Last summer Matthew Cordle drove drunk the wrong way on a highway in Ohio, killing another driver. With the help of a charismatic, entrepreneurial do-gooder, Cordle admitted his guilt in a YouTube video that 2.6 million people watched — but where is the line between personal contrition and public spectacle?
Vincent Canzani spent most of his evenings at Easton Town Center, an upscale outdoor shopping mall that seems like a great idea from April to October in Columbus, Ohio, and a less great idea the rest of the year. The routine began when Canzani managed a tire shop — he’d close down the store in the evening, then head to a cigar shop at Easton called the Tinder Box. With an iPad in one hand and a cigar in the other, Canzani would park himself in the shop’s lounge or sit on the adjacent patio at Fadó, an Irish pub. After quitting Mr. Tire, this little corner became Canzani’s second home. He came by five or six days a week and even picked up a shift selling cigars one day a week. An avid photographer, he took portraits of employees and shot various events at the shop.
It was a warm night on June 21, 2013. Canzani was shooting the breeze with fellow Tinder Box employee Todd Gordish. After Gordish closed the shop at 10 p.m., he and Canzani walked over to Easton’s movie theater to catch an action flick. They made plans to go to a Columbus Clippers baseball game the next day, then parted ways around 12:30 a.m. Canzani wasn’t ready to go home quite yet, probably because “home” had become indefinable. Ever since moving back to Columbus from northern Ohio after his marriage of 10 years ended in 2012, his birthplace felt like a different town.
Starting over at 61 wasn’t easy. Canzani was an only child. He rarely saw his two daughters from previous marriages. His father, Joseph Canzani, well known in the community for his 46-year tenure as president of the Columbus College of Art & Design, died five years back, and Vince lost his mother in the ’80s. His friends Butch and Janice Thompson had lent him a room rent-free for a while, but Canzani had moved out that week. There were no hard feelings, though — when Canzani went by earlier in the day to pick up some of his stuff, Butch, a fellow Navy veteran and Canzani’s friend for more than 50 years, told him he loved him, that he’d always be his brother. “I’ll be back,” Canzani told them. “You’ll see me.”
Canzani was lost. He didn’t know where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do. But even if no one was around to hang out, there were worse things than enjoying a cigar on the patio to wind down the summer solstice. Fortunately when he meandered over to Fadó in the first hour of June 22, Canzani spotted Tinder Box manager Steve Crain on the patio and pulled up a chair. Some other regulars joined them. Canzani told Crain he was staying with a friend on the west side, and he was happy with the new living arrangement. After a couple of Diet Cokes (Canzani stayed away from alcohol other than the occasional amaretto), he closed down Fadó around 2:30 a.m. before heading to his car, a tan Jeep he purchased with money some friends loaned him.
As he headed west on I-670 near 4th Street downtown, he saw something that must have confused him: the headlights of a white Toyota Tundra going east in the westbound lanes, coming right at him. Those headlights were likely the last thing Canzani saw.
June 21, 2013, was a Friday. Matthew Cordle lived for the weekends, but not because he was holding down a stressful, demanding job. After graduating from Dublin Jerome High School in 2009, he joined the Army Reserve but received a general discharge in 2011 after shirking drills and duties. He tried community college and spent a semester at Ohio University in Athens. For a time, Cordle, 22, sold cars and brokered cash-for-gold deals in and around Columbus. Last spring, his main responsibility was taking care of his aging grandparents, but that wasn’t going so well either. On weekends he would come home late, drunk, his white Toyota Tundra pickup pockmarked with dents he couldn’t explain the next day.
Cordle was lost. He didn’t know where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do. But for a few hours on those weekend nights he could forget all that. Usually he and a few of his buddies would meet up at a friend’s place near the Ohio State University campus. This particular Friday in June was the first day of summer, and they reserved a table at Bar Louie downtown. Cordle would have to meet them there — he began the night at his aunt’s house in the suburb of Hilliard, where his family was celebrating his 12-year-old cousin’s birthday. Cordle left for Bar Louie around 10:30 p.m. He told his family he was going home.
After settling the tab at Bar Louie, the group walked a block to Park Street Cantina, a Mexican restaurant with a tequila bar and dance floor. As the night progressed, the friends began to meander and disperse. A couple of guys got a cab around 1 a.m. Others got a cab later and assumed Cordle would do the same. He didn’t.
Alex Sheen’s feet were throbbing. He wore running shoes, a neon green compression sleeve over his sore ankles, and two white knee braces. In mesh gym shorts and a white T-shirt, he looked younger than his 28 years. On the night of June 21, Sheen stretched out on the sidewalk in Lexington, Ohio, 78 miles from his goal of 2207 Seymour Ave. in Cleveland — the house where Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were held captive and sexually abused by Ariel Castro for almost 10 years. The tragedy quite literally hit close to home for Sheen — he lived just six miles from that house. The women escaped to freedom on his birthday, and two days later Sheen decided he would dedicate a 10-day, 240-mile walk across Ohio to victims of sexual violence. He would do this through a nonprofit he founded the previous fall and named because I said I would, an organization inspired by Sheen’s father, who died of lung cancer in 2012. Sheen and his volunteers mail promise cards — white business cards, blank except for “because I said I would.” in the bottom right corner — free of charge to anyone who wants to make a promise, write it down, and keep that promise.
