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Drunk driver's road to redemption 20 years later

Julie Buckner, 18, was killed in 2002 when a drunk driver speeding the wrong way on I-275 in Tampa hit her car head-on.

TAMPA, Fla. — Nov. 23 marks 20 years since the lives of two families were changed forever.

John Templeton Jr. was driving drunk the wrong way on Interstate 275 in Tampa when he hit and killed 18-year-old Julie Buckner.

Two decades later, 10 Tampa Bay reporter Liz Crawford talked with John about his journey over the last 20 years and Julie's sister about the power of forgiveness.

A night of drinking

The early morning hours of Nov. 23, 2002, still haunt Templeton.  After a heavy night of drinking with buddies reunited for Thanksgiving break, the then 19-year-old college sophomore got behind the wheel and ended up driving the wrong way on I-275.

"I woke up handcuffed to a hospital gurney," Templeton explained, who also saidhe doesn't remember anything after being in the club in Ybor City.

A state trooper delivered the message while he lay in the hospital bed.

"I became somebody that day that took a life of another human being," he recalled.

Julie Buckner, 18, was driving the car he hit. She was killed instantly.

Credit: Jennifer Mallan

Julie left behind her parents, grandparents, siblings, a large extended family and friends.

Her older sister, Jennifer Mallan, remembers getting a hysterical call from her grandmother. In disbelief, Mallan decided to go to the crash scene that night.

"I could see the white sheet and I said, 'I have to be able to see her,'" Mallan said, who recalled the state trooper urging her not to look at Julie's body but allowing her to see her long, brown hair.

"When I saw her hair, I knew it was her."

The unlikely path

Templeton said the next few days and weeks were agonizing.

"I felt like I wanted to die. I felt like I didn't deserve to live. I kept thinking about this family getting this call at this time of night," Templeton explained.

This story could end here but in the weeks following the crash, two families linked by the unthinkable took an unlikely path.

Against the advice of their attorney, John's parents went to Julie's funeral. Days later, John faced Julie's sister for the first time.

Mallan remembers her faith in God led her to this thought:

"You can forgive him now or you can forgive him later but you have to forgive him."

The Julie Buckner legacy

And so a new story was born.

Through tears 20 years later, Templeton said, "To bestow that forgiveness on me, I think that really gave me an internal purpose, probably turned a light on that was turned off."

He could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison, however, at the request of Julie's family, the judge was lenient and went against Florida guidelines. Templeton did 10 months in prison followed by years of speaking engagements telling Julie's story to youth groups and students.

"It was from a speaking engagement he did and all the inmates wrote a letter about how it changed their life, and they sent it to me. I thought this is what keeps her memory alive," Mallan said.

In 2008, Templeton opened Footprints Beachside Recovery, an addiction treatment center where he estimates they've helped roughly 900 people on a path to sobriety. Nov. 23, 2022, marks 20 years sober for John who took his last sip of alcohol that night in Ybor City before the crash.

To this day, Templeton keeps a picture of Buckner in his wallet. She would have been 38 years old.

"I just can't picture the day where I take it out my wallet and it doesn't belong there anymore," he said.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

While Mallan says the pain of losing her sister is still there, Templeton's integrity over the years and commitment to helping others gives her hope.

Two decades later, the story of Julie Buckner lives on. It's a story of forgiveness, healing and redemption.

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