Four years after losing loved ones to a drunken driver, Bill Downs drove the same route they took, and tried to end his life the same way theirs had ended.
“I headed for the curve and I let go of the wheel,” he said. “The last thing I remember is waking up on the couch.”
He had been overcome with grief since his son, Brad, 21, and new daughter-in-law, Samantha, 19, died in a head-on crash Oct. 6, 2007, in Harrison County. The couple’s friend, 24-year-old Chris Dafoe, died shortly afterward at a hospital.
During the long healing process, Downs and his wife, Julie, who live in Saucier, have used their experience to help others.
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Bill Downs became a victim advocate in court cases. Julie Downs started an online private grief-sharing forum. Both helped start a victim-support group, even as grief paralyzed them in their personal lives and almost destroyed their marriage.
And now they have co-authored a book with best-selling author and inspirational speaker Lynda Cheldelin Fell. “Grief Diaries: Loss By Impaired Driving” was published June 9 and will be distributed at 40,000 locations in about a month.
Books in the “Grief Diaries” series focus on the process of grief and finding hope in the aftermath of specific types of death — homicide, suicide or loss of a child, spouse or other loved one.
“Loss By Impaired Driving” contains testimonials of 17 victims from around the country solicited by Bill and Julie Downs through private online forums hosted by Advocates for Victims of Impaired/Distracted Driving. One is from a man whose father was killed by an impaired driver in Gulfport. The testimonials share emotions ranging from shock and anger to healing and acceptance.
Today, Bill and Julie Downs lead a growing advocacy group and manage four online forums with nearly 800 members.
Luckily, we got through it with prayer and the help of friends and family.
Bill Downs, co-author of ‘Grief Diaries’ and co-founder of AVIDD
Julie Downs said the book will make “victim-to-victim sharing” available to a larger audience for those suffering a loss caused by drunken, drugged or distracted drivers.
How their nightmare began
Bill Downs was a heating, ventilation and air conditioning tech for the Gulfport School District. His wife worked at Suds and Duds Laundry on Pass Road.
Brad Downs was a technician at a car dealership. Samantha Downs, Brad’s high school sweetheart, wanted to have children and become a nurse. They’d been married for almost four months.
Dafoe had been working temporary jobs. He’d been hired by a waste-management company and had just picked up his uniforms.
Brad Downs was driving his wife and Dafoe to a movie in Gulfport. They were on Mississippi 53 near Canal Road when a Mitsubishi Endeavor hit them.
Bill Downs came upon a roadblock that night, unaware his family was involved. His wife tried to warn the children by phone to be cautious around the roadblock. She couldn’t reach them.
The couple became worried. Bill Downs drove to Cinemark Theater in Gulfport but couldn’t find his son’s car. He went back to the roadblock but couldn’t get any information. He drove to Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, where he identified Dafoe as a survivor of the crash. Then the coroner came out to talk to him.
His son and daughter-in-law had died instantly. Dafoe died a couple of hours later.
The other driver, Deborah Stewart, 38, died in the crash and her passenger was seriously injured.
Records show Stewart rounded a curve near Canal Road with her headlights off at 80 mph and hit the Downses’ car. First-responders noticed she was wearing a bracelet given to patrons of Slippery Nick’s, a bar that soon closed.
Stewart’s blood-alcohol content was 0.119. State law considers 0.08 or higher too drunk to drive. A toxicology test also revealed drugs in her system, records show.
“It’s something that could have been prevented,” Julie Downs said. “It was totally avoidable. A DUI death is 100 percent avoidable.”
Three years later, I started realizing God did not kill my kids. The drunk driver did. It was just by chance my children happened to be there.
Julie Downs, co-author and co-founder of AVIDD
Brad Downs would have been 30 on Monday, the Fourth of July.
Her reaction, his reaction
Julie Downs quit her job after the funeral and became a recluse.
“I couldn’t leave the house,” she said.
“I curled up in a fetal position. My whole personality changed. I cried all the time.”
About eight months later, she started her first online forum. She had looked online for grief support but said didn’t find many options. So she started one.
“I was trying to find my sanity,” she said. “I was searching for other people who understand what I’m going through.”
“I had my sisters to talk to, but Bill bottled it up. He was so busy working and helping victims and looking after me that he didn’t take time to grieve for himself.”
Bill Downs missed 70 days of work the first year after the crash. He suffered from panic attacks and depression.
“There were times at work I’d find myself in the boiler room and I’d have a panic attack,” he said. “I had too much time to think. The more I thought, the harder it got. Luckily, through prayer and the help of friends and family, I was able to get through it.”
About 10 months after the crash, he became a victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, doing volunteer work as he now does for AVIDD. He goes to court with victims of impaired drivers and speaks at victims’ impact meetings —sessions DUI defendants are required to attend. AVIDD also serves as a support group.
Bill Downs had a nervous breakdown in 2011. He tried to kill himself at the same place where his son died.
“I guess you can say I had a close encounter with God. I mean, I met him face to face and it wasn’t heading to heaven. I denied him. I screamed at him. I cussed at him and told him to leave me alone.”
Julie Downs said she didn’t understand how the grief was affecting her husband.
“I was dealing with my own grief and I couldn’t look him in the eyes,” she said. “I couldn’t see his pain for my own.”