Sheen was filled with purpose. He knew exactly where he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. Yet there were moments on the walk that Sheen wondered if he’d made a stupid promise. (When speaking about because I said I would, he stresses the importance of achievable promises.) Before this walk across an entire state, the farthest he’d ever traveled on foot was about 10 miles. The previous day gave him a boost as he walked through his former hometown of Powell and delivered a speech at his old high school. But by June 21, day 7 of 10, the physical strain was taxing. He got a late start that day and was rewarded with a bee sting. He walked all day, sweating and hydrating and munching on Clif Bars. Sheen’s stepsister joined him for 15 miles, and around 9 p.m. he stopped just past his checkpoint in Lexington in front of a park with go-karts, mini golf, and batting cages. Staring at his feet, he waited for because I said I would chief volunteer Amanda Messer to pick him up in a maroon conversion van and take him to a nearby hotel.
Each night Sheen gave his legs an ice bath, even though the last thing he wanted to do was stick his tired legs in painfully cold water. This evening, Sheen’s room only had a shower stall, so he couldn’t fill a tub with ice. The hotel’s outdoor spigot was locked, and the confused hotel staffers were unsuccessful in their attempts to unlock it. So Sheen and Messer lugged a plastic garbage bin to his room, put it in his shower stall, dumped in some ice from the machine down the hall, and filled it with water up to his waist. It was agony, but he believed his legs and feet needed the ice bath to complete the promise, and completing the promise was everything. Sheen said he would do it, so he did.
Keeping a promise seems simple, but the concept was growing his organization. People around the country were taking notice. Steve Harvey had Sheen on his show and because I said I would made the front page of Reddit multiple times. Sheen’s walk across Ohio got some media coverage, but nothing like the exposure his nonprofit would get a few months later from a video titled “I killed a man.” In it, a young man with face and voice obscured explains how he went out drinking with some friends, then got in his truck and went the wrong way on the highway. Then, surprisingly, the image de-pixelates to reveal the young man’s face. “My name is Matthew Cordle,” he says in his true voice, “and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani.” He speaks for another three or so minutes, contritely and gravely, and ends by pleading to the camera, “I’m begging you. Please don’t drink and drive.”
The video went viral within 48 hours. Media outlets all over the world ran snippets and went on to cover Cordle’s trial. Some praised Cordle for his honesty while Sheen and legions of admirers were proud of his promise to take responsibility and squeeze something positive out of a tragedy. Others were suspicious of the fanfare and attention and thought the video was at best a stab at self-mythologizing and at worst a bald attempt to manipulate the system. Why not just apologize to the family and turn himself in rather than use his crime to make a point and Sheen’s over-the-top altruism as a platform? In Sheen and Cordle’s view, it was the right thing to do. But even doing the right thing can rub some the wrong way.
The first thing Cordle remembered after the crash was the feeling of cold air hitting his legs. Trauma nurses at Grant Medical Center were cutting off his clothes, examining his wounds. After hitting Canzani’s Jeep, Cordle’s truck had flipped over, burning his left arm and fracturing his skull in two spots. He was groggy, but the fractures and bleeding around his brain were giving him intense pain and pressure in his head. His arm felt like it was on fire. The room reeked of gasoline.
Hospital staff informed police, who had followed the emergency squad to the hospital, that Cordle was “very, very drunk.” The cops asked him if he knew what happened, but Cordle didn’t know he’d been in an accident. He didn’t even realize he’d been driving. They told him about what happened, and that he was responsible for the death of another person. Cordle became irate, yelling, “I didn’t kill anyone!” He refused a blood sample, but police procured a search warrant to take the sample. (Analysis later revealed his blood alcohol content to be .191, more than double Ohio’s legal limit of .08. An autopsy revealed “no relevant substances” in Canzani’s blood.)
Someone at the hospital called Cordle’s father, Dave Cordle, who had left for a North Carolina vacation that day. (He declined to speak on the record for this story.) Cordle’s mother lives in Nevada, so Dave phoned his daughter Sarah Alasya and her husband, Ilker, around 4 a.m. to explain what happened. She asked her father if Matt was OK. He said he was in critical condition. She asked who he hit. He didn’t know. She asked if the person was OK. No, he said, the person died. Sarah wanted more details, but there weren’t many. She couldn’t bring herself to ask one question out loud yet: Was alcohol involved?
A social worker greeted Sarah and Ilker at the hospital, followed by two police officers who explained that alcohol, indeed, was involved. At the time, Sarah was put off by the officers’ cold demeanor. Looking back, she understands their curtness. After speaking to the cops, she entered her brother’s room with the social worker while Ilker stayed in the hall. “He was a mess — screaming, crying. He was covered in blood and gas,” she says. “I was like, ‘Are you sure he’s OK? He doesn’t look like he’s going to be OK. He looks like he’s dying.’ I’m very grateful my parents didn’t see that.”
