Geneva grad behind fatal DUI crash warns 'of one careless decision'
Michael Szot knows how many of the seniors of Geneva High School feel this time of year: on top of the world.
They have worked hard for good grades and high ACT scores, just as he did with his 35 on the ACT and No. 9 class ranking.
They are going to prestigious colleges, as he was five years ago. Szot had a $48,000 scholarship to attend Northwestern University.
And as president of the high school's chapter of Students Against Destructive Decisions, he had avoided using drugs and alcohol, and encouraged others to make wise choices.
But that summer, he figured he should try drinking, to prepare for boozy college parties. He didn't want to throw up at his first party.
That 2011 decision ultimately led to him accidentally killing a good friend and another man in July 2014 in a drunken-driving crash.
"You can be in the middle of a decision that you don't think is that big," he warned Geneva students Thursday. "And doing it a second time was a lot easier."
Szot spoke to all juniors and seniors, and a few sophomores, at an assembly encouraging them to behave safely this prom weekend.
It is the second time he has given the speech since being sentenced in March to four years of probation and a year in a jail work-release program for the deaths of Mihirtej Boddupalli of Lisle and Sajaad Syed of Naperville.
Szot met Boddupalli at their dormitory freshman year. "Our lives were pretty inseparable," he said. They joined a fraternity and partied and studied together. Besides alcohol, Szot started smoking pot.
In summer 2014, Szot landed a paid internship with an electronics firm and was making enough money to buy a car.
"My entire career was starting to unfold before my eyes," Szot said.
That good life crashed to a halt July 18, 2014. There was a party at a co-worker's house, celebrating the halfway mark of the internship. Boddupalli was there, and Boddupalli's good friend from high school, Syed.
"I made the decision to drink. I made the decision to smoke (pot). ... It was just the first in a string of bad decisions," Szot said.
When the party broke up, the three continued celebrating at a Naperville bar.
He drove. They drank at the bar. Police reported he drank nine beers and rum shots, and that his blood alcohol content was .168, more than twice the legal threshold.
Around 1 a.m., Szot got behind the wheel again. He had considered taking a cab, but since it was late, he didn't want to wait. Besides, he could rely on Boddupalli to direct him.
"I definitely was drunk. I definitely was not awake," he said. And so when Boddupalli told him to turn right at an intersection, he turned too late and drove off the road, at 30 mph, through some trees.
And into 45-foot-deep Quarry Lake.
Szot managed to undo his seat belt and float out through his open window as the car filled with water. He swam to shore, where someone pulled him out. Police arrived and began asking him: "Why did you make this decision?"
The question haunts him today.
Szot spoke of the arrest, of the three days he spent in DuPage County jail before his parents, with help from a family friend, could come up with $25,000 to bail him out.
There were letters waiting for him at home, kicking him out of Northwestern and firing him from the internship. There were also letters from strangers, condemning him.
Ashamed, he wore long pants to cover up the ankle monitor that kept track of his whereabouts and alcohol consumption. He questioned why he had lived and his friends had died. He was terrified to learn he could be sent to prison for as long as 28 years on charges of reckless homicide and aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The arrest added more stress to his parents' faltering marriage, which ended in divorce.
And every day, "I still see those two," Szot said, showing a picture of Syed and Boddupalli, clad in tuxedos and grinning. Even the feel of shower water hitting his skin can bring up memories, he said.
Out on bail, his days consisted of going to classes (first at Waubonsee Community College, then University of Illinois at Chicago), then working at the Best Buy store in Geneva. There were meetings with court officials and weekly drug tests to take.
"My future was more or less down the toilet," Szot said.
He pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence and let DuPage County Judge Brian Telander decide his sentence. Prosecutors recommended 20 years in prison.
The night before sentencing, the families of his victims asked to meet with him. "Their big message was, 'You need to keep living. ... You were the last one that was with our sons. There is a piece of them in you,'" Szot said.
They told the judge they did not want Szot to go to prison. And after hearing from them, Szot and character witnesses, and considering Szot's lack of a criminal record, Telander ruled "extraordinary circumstances" applied.
Szot is allowed out to attend classes and to work. In fact, right after his speech, his mother had to drive him back to the jail, where he would remain until the afternoon, when he was scheduled to go to work.
And Szot reiterated: "You don't get credit for all the good decisions you made. One careless decision can undo everything you have worked for.
"Just one night can do that."