They had enjoyed a close relationship and a strong marriage, but grief nearly destroyed it.
They decided to get marriage counseling.
In the first five minutes of the first session, Bill Downs said, the counselor looked at him and said, “You’re a walking dead man. You haven’t grieved for your children.”
So they put grief counseling first.
“A man is the foundation of the home,” he said. “He’s supposed to be the protector. I was always told by my father only a sissy cried. So I never cried. Not in public.”
Bill Downs realized he’d become a hard person on the inside.
“We couldn’t understand why God allowed them to die,” Julie Downs said. “We were good people. We went to church. We prayed every day,” she said. “Three years later, I started realizing God did not kill my kids. The drunk driver did. It was just by chance my children happened to be there.”
Bill Downs remembers Feb. 4, 2013, vividly. He renewed his faith in God, he and his wife renewed their marriage vows and he was re-baptized.
“Luckily, we got through it with prayer and the help of friends and family,” he said.
Bill and Julie Downs realize they will always feel grief. But they’re encouraged by opportunities to warn others about the dangers of impaired driving and to give hope to the grieving.
“I can’t tell you how to handle your grief,” Julie Downs said. “But I can tell you how I handled my grief. And if that helps you, it’s worth it.”
How the book came about
One of the ways the couple dealt with grief was through the online forum, where Bill Downs first met author Lynda Cheldelin Fell. They told Fell they were working on a book with someone else, but it didn’t pan out.
“Seven months ago, Bill contacted her to see if she still wanted to do a book with us,” Julie Downs said. “She said yes, and she came up with a title and began to send questions for victims to answer for use in the book.”
Fell sent each of the victims quoted three questions a week for six weeks. The questions challenged them to write about each stage of their grief, starting with the crash and funeral, the other driver, any criminal charges, and other aspects of moving forward.
The questions also challenged them to face their fears, find forgiveness and hope. Some shared practical ways to work through grief. Some pointed to God as the source of their help. Some did not feel ready to answer some of the questions, Julie Downs said.
Each chapter contains pages or snippets of the victims’ writings.
Julie Downs has returned to work at Suds and Duds. Her husband has retired. He devotes his time to advocacy work, his wife and their disabled daughter.
A death in Gulfport
Carl Harms of Florida wrote in the book about learning to forgive, but it has taken him years to reach that point.
His father, James Harms, was killed by a drunken driver in Gulfport on Interstate 10 on April 22, 2007. James Harms was a retired Navy chief petty officer. His wife had died and he was traveling with his dog from Jacksonville, Fla., to Hammond, La., to live with his daughter.
Forgiveness isn’t just for those who have taken someone from you. It is for you. Hanging on to resentment and revenge keeps the soul a prisoner to a miserable existence.
Carl Harms, victim and a victim advocate
The woman whose actions killed him, Alicia Carmack, then 21, of Gulfport, was convicted of DUI causing death.
Carmack’s Dodge Intrepid rear-ended a car that had slowed down, creating a chain-reaction crash in which James Harms’ car hit two other vehicles, according to court testimony.
“I was in a dark place,” Carl Harms said. “I stayed at home. I thought about harming myself or not waking up.”
He began communicating with Bill Downs, and began to volunteer for Compassionate Friends, a support group for homicide victims in northeast Florida. He joined the state prosecutor’s office in Jacksonville as a victim advocate in May 2015.
Answering questions for the book was gut-wrenching but therapeutic, Harms said.
“It helped me put things into perspective and see how much progress I’ve made.”
Like the Downses, he is a supporter of stiff sentences in DUI death cases.
“Forgiveness isn’t just for those who have taken someone from you,” Harms said. “It is for you. Hanging on to resentment and revenge keeps the soul a prisoner to a miserable existence.”
Bill and Julie Downs and Carl Harms said they’ve received positive feedback on their writings.
“We’ve had people tell us, ‘Oh, my gosh, I wasn’t going crazy,’ ” Bill Downs said. “It helps to talk to people who understand what you are going through.”
One victim has told them she walked in to see her husband holding a gun to his head and she snapped at him. She didn’t understand how grief was affecting him, and realized her husband needed her compassion, not her anger, Julie Downs said.
They’ve heard people say they want a copy of the book for themselves or for a loved one who’s drinking and driving.
Bill Downs said he’s looking for opportunities to speak at schools, churches or anywhere he can warn others of the dangers of impaired driving. And he wants to keep pushing for stiffer sentences.
“It bothers me to see a defendant beg for mercy and tell a judge that prison will ruin their lives,” he said.
“I want to put a copy of the book in the hands of every judge on the Coast.”
About the author
Lynda Cheldelin Fell is a radio and film producer and an award-winning best-selling author who lost her daughter Aly, 15, in a crash Aug. 5, 2009.
She is board president of the National Grief & Hope Coalition and chief executive officer of AlyBlue Media, which publishes inspirational books. She created the “Grief Diaries” series.
Her work has included interviews with Dr. Martin Luther King’s daughter, Trayvon Martin’s mother, sisters of Nicole Brown Simpson, Pastor Todd Burpo of “Heaven is For Real” and CNN commentator Ken Druck.
Where to get the book
- Call 228-669-7218
- Barnes & Noble
- Publisher AlyBlue Media