Eventually Cordle’s indignant cry of “I didn’t kill anyone!” changed to despairing cries of “I killed someone!” Sarah, 28 at the time, didn’t know whether to punch him or hug him. The more Sarah and the cops spoke to Cordle, the more agitated he got. His blood pressure spiked, and the nurses made everyone leave the room. An hour or two later, Cordle’s other two sisters — Paige and Grace, 21 and 24 at the time, respectively — joined Sarah and Ilker and went to see Matt in the ICU. When he saw his little sister crying, Cordle burst into tears. The reality began to sink in — it wasn’t a nightmare. He kept asking who he killed, but no one at the hospital could tell him until the victim’s family had been notified. That morning and all the next day Cordle told his family he wished he’d never woken up.
After Cordle recovered from the burn on his arm, two skull fractures, and some broken ribs, the hospital released him. He stayed at Sarah and Ilker’s German Village condo for two weeks, along with his mother, Kari Cordle, who flew in from Nevada. Kari took care of him while the family spoke to lawyers and wondered what to do next. They expected him to be taken away in handcuffs any day, but he wasn’t.
Cordle was terrified. Three or four prominent Columbus attorneys told him the same thing: We’ll do our best to get the blood test thrown out. If they could do that, they could undercut the prosecution’s case. The attorneys were careful with their words, but Cordle knew that to get the best deal, he’d have to lie.
When he was well enough, Cordle retreated to a house his grandparents own on the Scioto River in Delaware County, northwest of Columbus. The river house had always been his sanctuary. It was the perfect place to lie low and wait, except that out there he was alone with his thoughts — thoughts that were dominated by crushing guilt, made worse by a depression Cordle had struggled with since he was 13, not coincidentally the year he started drinking. The severity of the melancholy varied, but it was always there, threatening to take over completely. The guilt, depression, and accompanying insomnia were leading him to suicidal thoughts.
Cordle’s friends would come by now and then to get him out of the house and provide some human interaction. They’d take him to a movie, hit some balls at a driving range, or play a nine-hole disc golf course at Balgriffin Park. “His depression had us worried,” says Philip Bardos, a friend of Cordle’s who was with him the night of the crash. “After something like that happens, you don’t know how somebody’s gonna take it. I can’t imagine being the person to have done something like that.”
Per recommendation from lawyers, Cordle enrolled in a two-week partial hospitalization program at Dublin Springs, a nearby mental health and addiction treatment center. His dad picked him up every morning for the program’s eight-hour sessions. But Cordle wasn’t benefiting from the program as much as he could have. Lawyers had advised him not to talk in group settings because prosecutors could later subpoena someone. He couldn’t say what happened, when it happened, or why it happened. Everything he wanted to talk about he couldn’t talk about. It was then he began to realize the route he was taking was wrong.
One night at the river house, Cordle was as close to insane as he’d ever felt. The guilt overwhelmed him, and he didn’t know how to face it. For some reason he fell asleep easily that night, and when he woke up, he knew he had to plead guilty. He couldn’t take back what happened on June 22, but he had some control over what happened next. It was the first time he’d felt any peace since the crash. Cordle told Sarah about his decision at a Mexican restaurant soon after. “He was so sure and so confident,” she says. “It was like a weight had been lifted off of him. He was happier, not as anxious. I remember he came and told my dad and my grandparents, ‘I’m going to tell them what happened from what I know, and I’ll let the judge decide and just take it. I’m the one who has to live with it.’”
His family hired attorneys Martin Midian and George Breitmayer to represent him. Cordle knew he could trust Breitmayer, a friend of Sarah’s from high school, with his decision to plead guilty. But deciding to admit fault didn’t bring the cops any sooner — about two months after the night of the crash, he was still waiting. Cordle didn’t realize that after police received the lab results on his blood, prosecutors later requested a drug screening (it came back negative) that further extended the lab time. Plus the toxicology report from Canzani’s autopsy could take up to six weeks. (When asked about the delay, Franklin County prosecutor Ron O’Brien says there was no reason to believe Cordle was a flight risk, and police were awaiting the forensic reports, so the delay in charging him was not unusual or lengthy.)
Cordle knew what he wanted to do. His attorneys knew what he wanted to do. But he couldn’t do it yet. Still, he felt like he had to do something. Recently Cordle had begun following a nonprofit on Facebook that was started by fellow Ohioan Alex Sheen. He knew about Sheen’s walk across Ohio and that, as featured on Steve Harvey’s show, Sheen had sent a bunch of kids with cancer to Disneyland. Cordle watched some of Sheen’s videos and thought he seemed like a genuine guy who wasn’t looking for notoriety or wealth. So on Aug. 9, Cordle messaged because I said I would on Facebook asking for help.
“I was looking for a mentor, a guide,” Cordle says now. “I wanted to do something to make this better, but I didn’t know what to do. I was real lost. If he told me to jump, I wouldn’t even say how high, I’d just jump as high as I could.”
I visited Alex Sheen back in November at the first because I said I would headquarters in Rocky River, Ohio, a tony suburb west of Cleveland. Crammed into a one-room office are Sheen, part-timer Christine Culbertson, and chief volunteer Amanda Messer, who previously worked with Sheen at a software firm but quit so she could work a less lucrative job located in the same office suite as because I said I would; the hope was that the nonprofit would eventually have enough money to convert her volunteer position into a full-time one.
