Jail, wheelchair, wake-up

Jail, wheelchair, wake-up

It was the wake-up call he says he needed. Despite drink-driving and getting away with it before, one early morning in 2007, life changed forever for Mark Walsham and Theo Joos.

Mark would spend time in jail while Theo will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. And four years on, Mark can’t believe his mates still make the decision to drink and drive.

AISHA DOW reports.

THE first thing Mark Walsham remembers after the crash was hanging upside down in the wreck of his four-wheel-drive.

His car had rolled four times while he was drunk, driving home from an early morning fishing trip.

His first thought: “How am I going to get out of this?”.

Then he looked across to the passenger seat and saw the empty space where his mate Theo Joos should have been.

“It was a real eerie feeling,” he remembers.

“I knew he wouldn’t have left me.

“I just didn’t know what was going on but I knew I would find Theo wherever he was.”

He discovered Theo lying face down in a paddock, five metres away.

He had been thrown from the Daihatsu Feroza.

At first Mark thought he was sleeping. He was making the same snoring noises he would after he had been drinking. But he could not be woken.

“I wanted him to get up so we could go home,” Mark said.

“But soon it became pretty clear that he wasn’t going to get up and we weren’t going to go home.”

Theo remained in a coma for five days and three weeks later doctors declared he would never walk again.

BOTH Theo and Mark had gotten behind the wheel while drunk before and we’d “always gotten away with it”.

Mark had even toppled his car but they simply righted the vehicle and motored off unhurt.

At the time of the September 2007 crash, Theo’s licence has been disqualified for 14 months after he was caught drink-driving, one of the reasons Mark took the wheel with a blood-alcohol reading of at least .157.

They had begun drinking about 10.30pm the night before at Mark’s home in Thurgoona.

“We just drank until the early hours of the morning and then thought we’d go fishing,” Mark remembered.

“We never thought it would come to an end like it did.

“Driving back at six o’clock in the morning it all went bad.”

About five kilometres from home, Mark lost control of the vehicle after being spooked by something he thought he saw on the road side.

After swerving across the road, the car skidded across both lanes of Old Sydney Road, north of the Kinross Hotel, before hitting a ditch.

This time the car was written off.

AS someone with not even a speeding fine to his name, Mark never imagined he would be sent to jail.

But he was later arrested for aggravated dangerous driving when under the influence causing grievous bodily harm.

His solicitor said he was looking at almost three years in jail.

In the end he spent 10 months behind bars, after Theo’s family asked the judge not to send him to prison.

Mark said his hardest days in custody were in the week he spent in the Albury holding cells before his sentencing.

He was bought there in the suit he wore to court and had the same lunch and dinner — a pie and sausage roll — for five days in a row.

“It was hell,” Mark said.

“You’re stuck there. You can’t see daylight. I seriously wouldn’t let my dog stay there.”

Initially, Mark was adamant he didn’t deserve to be locked up.

But looking back he says needed the reality check to “wake up” and “grow up”.

“For me it was the best thing that could have happened,” he said.

“But for other people it can be a bad thing because there’s so much opportunity to become a worse person in there.”

In jail he saw a man get stabbed but said the hardest thing was being away from his family and friends, including Theo, who is still a close friend, and his girlfriend, who stuck by him.

“For people with nothing to lose, it’s somewhere to live,” Mark said.

“But if you have family it’s the worst place in the world.”

MORE than four years after the crash, Mark wonders what it would have taken for him to “snap out” of his reckless, heavy drinking ways, if not the crash.

“Would it have taken me dying? Theo dying? Another one of our mates dying?” he asked.

He knows from his own experience how stupid young men can be and is not sure it is possible to shake their stubborn sense of invincibility.

But it still hurts when he hears of mates getting caught drink-driving.

“It disrespects my family, because they have seen what my family have gone through.

“They’ve seen what I’ve gone through, what Theo has had to go through, so there’s only so much you can say.

“It’s like being shot by a gun and standing in front of it again.”