A prisoner at the Chowchilla state prison is sharing her devastating experience with local high school students. Michelle Stearns was drinking and driving when she got into a car accident that that killed a 32-year-old man.
Stearns looks like the girl next store. She's the last person one would think could be serving a six year sentence in prison. That's why she's the perfect example that it could happen to anyone.
The largest women's state prison in the nation is in Chowchilla. Among the 2,700 inmates is Stearns. She's doesn’t wear a prison jumpsuit because she's a firefighter at the facility. Stearns is one of the lucky ones. She stays outside of the metal fences and barbed wire. But the prison warden points out, she could be sent back in there at any time.
“She's very much still in prison,” said Deborah Johnson, warden.
Only five years ago, Stearns life was very different. She was a college student in Orange County, working to get her business degree and dreaming of opening up her own dance studio. One night changed everything in the worst way.
“We went out for dinner and we had drinks there. I drove home,” said Stearns.
A few minutes from home, the Orange County Sheriff's Department says Stearns lost control of her car, hit a curb, and spun into a man on his bike. He was a 32-year-old father of two, riding home from his job at Denny's.
“There's so many would have or could have things that have crossed my mind that I should have done. Because I knew better,” said Stearns.
With tremendous guilt and shame, Stearns says every day is an emotional challenge as she relives those poor decisions that she can't take back. One thing that helps ease the pain is talking to others before it's too late.
Stearns recently spoke to two north valley high schools. Stearns shocked the audience by revealing she's a prisoner at the end of the presentation.
“It was more of the dropped jaw effect. They were in awe that she actually is an inmate,” said Johnson.
“I really wanted to tell these kids the truth and not sugar coat anything because this was a real story and it really happened to me,” said Stearns.
Stearns has several more years to serve. She hopes to stay on the fire team and out of the main prison. The firefighters respond to emergency calls around Madera County. She knows there will come a day she’ll be called to a DUI accident, much like the one she caused. There have been two fatal DUI accidents recently in Fresno. Stearns has seen the coverage on T.V., and her heart breaks for everyone involved.
“I feel sorry for every single person that it touched in that family because it's just really, really sad.