The office is overflowing with outgoing shipments of promise cards in USPS bulk bins, T-shirts sorted by size and color on a stackable plastic storage system wedged in a corner, two computers, desks, office chairs. Sheen and Culbertson pass a USB cable back and forth to use the printer. All my attempts to not be in the way prove futile. The whiteboard on the wall is covered in tasks and reminders (“add Digg like widget to blog post,” “check shirt shipment”). Letters with special meanings are framed on the walls. A small bookcase is filled mostly with books relating to entrepreneurs (Influencer) and nonprofits (Leap of Reason). A container of muscle-building powder sits next to Sheen, who, judging by his build, seems to focus mostly on bicep workouts. He’s wearing black sweatpants and a black because I said I would T-shirt.
In front of Sheen are two computer monitors, one of which usually displays his calendar. Sheen spends much of his time monitoring the nonprofit’s social media accounts and promise card orders, some of which are accompanied by backstories about meth addiction, alcoholic parents, smokers, teachers and their students, etc. In between the monitors is a wooden, rough-hewn business card holder with Sheen’s promise of the week. In 2013, Sheen made good on his commitment to complete 52 promises in 52 weeks. Almost all were drawn at random. This week happens to be “I will watch Gone with the Wind for the first time.” Sheen couldn’t believe the movie was, in fact, four hours long and that “the people you’re supposed to sympathize with own slaves.”
That morning Sheen discovered he’d mistakenly scheduled a haircut in the afternoon and had to cancel it since he’d promised we could hang out for most of the day. “I’ll think about that for two days,” he says. “It bugs me. I hate it. I think about Carla. Maybe she had to deny someone else an appointment for that day and time, and now what? Because I couldn’t stick with it she missed out on $20 of income? I called as early as I could, but I could have approached it differently, I’m sure.”
Sheen’s life is now focused entirely on the power of a promise. His father, Wei Min “Al” Sheen, came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1974 at age 17. The airline lost his luggage, so he started with $400 in his pocket. Al graduated high school, met Sheen’s mother waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant, and eventually got a degree in pharmacy from the University of Toledo, followed by an MBA from Ohio State University. He got a job at a hospital pharmacy during the week, then picked up shifts at retail pharmacies on the weekends. “My dad was a hustler,” Sheen says. On July 4, 2011, he was diagnosed with inoperable small cell lung cancer, stage 4. He died on Sept. 4, 2012.
Sheen was tasked with delivering his father’s eulogy and wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never thought much about it when his father was alive, but now it became so obvious: If his father said he would do something, he did it. No matter what. “My dad would get upset very quickly,” Sheen says. “After he died ,I started to realize that a lot of his frustration came from other people not doing what they say they’re gonna do.” Sheen titled his eulogy “because I said I would,” and he handed out promise cards, encouraging his father’s mourners to fill one out and give it to somebody. When the promise is fulfilled, the card is returned and kept as a reminder that you are a person who keeps your word. From there, Sheen made a because I said I would Facebook page so his friends and family could share their stories, and also because he had a few hundred extra promise cards he wanted to give away. Maybe he could convince more people to be the best part of what his dad was. The page grew. Soon people he didn’t know began sharing promise stories and requesting cards. Sheen got in touch with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch. Both ran stories, and other media outlets followed.
Meanwhile, Sheen was rising through the ranks at his day job with Hyland Software, which is headquartered just west of Cleveland and boasts on-site daycare and a massage spa. In January, Fortune named it one of the best 100 companies to work for. Sheen started at Hyland after graduating from Ohio University in 2008, and within a couple years he was one of the youngest managers at the company in a role he created with the CEO.
“I had immense pride working at Hyland,” says Sheen. “I worked my ass off trying to get there. I was just turning 27 when I started as corporate strategy lead. When I was innovation manager, in the office of the CEO, I’m like 24, 25. I was proud they trusted me enough to put me in those positions. The person they hired as the other corporate strategy lead had an undergrad from Yale and an MBA from Harvard. I felt good.”
It’s clear Sheen’s time at Hyland had a profound effect on the way he manages his nonprofit. You can hear it in the way he speaks. He’ll quickly self-correct after referring to supporters as “customers” or describing the “value” of a promise card instead of its meaning. He uses the SMART mnemonic device to break down the components of a good promise (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound). “It’s corporate crap,” he says, “but super meaningful.”
As satisfied as he was at Hyland, Sheen felt more and more compelled to dedicate all his time to his nonprofit as it picked up steam. He didn’t know how to tell his boss Brenda Kirk, but when he received an anonymous handwritten letter on his desk in February 2013, he read it, cried, and knew all he would have to do is show her this letter. Part of it read, “There have been lots of times where I didn’t think life was worth living. … I am getting stronger every day, and a lot of that strength comes from the few promise cards I have written.”
