type of person her daughter was and what her loss meant.
“All you had to do was slow down,” she told Beaulieu.
Others spoke on Beaulieu’s behalf. He was a good boy, an inexperienced driver who got caught up in the excitement of the moment.
Perhaps the most wrenching remarks came from Beaulieu’s mother, who wept openly, telling the Morins that she never would understand the depth of their pain but that boy who was her son “was gone and will never be back. He is serving a life sentence. He’s a good kid who made a horrible mistake and he will pay for the rest of his life.”
Beaulieu never could catch his breath long enough to apologize to Valerie Morin’s family.
He was nearly collapsing and gasping for breath as he tried. Finally his attorney took over and read the apology that Beaulieu had written.
No one will ever know what Valerie Morin’s life would have looked like today had she lived — marriage, children, a career?
I do know her tragic death started our state down the path of adopting the graduated licensing program that we have today and may possibly expand.
As the mother of teenagers, one who is driving and one who soon will be, I know that I am grateful for that law.
It’s a good one and I have little doubt that it has saved and will continue to save lives.
But no one yet has figured out a way to save them all, as evidenced by last weekend’s events and the grim teen driving fatality statistics here and around the nation.
I always thought that more teenagers should have been in that courtroom that day to have witnessed and felt the grief there.
It has always stuck with me.