For Maria Coyner, the scariest part about meeting new people is deciding if she’ll tell them about the night that forever changed her life – and ended the life of a 24-year-old man.
“There are certain things about my life that don’t add up, and there’s gaps in my life,” the 27-year-old said.
There are questions like why she went from studying film production on California’s Central Coast to studying veterinary medicine in Stockton and what happened in between.
“I was incarcerated, or I was too afraid to go outside because I was afraid someone was going to recognize me,” Coyner told hundreds of students during an assembly at Waterford High School on Tuesday.
Coyner spent a combined seven months in prison and county jail for a hit-and-run crash that killed Christopher Tietjen in Nipomo in 2012. She was looking at her phone, texting her then-boyfriend, when her Toyota Prius veered off a country road and hit Tietjen.
It was about 9 p.m. when Coyner was driving home to Nipomo from her job in Pismo Beach, where she worked as a manager at an outlet store.
Coyner knew she hit something, but never saw Tietjen. When she looked back, she didn’t see anything, either. She continued driving.
The next morning, Tietjen’s body was found in the brush along the road.
The Waterford students watched a video of Coyner describing the moment she was arrested and going numb when she learned she’d killed a man.
She stood in front of them and described what her life has been like since: “This is something I think about every single morning when I wake up and every single evening when I go to sleep. The reason I am here today is that I genuinely believe that every one of you can walk out of here and make better choices than I did.”
She asked them to think about the last text message they sent or received and if any of them were worth taking a life.
The text that took Coyner’s eyes off the road simply read: “Are you home yet?”
Coyner speaks to students around California as part of the program Impact Teen Drivers, which in Stanislaus County partners with Doctors Medical Center and the California Highway Patrol to help curb distracted driving.
Waterford was the fifth Stanislaus County high school this year to see the presentation.
Coyner is among other volunteers who tell their personal stories about distracted driving, including an Oakdale mother whose daughter was texting when she crashed and died on Highway 120 in Manteca.
After serving her prison sentence, Coyner returned home to Stockton where she is working as a fitness instructor and going to school full time at San Joaquin Delta College.
She changed her career plans and is studying to be a veterinarian, inspired by fulfilling community service hours working in an animal shelter.
She’s working to improve her life but remains on felony probation and describes her guilt as a “lifetime sentence.”
She told the high school students. “There are triggers and you are always going to brought down to a deep and dark place that you can’t even imagine, and I don’t want you to understand what that is like. The life that I have now I only have because of myself and nobody else, because I made the choices I made.”