Sheen showed it to Kirk. “She pulls the letter out of the envelope, unfolds it, reads it for maybe 15 seconds,” Sheen told an audience at a TEDx talk last fall. “She looks up at me and says, ‘Alex, uh, this letter. I don’t know how you got it. But this letter is from my daughter… It’s her handwriting. These are the envelopes on our kitchen table. This is about her.’”
“My daughter’s not very different from a lot of teenagers in that the conflict of the day feels like a mountain they can’t get over,” Kirk says now. “Something as simple as a tiny business card gave her the inspiration to look at life a little differently.”
Sheen’s persona and organization may seem a little too good to be true at first blush. It was hard not to imagine the relationship between Sheen and Cordle as exploitative, especially given Sheen’s marketing prowess, polished speeches, and an overall gung-ho attitude that seemed to walk the line between holy and holier-than-thou. Plus, who was bankrolling this operation?
When Sheen started because I said I would he was living off his savings, hoping that at some point sending free cards to supporters would earn himself and Messer a living wage. Messer, a single mom, explains she’s similarly motivated by the power of promises, but for different reasons. “I have the opposite experience of Alex,” she says. “My dad is an alcoholic and drug addict. He never keeps his promises.”
The nonprofit shared its Rocky River office with the Morino Institute, a philanthropic venture that gave them the space rent-free. (Because I said I would recently relocated to a larger storefront in Lakewood, Ohio.) The videos on the YouTube channel are not monetized; merchandise sales, speaking engagements, and donations are the only means by which Sheen’s nonprofit brings in money. Donations account for only about 5% of the incoming money. In November Sheen was waiting on a pledged $25,000 (by far the largest donation in the nonprofit’s history), which, when it came, allowed Sheen to hire Messer, his first full-time employee. For a while the media exposure was costing more than it was bringing in — sure, Steve Harvey donated $5,000, but that money was immediately spent fulfilling promise card orders that came as a result his appearance on the show. The hope is that as awareness of the organization grows, the supporter base will grow, and of those supporters some will become motivated enough by because I said I would’s mission that they’ll buy some T-shirts.
When Sheen received the Facebook message from Cordle on Aug. 9, he responded right away, and the two began talking on the phone. Sheen knew Cordle had a powerful story, but he didn’t know his character. They talked, then talked some more. Phone calls. Skype. As he got to know him better, Sheen decided to test Cordle’s reliability by having him do something completely arbitrary: He told Cordle to record a video blog about anything for seven days straight, and it had to be uploaded by 6 p.m. to a private blog that only Sheen could access. Cordle passed that test. Eventually, Sheen was convinced of Cordle’s sincerity. He believed Cordle was overcome with guilt, that he would plead guilty and that he wanted something good to come out of this tragedy. Sheen laid down two ground rules: 1. They would be completely honest with each other, and 2. Cordle will not directly profit from this. No book deals or movie deals, which would amount to profiting from a man’s death. Once Sheen knew he could trust Cordle, the two became close friends. “I don’t have a connection with anyone else quite like I do with Matt,” Sheen says.
But there was something that kept bugging Sheen, something he couldn’t get his mind around. He was risking all of because I said I would on Matthew Cordle. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why is he willing to do this?’” Sheen says. “You’re depressed. You’re 22 years old, already not living a great life. You drink and drive and kill someone. Now you’re going to jail. If you thought at all before that you wanted to kill yourself, that series of events is going to push you a little harder … So I called him and said, ‘This may sound weird, but you have to promise me you won’t kill yourself.’ He said he wouldn’t.”
“I hadn’t mentioned anything about it, but that’s the way I was feeling,” Cordle says. “I don’t know how he could see it. In such a short time he was able to understand so much about me. We became a lot closer than I thought possible between two people.”
Eventually Cordle and Sheen agreed the best way to make an impact and raise awareness about drunk driving was to share Cordle’s story as a cautionary tale. The “how” question was tricky because the stakes were so high. Yes, Sheen was risking his nonprofit, but Cordle was risking legal complications and possibly more time in prison. He and Sheen informed Breitmayer, Cordle’s attorney, about the video before recording it, and Breitmayer strongly advised Cordle to do nothing of the sort, especially before he had been charged. Sheen struggled with that tension. “How do you give someone advice when you don’t have to serve time in prison?” he says. “Even if he is guilty, how do you say, ‘Yeah, you should do this,’ when you know your nonprofit is going to further itself on it? You can’t deny that.”
The now-famous “I killed a man” video was only half of the original plan. The original plan was to sit Cordle on the sidewalk in front of the bars on Park Street where he was drinking the night he killed Canzani. Next to him would be a sign with text similar to what ultimately ended up in the video, explaining his guilt and pleading to the public not to drink and drive. Cordle would take a vow of silence, and other than trips to the bathroom, he would sit on his square of concrete for five days or until he was charged and arrested, whichever came first. Then when people visited becauseisaidiwould.com/saveyourvictim, they’d see the video.
The last week of August, Sheen, along with a videographer, went to the river house to meet Cordle face-to-face for the first time. Cordle and Sheen worked on the script, then cleared the couches and TV out of the living room to set up for the shoot. With the lighting rig and camera equipment, it was more gear than Cordle anticipated. But Sheen knew it had to look good if it was going to spread. Cordle wore khaki cargo shorts and a dark shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing his tattoos and the burn mark on his left hand.
