This is the story of Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge, and the forgiveness, grace, and repentance that grew out of drunk driving tragedy in Florida in 2002. Renee Napier’s daughter Meagan Napier and her best friend Lisa Dickson were killed right before Mother’s Day. Eric Smallridge was responsible for their deaths. In time Eric repented, and the Napier and Dickson families forgave and drew close. Eventually the Napier and Dickson families went before the Florida legal system to ask that his sentence be reduced. Today the Napiers and Smallridge family remain close, and they travel in the country and speak of the dangers of intoxicated driving. Can you imagine if this kind of forgiveness and repentance is the norm in Christianity and not the exception? In my own story can Dave and Andrew White a former Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington forgive each other and work out their pain? Absolutely!
“What happened in the courtroom is something I wish everyone could experience. I saw a Deputy wiping tears from her eyes and even the judge struggled when he spoke of the message he hopes will come from Eric’s sentence. I believe everyone there was touched and I believe the Holy Spirit was there making it happen. Obedience to God is hard when it comes to forgiveness but if you can trust Him and do, the result is powerful and love prevails.”
October 26, 2003 Pensacola News Journal
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Colossians 3:13 NIV
“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
**Note the narrative I wrote below came about in reading and studying the online journal at the Meagan Napier Foundation**
Florida Department of Corrections Video
Forgiveness is essential, its really what separates Christianity from other religions. During the height of my faith crisis sometimes I was up around the clock reading about the problem of evil. Now that my faith crisis is over I’ve spent a considerable amount of time looking into the issue of forgiveness to find examples of how its lived out. I’m still trying to find peace from the conflict with Andrew White. There is a great amount of emotional pain that exists due to his betrayal and the false accusation in what he alleged. Not just that but it also hurt my family in California as well. But the question still remains can Dave and Andrew White both forgive each other and work out their pain? I would suggest yes. Previously I wrote about an amazing situation in Minneapolis between Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel. In that situation the mother of her murdered son forgave the man who killed him. It has become an example in the Minneapolis area of what forgiveness can do and what it can unleash. Then a week ago I wrote about the amazing story of Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida. One led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the other participated in the Doolittle Raid against Japan in April of 1942. Two war heroes committed to the destruction of each other’s nation both found the Lord and practiced forgiveness and became close friends. Its a story the church needs to hear. I must ask how much healthier would Christianity be if the church heard stories of Jacob DeShazer or Mary Johnson instead of Jonathan Edwards? If the church did, I believe it would be more robust and not as diseased. Having explained that I would like to focus on another amazing story that comes from the state of Florida. Its the story of Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge. One was a drunk driver who killed a teenager in high school. The other was the mother of her killed daughter. Again its an amazing case of forgiveness that shows what true grace is, while in the process shocking the legal system in Florida. So before I get into the story I ask this question out loud. Can Dave and Andrew White forgive each other and work out their differences? I firmly believe its possible. I am willing…the question is this…is the former Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington willing?
A Fatal Drunk Driving Accident in Florida
When I stumbled across this story on forgiveness, repentance and grace it blew my mind. Literally I thought my head was going to explode. Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson were friends who met at Gulf Breeze High School in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Lisa Dickson attended the University of West Florida, and Meagan Napier was attending Tallahassee Community College. Both Lisa and Meagan were 20 when they died on May 12, 2002; and both passed away the day before Mothers Day. In the last telephone conversation between Meagan Napier and her mother they both expressed love for each other. For Renee Napier she had no idea it would be the final conversation she would have with her daughter. In the Pensacola New Journal of May 13, 2002 Meagan Napier was described as, “you wanted to be around Meagan. She was just a riot. She had a magnetic personality – just cracking jokes left and right but at the same time you knew she was genuine.” What had happened is that the driver, a 24 year old Eric Smallridge after a night of some drinking drove home intoxicated. Eric Smallridge was a son of a retired United States Air Force (USAF) lawyer and a University of West Florida student. In high school he was a well known soccer player, plus he also was an Eagle Scout. (Note this author Dave is also an Eagle Scout as well from a Boy Scout Troop in a Baptist Church in Fresno, California) Eric Smallridge’s blood alcohol level was at .201 which is much greater than the legal limit of intoxication in Florida which was .08 at the time. While intoxicated Eric Smallridge in his Jeep Cherokee hit Lisa Dickson’s Mazda which then hit a tree. That tree would become a memorial for two well known and popular individuals. On June 13, 2002 Eric Smallridge was charged with two counts of vehicular homicide and two charges of homicide due to driving in a reckless manner. A warrant was issued for his arrest. A terrible drama had dragged in three families…the Napiers, Dicksons and Smallridges. The year between the death and the trial was agony for the Napier and Dickson families Both of them struggled with compassion for Smallridge at the time. Both the Napier and Dickson families had a strong faith. Raine Smallridge, Eric’s mother told the local newspaper the following, “we’ve never been in this sort of situation before and I would never trade it for the other families’ situation.” Raine continued, “but its extremely difficult when your child believes his life has ended. There is no closure. There is no hope. There is no future.” During the trial which commenced in June 2003 the defense for Smallridge tried to shift the responsibility on another driver. It was excruciating for the Napier and Dickson’s families. But in the end the jury didn’t buy it. Eric Smallridge was found guilty on July 25, 2003. After 5 and a half hours of deliberation the verdict was read shortly after 5:00 PM that day and Smallridge stared at the table while the families of the defendant and the Dickson and Napiers wept.
