Jamie Ausk Crisafulli photo

Father of drunk driving victim challenges teens to avoid alcohol

By Cindy Mullet

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

“If I offend you, I really don’t care. If I make you think, I really do care,” Leo McCarthy of Butte told Dawson County High School students during a Thursday morning assembly introducing Mariah’s Challenge.

On the night of Oct. 27, 2007, an underage driver who had been drinking struck McCarthy’s daughter Mariah and two of her friends with his pickup as they were walking home along a lighted pathway. She died the following day.

“The guy who murdered Mariah was a cold, calculating bully,” McCarthy said. He changed my life, my wife’s life and my daughter Jenna’s life. He changed a community.”

Recounting the harrowing events of that tragic night, McCarthy described the family’s grief but also noted that the drunk driver responsible for Mariah’s death drove home from the scene and started calling friends asking them to give him an alibi, saying they had been with him when he struck and killed a deer outside of town.

His request was met by click after click as his friends hung up on him, McCarthy said, driving home the point that his friends didn’t care about him when he was in trouble. They only used him as a vehicle for fun. When he looked for someone to stand with him, they all walked away.

Facing his family’s devastating loss, McCarthy searched to find meaning in Mariah’s tragic death and find a way to change the drinking culture in Butte. While giving the eulogy at her funeral, he presented a challenge to Butte students. If they promised not to drink and never drink and drive or to ride in a car with a driver who had been drinking, he would give them a $1,000 scholarship, he said.

Students took him up on the challenge. The Mariah’s Challenge Scholarship fund has given out $300,000 in scholarships and the idea has spread to 40 communities. The challenge gives parents and teens a starting place for talks around the kitchen table, he said.

Conversations around the kitchen table can create bonds of communication. They can change families and communities, he added.

Butte and Glendive have similar cultures, McCarthy said. Both are tough towns with tough people. When he was growing up in Butte driving drunk was a badge of courage, being charged with a minor in possession was sometimes a goal and was often met with a slap on the wrist.

McCarthy’s father was an alcoholic. A brother and sister were decorated Vietnam Veterans who struggled with substance abuse. “I’m not coming from an Ivy school position,” he said. “I was one of you in high school. I had no direction”

While it may be easy for him at 58 to tell teens, “You don’t need to be a follower,” he knows that can be a tough road. His goal is to give teens the belief that they have the right to be themselves. They don’t have to be pushed by social norms, he said.

“I don’t want you to be a faded picture in a hallway,” he told the DCHS students, adding, “You don’t need to go through that phase. If you are doing it now, forgive yourself and go on. You are greater than the situation.”

Be the person who takes away the keys from someone who wants to drive drunk. Be the one who calls parents or friends for a ride home if people have been drinking, he urged, adding, “I’d rather have you lose a friend than gain a tombstone.”

McCarthy’s visit to Glendive was sponsored by the Dawson County DUI Task Force. Information on Mariah’s Challenge can be found at mariahschallenge.com.

Reach Cindy Mullet at
crmullet@midrivers.com

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