He went through a few takes but felt like he couldn’t get it. Cordle is monotone when he speaks; that video is about as animated as he gets. He was frustrated, especially when he knew how well Sheen could deliver a spoken message (a skill he honed at Hyland). But after a certain take, Sheen said, “That’s it.” Cordle didn’t think it was any different or better than the others. He felt like he needed to do more. But he trusted Sheen’s judgment.
On other because I said I would videos, like the one he made before his walk across Ohio, Sheen gave his videographers and editors a lot of creative freedom. But for this one, he had a specific storyboard in mind. His video guys told him to keep it to two minutes, but he didn’t. They wanted to shorten the beginning, and they questioned Sheen’s decision to title it “I killed a man.” The video’s pixelated first half, the music, it’s exactly what Sheen wanted. “You need to not actually like this guy,” he told them. “You need to question what this video is about. It’s gonna take a sec. But once one person watches this to the end, they will convince other people to watch it to the end.”
Sheen was still fearful of the legal ramifications for Cordle. He wanted to be 100% sure this was the route Cordle wanted to take. “My fear was that he would hate himself and he would hate me,” Sheen says. “I wanted to do what I could to make sure he got it: ‘This isn’t a game. You’re going to get slammed. You could easily go at this another way, Matt. And it’ll be fine. You can serve your sentence. You can say you’re sorry. You’re not going to convince as many people not to drink and drive, but you can do what everyone else does.’” Cordle wouldn’t back down.
They planned to release it on Aug. 28 but waited a few more days to ensure the Canzani family’s attorney had passed along a message about the video to Canzani’s daughter Angela. Sheen didn’t make any promises about the reach of the video, but he was pretty sure it would make a splash in the Columbus area, at least. His goal was to get 100,000 views. Once he uploaded the video to because I said I would’s YouTube account on Sept. 3, it went viral within 48 hours. They decided not to execute the first part of the plan on the Park Street sidewalk — it would have been superfluous. The message was out. Cordle was taken into custody on Sept. 9. The video has been viewed 2.6 million times.
The crash made news in Columbus back in June, especially since the Canzani name was so well known in the city (the Columbus College of Art & Design named its primary exhibition space downtown the Canzani Center Gallery) and also because Cordle’s grandfather co-founded Cord Camera, a chain of camera shops in and around Ohio since 1954. The video brought the incident to a global audience. Cordle’s face was on every news outlet imaginable. Sarah remembers her father’s phone ringing constantly on Friday, Sept. 6. Cutthroat morning shows wanted exclusives. Media began referring to him as the “YouTube confessor.”
The video’s shock factor (“I killed a man”), professional production (good lighting and editing, emotional music), and storytelling (building drama by obfuscating then revealing Cordle’s identity) all contributed to its appeal. But another aspect is Cordle’s averageness. He doesn’t come across like an actor. He’s focused, though not particularly poised. He seems like a regular, middle-class kid with whom millions of YouTube viewers could identify. Before the crash, Cordle’s sister Grace says she thought of him as “just a normal teenage kid. The problem is, he’s not a teenager anymore.” Chances are you know more than a few people like that — the man-child who never quite left his teenage years behind, going from job to job and partying hard on the weekends. The driven types could relate to him too; self-medicating a quarter-life crisis with massive amounts of alcohol is what a lot of middle-class kids call “college.” And the unfortunate reality is that most everyone knows someone who has driven or continues to drive after excessive drinking, especially in the twenty- and thirtysomething demographic.
As the video spread, Cordle’s family was furious. And embarrassed. He hadn’t told any of them about it, though his father had walked in while he and Sheen were filming at the river house. (Cordle told him it was going to be a public service announcement.) His oldest sister Sarah — the mother figure of the Cordle siblings — suspected her brother had something in the works but hadn’t known what. The ensuing family meetings weren’t pretty.
“I was pretty volatile with them,” Cordle says. “They came at me all angry, and I responded the same way.” Cordle told them the purpose of the video — the message he and Sheen wanted to spread — was bigger than them. It was more important than his own family. Cordle also knew that had he told them, they would have done everything in their power to stop him. “He was right,” Sarah says. “We would have tried to stop him. I might have threatened him a little bit, like, ‘Think about grandma and grandpa!’” They lashed out at Sheen too. “He’s already remorseful,” they said. “What more do you want from him?”
Media reports began questioning Cordle’s motives since he knew he was being investigated when he made the video. Some saw it as an attempt to turn tragedy into internet fame. “Matthew Cordle is part of a generation that values fame like no previous generation has,” one digital-media blogger wrote, worrying that this might be the beginning of a new trend in viral crime confession. “Today, the only thing standing between any one of us and instant celebrity is our ability to create a message with resonance. Cordle may view the death he caused as a personal opportunity, the mother of all Facebook timeline life events.” Other reports were inaccurate, referring to the crash as a “hit and run.” (One look at a photo of the wreckage from the crash site reveals the stupidity of such a claim.) Perhaps the most widely circulated criticism came from a local TV news interview with Angela Canzani, Vincent’s daughter. “This whole thing has made the death of my father fresh,” she said. “I feel like he died all over again. And all I keep hearing about is the message. And what people seem to forget is that a person is dead.”