The Repentance of Eric Smallridge
The Saturday Pensacola News Journal opened up on the guilty verdict by saying, “Eric Smallridge spent the first night of what could turn into three decades behind bars Friday after a Santa Rosa County jury found him guilty of DUI manslaughter in the deaths of two Gulf Breeze women.” Despite all this what hurt Renee Napier was her perception that Eric Smallridge didn’t have remorse for what he did, as he never showed it in the trial. Renee Napier said the following after the verdict, “I know for my own peace, I don’t want to go through life hating someone…I really just want to see some sincere, genuine remorse. If he could be man enough to say, ‘I made a mistake, I’m truly sorry and your daughters died as a result’ then I think he would be taking a good step. But he hasn’t done that, and his family hasn’t done that either.” Lisa Dickson’s father Philip Dickson said the following about Eric Smallridge, “If he has a hard heart, hopefully this experience will soften it and he will come to know Christ. That would be a magnificent thing, because this burden which he will carry will be lifted.” Philip Dickson continued and said, “If there was honest remorse – heartfelt remorse – I would be the first to stand up and ask for mercy from the judge. But he needs to face the consequences whatever the judge decided, what the jury decides is fine with me. Personally I say 30 years strictly because he has blamed everyone else.”
On July 29, 2003 from a jail cell in long form Eric Smallridge wrote the following letter to Renee Napier. This would be the first time he asked for forgiveness from Renee for killing her daughter.
Dear Ms. Napier-
I would like to begin by telling you how very sorry I am for my lack of communication both verbally and non verbally up until this point. The reason for my silence and lack of emotion during my trial was based strictly on my lawyers advice. I wanted more than ever to tell you how sorry I was but was advised not to do so. I can assure you I was only doing what I was told.
I never got the opportunity to meet Meagan and or Carmen for that matter but I wish I had because from what I hear we would most likely been friends. I can’t imagine the pain and suffering that this has caused you but I truly wish there was something I could do to ease your pain. I am sincerely sorry that I was involved in the accident that took your beautiful daughter’s life and I would also like you to know that I am willing to face the consequences however hard they may be for the bad judgment call that I made on the morning of May 11, 2002 which was driving without knowing what my blood alcohol level was.
I have asked God for His forgiveness which he has granted and its with this that I have been able to find some peace within. I now come to you and beg for your forgiveness and I will assure you that I will continue to beg God for your forgiveness until he decides to take me to heaven as he has Megan.
With upmost respect and sympathy
Eric Smallridge also wrote a note to Philip Dickson begging for forgiveness for his daughter Lisa Dickson’s death. But that apology was rebuffed and viewed by Philip Dickson as opportunistic. It was too little, too late, Eric Smallridge had his chance. On Friday October 3, 2003 Eric Smallridge was scheduled to be sentenced. People who were related to the victims spoke, while those who knew Eric Smallridge spoke to his remorse. Renee Napier forgave Smallridge from the stand. Wearing a blue faded jumpsuit, and shackled, he was the last to testify. Shaking he turned to face the Napiers and Dicksons and said the following, “I know I’ve done wrong and I need to be punished and I’m really sorry for the families for what I’ve done. I’ve caused so much pain and there’s nothing I can do. I’ve asked God to help me and he did, but that’s not going to bring Meagan and Lisa back. I wish I could. I would give my life, I would honestly give my life if I could bring them back. I don’t know how it must feel but I know what I am going through and its got to be worse. I’m sorry.” During this statement Eric Smallridge sobbed uncontrollably. To the Dicksons it seemed like an emotional act. But to the Napiers it was what they wanted to hear. During a recess Renee Napier’s husband went over to speak with Eric Smallridge, afterward he hugged him. Eric Smallridge cried on his shoulder. The Napier’s were convinced that Eric was truly sorry for what he did. Philip Napier spoke about realizing how Eric is in as much pain as he is, and how the sentencing is really his funeral. The judge decided to sentence Eric Smallridge to prison for 22 years. He wanted it to be a deterrent to other people, and make Eric as an example.
