News and Events

September 19, 2007 - Students get a lesson behind the wheel.

Oakland Tribune,  Sep 19, 2007  by Aaron Swarts


THE BUSINESS of reading and writing briefly took a back seat Tuesday afternoon at West High School, as students attended a special course of "Reality 101."

The lesson featured no books, no pop quizzes, just the words of two men who hope their story can prevent another accident like the one that claimed the life of West High junior Mike Ucci last January.

"I am the person who killed Cindy and Chelsea Murakami," guest speaker Justin Cabezas told the silent crowd. "It was the result of a decision I made in a split second, which shattered my life and reshaped my future."                   

It was a sunny day in November of 1998, when a 19-year-old Cabezas decided to participate in a illegal street race in Florida, ultimately slamming into a van driven by Cindy Murakami.
The fiery crash claimed the life of Cindy and her daughter Chelsea, who died moments after husband and father Bruce Murakami arrived at the scene of the accident.

"I watched that van burn to the ground," Cabezas said. "At the time I don't think I understood the unimaginable pain that I had caused the Murakami family."

After an extended period of what Bruce Murakami described as a combination of "rage, pain, remorse and ultimately forgiveness" he formed the nonprofit organization Safe Teen Driver, aka "Get Real Behind the Wheel."

"How can I stand up here with the man who killed my wife and daughter?" Murakami asked the students. "Because I knew he could do more good telling his story than sitting in a jail cell. I understand that students don't always listen to adults, but they do listen to each other."

Murakami added that "healing can only begin after forgiveness. And without healing, there can be no moving forward."
Nearly 10 years later, Ken Ucci of Tracy found himself in a hospital room sitting next to the bed of his severally injured daughter and still grieving the loss of his son, who had died in the same accident only days earlier.

On the television was the lastfew minutes of a program featuring the story of Bruce Murakami, and at that moment Ken Ucci knew what he needed to do.

"I tracked him down and we spent the next several months speaking on the phone," Ucci said of his formation of the Tracy chapter of Get Real Behind the Wheel. "Finally having him here in Tracy is a wonderful thing. I think having him speak to the students will go a long way toward rearranging our teens' mindset when it comes to safe driving."

As students left the hour-long presentation, the impact could be seen on their faces.

"It made me cry it was so sad, but the story was also very heartwarming," said Ashlee Brooks, 15. "I really appreciate them coming out here and telling their story. I think it will help remind everyone to be better drivers."

Brian Cummings, 16, agreed.

"That was very informative and extremely moving," he said. "It will be something I think about the next time I get behind the wheel."

Before heading across the country for the next speaking engagement, both Cabezas and Murakami said they were confident their message was well received by the West High students.

"Whenever you break down barriers by telling the real story," Cabezas said. "That is when you really connect with people."
Murakami added that, "we know we have touched them, there is no doubt."

Aaron Swarts can be reached at 209-832-6139 or

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