"Not too far from where I live there's a sign,” Joe Avila says as he begins his story. "And it says, 'Please do not drink and drive.' And then there's a smaller sign underneath that reads, ‘In honor of Amy Wall.'" Avila pauses briefly before speaking in a firm voice: "Amy Wall was a young lady that I killed in 1992 while driving drunk on the freeway."
It's a shocking statement, but Avila is calm. He explains how that tragic night was an understandable end to his life of alcoholism and addiction. And it took the life of a teenage girl.
After the accident, Avila fled the scene. He does not remember that night, but he remembers what came afterwards; he was booked for second degree murder at the Fresno
County Jail. In the days that followed, he was overcome by what he had done.
"I was just looking for a way to kill myself," he says. "I was afraid, I was angry, [and] I was sad."
Two lives were destroyed the night Joe Avila killed Amy Wall, but God wouldn't let their story end there.
"As God would have it, He put some people in my life who made me understand what reconciliation was and forgiveness was," Avila explains.
Avila checked into a six-month sobriety program with the Salvation Army. A few months into the program, he came to a decision that would impact him, his family, and the Wall family, too. Just before Easter of 1993, he entered the courthouse and changed his plea to "guilty."
The judge had little faith that Avila could be saved from his alcoholism.
"I'm sentencing you to maximum time in prison, which is 12 years," the judge ruled, "and I just hope that you will change."
Avila spent the next seven and a half years behind bars at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, California.
"Amy Wall was a young lady that I killed in 1992 while driving drunk on the freeway."
In prison, Avila spent his time working with hospice patients and serving in the chapel. He shared the Gospel with his fellow prisoners—the highlight of his incarceration. For his last year behind bars, he was transferred to a minimum-security prison where he prepared for release.
On Jan. 6, 1999, Joe Avila went home to his family and friends.
When the weekend arrived, he and his wife discussed attending church on Sunday—their first time together.
New Hope Community Church was waiting to welcome Avila and his family with open arms.
"The pastor had been preparing the congregation for my return for several months," he says.
The oak trees surrounding the church had yellow ribbons around them, and there was a big banner at the entrance that said, "Welcome Home, Joe." When Avila saw this, he knew that New Hope would become his home church, and he's been going ever since.
Not long after Avila's release, his mentor called to say that Amy's brother, Derek, wanted to meet with him. For years Avila had prayed that God would help him reconcile with Amy's family.
That first meeting with Derek was several hours long. Derek told Avila about all the things he and Amy used to do together, how much he loved her, and that he had thought Avila was a monster who should get the electric chair for what he had done. Derek also explained that his family had been following Avila's progress. They knew he was trying to make his life better.
Avila told Derek something he had long wanted to say: "I'm really sorry for what I've done, and I hope that someday you can forgive me."
Not long after that meeting, Avila's mentor called again to say that Rick Wall, Amy's father, wanted to meet with him, too.
"Every one of those trees had a yellow ribbon around it. And there was a big banner at the entrance of the church that said, 'Welcome Home, Joe."
'A TESTAMENT TO THE MIRACLE OF RECONCILIATION'
Avila had a long meeting with Rick. Rick told him about the two days a year when he visits Amy's grave—on her birthday and the anniversary of her death.
During that meeting, something miraculous occurred.
"Rick Wall, Amy's father, forgave me before I even asked him to forgive me," Avila says. Rick told him, "Joe, I know what you've been doing for a long time now, even when you were in prison, and I approve of it."
Avila's prayers for reconciliation were being answered.
He next met with Amy's mom, who asked him to watch a three-hour video of Amy's life before their meeting.
"I really got to know Amy that night," he says, "and how precious she was and what a tragedy happened when I took her life."
Avila admits it was painful to seek forgiveness from the Walls, but he knew God could use the situation for His glory if he did.
His relationship with the Wall family continued to grow, and both Avila and Derek were asked to participate in a Restorative Justice Council event in front of hundreds of people.
That night, Amy's father approached Avila, hugged him, and said, "I love you, Joe." Years later, Rick's actions and words still affect Avila.
"I killed his daughter," he says, his voice thick with emotion, "and he was able to give me a hug and say 'I love you.' And that is a true testament to the miracle of reconciliation and why Christ did die on the cross."
"I killed his daughter, and he was able to give me a hug and say, 'I love you.'"
'I COULD DO THE TIME OR LIVE MY LIFE'
Joe Avila has not let his second chance at life go to waste. Instead, he's found a way to give back.
A year after his release, Prison Fellowship® hired him, and he's now the regional director for the western United States. For 17 years, he has faithfully served the incarcerated and their families, investing in them as others have invested in him.
Avila has remained active in New Hope Community Church, serving as an elder, and with his wife as Angel Tree® coordinators.
Avila says he changed his life for one reason: "I wanted to honor my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and at the same time I wanted to honor Amy and her life. I wanted to make sure that her life was worth something ... and it was."
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