On October 26, 2003 Renee Napier wrote the following opinion for the Pensacola News & Journal. It addressed faith, drunk driving, Eric Smallridge and forgiveness. In the article she wrote of God, “the only thing I can hope for is that I am living my life to the fullest and that my life glorifies God. Grief is like a black cloud that drops down on us and its as though it has a vacuum that sucks the life right out of you. I instantly felt as though nothing in life is really important and things I stressed are trivial. We should place a value on other people in our lives and our relationships.” Renee Napier then explains how she views forgiveness, “all my life I have prayed for God to help me be forgiving and sometimes forgiveness comes easy and sometimes it is the most difficult thing to do. My experience has taught me that once we forgive those who have hurt us healing begins, it frees us so that we can move forward unencumbered.” Then she explains her first interaction with Eric Smallridge’s parents. “After the trial of Jeremy Berkett I met Mr. and Mrs. Smallridge and their son Dan in the hallway of the courthouse. We hugged and cried together because we hurt so intensely for each other. Knowing the importance of forgiveness I told them I forgive Eric and I don’t hold them responsible for what he did and as we talked I realized they are sincere, genuine good people. They are suffering because their son made a bad decision to drink and drive and two beautiful young women lost their lives. I told them I have grieved for them and their pain because I am a parent who realizes none of us are immune to this and I could easily be on the other side.” Of Eric Smallridge Renee Napier wrote, “at his sentencing I felt his pain for the first time. I was moved to tears when I saw him in chains. He is a young man in agony. It was healing for me and hopefully healing for him to tell him face to face I forgive him. It was also healing for me to hear him express his sorrow and remorse for what he did. I hope it will help his healing begin. We will continue to pray for him and his family. None of us want to see him become a reprobate. Philip challenged him not to be another life lost. My family hopes he will be able to speak to others about the dangers of driving under the influence. Perhaps this is how God can be glorified especially if other lives are saved.” In the last paragraph Renee Napier speaks about what happened in the courtroom when Eric Smallridge repented. “What happened in the courtroom is something I wish everyone could experience. I saw a Deputy wiping tears from her eyes and even the judge struggled when he spoke of the message he hopes will come from Eric’s sentence. I believe everyone there was touched and I believe the Holy Spirit was there making it happen. Obedience to God is hard when it comes to forgiveness but if you can trust Him and do, the result is powerful and love prevails.”
While the Napier family forgave Eric Smallridge the Dickson family did not. Philip Dickson responded harshly by writing a difficult response back to a letter he received. For Philip Dickson Smallridge’s remorse was too little too late. From his jail cell Eric repented profusely and profoundly. He wrote letters to Meghan Napier’s sisters, Megan’s parents and his own parents. By February 2004 Megan Napier’s sisters had also forgiven Eric Smallridge. The Napiers forgave Smallridge because their daughter would have wanted him to be forgiven. In the community word started to get around about the forgiveness being extended to Eric Smallridge. Renee Napier described that forgiveness as, “…its the most freeing thing you can do. Its indescribable – the peace to say, ‘I forgive you’ and mean it.” Philip Napier said the following about un-forgiveness, “I’ve seen people unable to forgive someone who hurt them, and it consumes them.” Meanwhile in prison Eric Smallridge spent much time drawing nearer to the Lord. From jail an active correspondence flowed back and forth from the Napiers and Eric Smallridge. Eric Smallridge said the following of being forgiven of killing Meagan Napier. “Being able to express myself to them and for them to have accepted it so openly and lovingly as they did is like a hundred thousand pounds of weight being lifted off my chest. Its made everything more tolerable. Its brought light to the darkness.” In reflecting on being forgiven by the Napiers Eric Smallridge said the following, “I don’t know if I could do it myself if it were my kid. That’s why its just so amazing. To me the Napiers define Christianity.” Meanwhile Eric Smallridge agreed to be part of a billboard campaign that educated people in the dangers of drunk driving. The Smallridge family and Napier and Dickson families were involved in the unveiling. In 2004 Renee Napier began to speak in high schools about driving under the influence of alcohol.