It’s true the video was not solely for the message and Canzani. It was for Cordle’s benefit, too, at least mentally and emotionally. The video didn’t alleviate the guilt of taking another man’s life, but admitting his guilt in a public way enabled Cordle to grapple with and accept it. This was something active when everything since the crash had been suffocatingly passive.
Sheen says he spoke to Angela on the phone after the video was released, explaining the message and the purpose and assuring her “this is not the Matthew Cordle show.” “I value because I said I would over everything — over my family relationships, perhaps even over my own life,” he said. “I’m not going to let someone take a message that has helped people and destroy it. Nor will I use it to help someone get a lighter sentence.” Because I said I would also made a $5,000 donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving in honor of Vincent Canzani. “I thought she was comfortable with it, more or less,” Sheen says, noting Angela, who did not respond to an interview request for this story, was harsher in the media than she was with him.
Complicating matters is the fact that, according to Canzani’s third ex-wife, Cheryl Oates, and the longtime friends he was living with before he died, Butch and Janice Thompson, Angela and sister Maria Brooks had little to no relationship with their father. Angela was raised by Vince’s second wife, and Maria was raised by her grandparents, Canzani’s mother and father. A friend from the Tinder Box said one of the daughters reached out to Canzani on Facebook a few weeks before the crash and believed it was the first time he had heard from her in eight years.
Yet any and all Canzani family issues and perceived motives are inconsequential to Cordle and Sheen, both of whom are quick to say that Angela and Maria are justified in feeling however they feel. If indeed they were estranged from their father, Cordle took away the chance of reconciliation in the future. Cordle also concedes the video put his own name and face in a brighter spotlight than the man he killed. “In order to make that impact,” he says, “I think it was a necessary evil that the spotlight be on me because it’s the story I’m involved in. I never wanted to have the spotlight on me, but to do something, it kind of had to be on me.”
“People have criticized the production value of it, like, ‘Why didn’t he just turn himself in?’ ‘Why didn’t he just do a webcam?’” Sheen says. “I understand it. But at the same time, is the message against drinking and driving not worth eight hours of production? When you say the music is too emotional, is not the loss of Vincent Canzani more emotional than any music can be? I think that with this type of message, yes, it’s worth your attention and emotion. I’ll go to great lengths to make sure you understand. I won’t sensationalize it in a way that’s not accurate. But everything in that video is accurate. [Lawyers] said he could maybe get off. They said he could get a reduced sentence. This is what lawyers say. Nothing was misleading in that fashion.”
In hindsight they both might change some wording here and there, but neither has any major regrets. They made the video in a living room in Ohio and it has been viewed millions of times all over the world and translated into Spanish. Cordle and his family have boxes of letters and countless emails of support. Images of promise cards with variations of “I will not drink and drive” have poured into Sheen’s inbox. They’re convinced the video has saved at least one life, and likely many more.
On Sept. 9, prosecutors charged Cordle with aggravated vehicular homicide (a felony with a maximum eight-year sentence) and operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (a misdemeanor with a maximum six-month sentence). He turned himself in that day and has been incarcerated ever since. On Sept. 11 Cordle appeared before Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Julie Lynch and pleaded not guilty, much to the confusion and outrage of Lynch and others. (In the video, Cordle promised he would plead guilty when the time came.) “Everything was going to be guilty,” Lynch told ABC News. “I’m somewhat incensed by somebody who isn’t forthright with the court.”
Prosecutors, though, were not caught off guard, at least according to Breitmayer. He explained the plea was a procedural move since it ensured a random judge assignment, and that Cordle would plead guilty as soon as he was assigned a judge. Under Ohio law, a guilty plea locks in the judge; a defendant wishing for favor could time his guilty plea to when a more lenient-seeming judge is sitting and Breitmayer didn’t want to give that appearance. “At that point,” Breitmayer says now, “there were a ton of naysayers saying Matt did it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want those people to say he was judge shopping. This way any judge would have been in the hopper, including Judge Lynch.” On Sept. 18, Cordle pleaded guilty in front of Judge David Fais, who also sentenced him on Oct. 23.
Prosecutor O’Brien said in interviews he believed Cordle’s confession to be sincere and compelling, though any claims Cordle made about the ability to beat the case were “ridiculous.” O’Brien’s team was looking to put Cordle away for eight years. “While much has been made of that online video the State would point out to the court that the two most important words that could be said in that video — or to the Canzani family — were missing; and those two very simple words are ‘I’m sorry,’” the prosecution’s sentencing memo stated. (Cordle says he apologized privately to the Canzani family.)
At sentencing, Fais gave a mini-lecture on the “epidemic” of alcohol and drugs in society, and though he admitted he previously hadn’t known what YouTube was (“it sounds like an outpatient procedure”), he opted to show the “I killed a man” video in the courtroom. He appeared sympathetic. “Some people have thought that the video that was prepared by Mr. Cordle was more about Mr. Cordle than the victim, Mr. Canzani,” Fais said. “I don’t think so.”
