The idea of befriending the person responsible for a loved one's death might sound outrageous — but that was the approach taken by a Michigan woman whose brother was killed by a drunken driver.
Julie Attard said she wanted something positive to come from the loss of her brother, who died 3 ½ years ago when his motorcycle was hit by a car. That car was driven by Emily Coombs, who admits she was drunk at the time.
But Attard and Coombs are not enemies. They forged a friendship out of the tragedy and are now campaigning to combat drunken driving.
A Family’s Loss
Attard's brother, Kevin Perry, was a maintenance worker and a devoted single father of four. On Dec.5, 2001, he kissed his children goodnight and took off on his motorcycle to answer a routine call to fix an indoor swimming pool.
He never made it. Perry was struck by Coombs' car. He suffered multiple injuries and was pronounced dead the next day, just a few months shy of his 40th birthday.
Coombs told ABC News' Good Morning America the accident occurred after a night out spent bowling and drinking with friends. She said she didn't see the motorcyclist as he was dressed in dark colors, and it was 11:30 p.m. so the road was also darkened.
"I left the bowling alley and I was intoxicated and I struck and hit Kevin," said Coombs.
Coombs had alcohol in her system and admits that at the time her problem with drinking was "progressively getting worse." She said when she realized she had hit someone it was "horrible."
Coombs was later sentenced to nine months in prison for the fatal accident. She served six months.
An Offer of Friendship
While grieving for her brother's death, Attard would find an unlikely friend.
Attard and Coombs regularly attended the same 16,000-member church. Coombs went to a service two days before her sentencing for what would be a rare encounter.
"I approached her and I touched her shoulder and … I confirmed who she was," said Attard. "She said, 'Yes, I'm Emily Coombs.' I just took her hand and I said, 'My name is Julie Attard … Kevin Perry was my brother.' She put her head down and cried."
They continued to talk and Attard said she believes their encounter was no coincidence, describing it as "a God thing."
"And I said, 'I don't hate you,' " said Attard. "'I forgive you … I want good things to come from this.' "
For Coombs, the meeting was very different from what she would have expected in meeting the sister of the man she had killed.
"She hugged me three times. She brushed my hair off my shoulders and she was so awesome to me. I couldn't believe it," said Coombs. "I'm like, 'I must be in church. I mean, she could be so nice to me, she didn't punch me.' "
Attard said that even though Coombs was responsible for her brother's death, it was not an "effort" to offer such kindness.
"I know that God just placed that in my heart," said Attard. "I tell people if I believe, that God forgave me for my sins, who am I not to forgive her when she asked for forgiveness? And I know he forgave her. She's not committing the same sin over and over."
Attard then decided to join with Coombs to tell their story to others with drinking problems, to try and prevent other drunken driving accidents.
Coombs has been sober for two years, and said she has a simple message to pass on. "Alcohol and drugs can get out of control," said Coombs. "I was just a normal everyday person going to work … but I did have a problem with drinking. It can happen."
And Attard believes their efforts are reaching some of the people who come to listen. "There are the people that get it. That is why we do this," she said.