Love and Grace that Moves the Legal System
As time passed inmate P22679 wrote letters to the Napier family from the Holmes Correctional Institute. Eric Smallridge regularly sent Mother’s Day as well as Christmas and Easter cards to Renee Napier. The Dicksons became convinced that Eric was not an act and they forgave him also. Philip Dickson who thought it once a show looked at Eric Smallridge as a “brother” and “friend.” In August 2006 the unthinkable happened when both the Napier and Dickson family approached the legal system and asked for Eric’s sentence to be reduced by half – from 22 years down to 11. Lisa Dickson’s parents wrote letters to the judge on Eric’s behalf. All 5 of Meagan Napier’s immediate family members and grandparents wrote letters in support of a reduced sentence. Eric Smallridge wrote the judge and asking for reduced sentences to be served concurrently. He was committed to using his time to advocate the dangers of drunk driving. In his words Eric said, “I will spend the rest of my incarceration doing anything and everything I can do to fight the battle against drinking and driving, and as soon as I am released on probation I will put my heart and soul into carrying on Meagan’s and Lisa’s legacies in a positive manner.” The Napiers wanted to honor their daughter with love and not hate. The prosecutor struggled with the request from the family calling it “one of the most difficult things I have been involved with…” On August 18, 2006 again in a courtroom Eric Smallridge owned his part of he accident, and Renee Napier went to bat and passionately pleaded with the legal system to reduce his sentence. The last person in the Napier family to forgive Eric was Meagan’s brother Alan Napier. The prosecutor who witnessed everything was stunned and commented that in all his 21 years of practicing law he never saw anything like this occur before. The judge who reduced Eric Smallridge’s sentence stated that he was “in awe” of what happened and reminded Smallridge of the magnitude of what was happening.
Many people didn’t understand the Napiers and thought them crazy. It almost seemed perverse to get that close to the other family. But grace and loved prevailed as Renee Napier became close friends with Eric Smallridge’s parents. When traveling Renee Napier would get together for lunch or dinner with the Smallridge family. Renee Napier said the Smallridge family communicated the following to them. “They have told us with tears in their eyes that if the shoe were on the other foot, they weren’t sure they could do what we’re doing…they were not that sure they could be that forgiving.” Raine Smallridge, Eric’s mother said the following about their relationship with the Napiers and Eric. “Basically the miracle as far as I am concerned and as far as Eric is concerned has already happened. And the miracle is the extraordinary journey with these families. They’re just incredible and a blessing for all of us. The inspiration we have gotten, the love and the forgiveness the Napiers and Dicksons have given us is a gift.” With Eric Smallridge’s sentence reduced Eric traveled around Florida and beyond to speak about drunk driving, grace, and forgiveness. They have spoken at churches, high school presentations, and for the Florida Department of Corrections frequently and often. In November 2012 Eric was released from prison. This story of grace, repentance and forgiveness got the ear of CBS National News who reported on it as a remarkable story of forgiveness. When Eric was released his mother hugged the prison guard first in excitement. Their story and relationship between the Smallridge family and the Napiers continues to this day. It also led Matthew West to write a song called “Forgiveness“.
I have three videos below for you to look at. The first one is a memorial video to Meagan Napier and Lisa Dickson, the second video is Matthew West’s forgiveness, and the third is a high school presentation by Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge. In closing I have to state that I have found this story, like the other ones I have written about to be amazing. One thing that deeply bothers me about many Christians today is the inability to practice faith 101. I think what makes this story shine so brightly is that the basic essentials of faith played out. I don’t want to distract but on the national scene you hear so much about repentance. When you hear of a celebrity pastor repenting ask yourself, has he gone to the lengths of repentance that Eric Smallridge has done? Christianity in the United States struggles with its image, and according to the latest information the nones are growing faster. My question is this….if more Christians lived like Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge would people be abandoning and walking away from Christiantiy in droves? If you read my story of my faith crisis on my East Coast Mom’s blog in August 2014 you read about me going back to 140 people and seeking out forgiveness. Part of what drove me was reading this story of the Napiers and Smallridge. It showed me what can be possible, and what happens when you don’t give up but pursue someone in faith and love. It reminded me what people can do in faith. This is also a driving reason why I believe Andrew White and I can work out our differences and put the past behind us. There is no reason why this tension, walling a person off and leaving a person in pain has to continue. Wouldn’t it be beautiful if I, Dave , a former militant agnostic and Andrew, a strong Christian as he has stated could have this kind of relationship? I have searched my heart and laid it on the table. I will give all the grace necessary to help Andrew and help him walk forward. But I am willing to work with him and have this kind of relationship, likewise is Andrew ready to do so?