Fais read a letter of support for Cordle from Canzani’s most recent ex-wife Cheryl Oates. “One thing I can say about [Vincent] is that he would never drink and drive. Vincent would tell my children that he would pick them up at any time, any day, no questions asked. He kept his promise,” her letter stated. “Vince would not want to see two lives lost from a situation due to Matthew drinking and driving … My wish is that even though Vincent is gone, that once Matthew serves his time, he can go forward in his life and be a productive adult.”
Fais read another unsolicited letter of support from Harold Dennis Jr., a survivor of the worst drunk driving crash in U.S. history on I-71 outside Carrollton, Ky., in 1988. The drunk, wrong-way driver killed 27 people, and Dennis survived with severe burns. He’s still waiting for acknowledgment from the man who caused the wreck and said that Cordle’s admission “in a strange way has given me what I’ve waited 25 years to see and hear from another man.”
After the letters from Oates, Dennis, and others, Cordle’s sisters began to have a change of heart about their brother’s video. “That’s when I realized what Matt meant by ‘this is bigger than us,’” says Sarah. Even more surprising to them was the kindness Oates showed them. That day in the courtroom, she sat next to Cordle’s family, holding Sarah’s hand as Fais handed down the sentence. Oates has since become a close friend of the Cordle family; Sarah says she talks to her almost every day.
Cordle’s father and attorneys also spoke on his behalf, and Cordle himself read a statement from a yellow piece of paper in his shirt pocket. “I am so sorry for the pain I have caused you,” he said. “It should have been me that night, the guilty party, not an innocent man. … I will not let Vincent’s memory fade.” Amid the sympathetic letters of support, Fais’ tone, and his decision to play the video, the mood shifted when Canzani’s daughter Angela addressed the court. Angela’s statement was brief and might have appeared cold or uncaring to Cordle’s supporters, but it was also hard to argue with: “The message I do not want to send is if you hit and kill someone, all you have to do is admit to it later and get leniency,” she said. “My father got a death sentence and did nothing wrong. Eight and a half years is nothing. Anything less than that would be unjust.”
Fais sentenced Cordle to a combined, mandatory six and a half years for the two counts — not the max sentence Angela was hoping for. (Even though the six and a half years is “mandatory,” under Ohio law Cordle has a chance of early release beginning Nov. 19, 2018.) Fais also suspended Cordle’s driving privileges for life and deferred all fines until his release. For his part, Cordle was prepared for the maximum — he said in the video he was “giving the prosecution enough to put me away for a very long time.” When Fais handed down the sentence, Cordle’s family quietly gasped and shed tears, but Cordle didn’t flinch.
Pickaway Correctional Institution in Orient, Ohio, is the prison Cordle’s family was hoping for. The facility is only 16 miles southwest of Columbus, and the majority of its 2,000-plus inmates are at security levels 1 and 2 (minimum and medium; Cordle is level 2). As prisons go, it’s a good bed assignment.
On a cold January afternoon, Cordle walked into a large, bare Pickaway classroom dressed in a navy blue winter coat and winter hat. He shed his coat, revealing two white thermal layers beneath his light-blue, short-sleeved prison shirt tucked into navy blue pants. His right forearm revealed an ace of spades tattoo, and on his left forearm, above the maroon burn mark on his left hand, a Latin phrase is tattooed on a chain linked to a cross: “Aut inveniam viam aut faciam,” which loosely translates to “I’ll either find a way or make one.” Grace and Sarah didn’t care much for his tattoos previously, but they’re grateful for them now: Any way to appear tougher in prison is a plus. Cordle is thin, average height, and doesn’t look a day older than his 23 years.
Cordle was in good spirits and even cracked a joke as I snapped some photos. His mouth is shaped such that he appears to have a nearly constant boyish smirk; it’s not cocky, but it could be misinterpreted as such. (Court photographers caught the smirk at some inopportune times.) Cordle’s deep monotone prevents him from being a charismatic speaker, but he’s quite likable in person, even charming.
Cordle says he’s grateful for his life, and he’s glad he wasn’t arrested immediately back in June. “It gave me the time to process and realize what I should do,” he says. “If they arrested me right away, I probably would have fought it.” He’s also grateful for his continued friendship with Sheen. Cordle was a starter, not a finisher, and in Sheen he found someone who has dedicated his life to finishing everything he starts while encouraging others to do the same. “I was in a hole and couldn’t see a way out, and Alex reached down and pulled me up,” Cordle says. Sheen has promised to be there in six and a half years when Cordle reenters society. “If the world forgets about you,” he told Cordle, “Alex Sheen will not.”
Cordle’s sisters, at his urging, recently created a Facebook page called Save Your Victim (#saveyourvictim was the original hashtag Sheen and Cordle used in the video). They hope the page is merely a starting point for sharing stories and educating others about the consequences of drunk driving. Cordle’s contributions to the cause are limited from prison, but his sisters post updates to his Twitter account and the Save Your Victim blog. They continue to receive letters. Some are from victims and their families, many of whom tell them Cordle’s admission of guilt helped bring closure because their offenders never confessed to or apologized for their crimes. Other letters are from perps similar to Cordle. In that