Tragic DUI Case – Teenagers and DUI

Sunday, July 28, 1996
Home Edition
Section: Los Angeles Times Magazine
Page: 10

By: J.R. Moehringer

J.R. Moehringer is a Times staff writer in Orange County

He dreams that they are driving again, all eight boys cruising along
the unpaved back roads of his mind. He begs them to pull over and let him
out, he should get home, but they tell him to shut up and relax,
everything will be fine. Reluctant, he sits back and lets himself be
chauffeured across the stark landscape of his subconscious, past
low-flying clouds of blame and guilt. He lets himself be ferried through
the long night, until morning comes and the alarm goes off. Time to go to
school. Time to face what happened.

It was 6:20 a.m., July 29, 1995. Starting home from an overnight
camping trip with seven friends, he lost control of his father’s 1987
Chevrolet Suburban and sent it tumbling across a barren stretch of the
Mojave Desert north of Victorville. Like a Ferris wheel set free of its
mooring, the 5,000-pound truck rolled across the desert floor, and with
each revolution a friend vanished, a family shattered, a future
dissolved.

When everything came to a shuddering stop, he opened his eyes and saw
Jono, beautiful Jono, a swimmer with out-to-here shoulders and bottomless
brown eyes that made all the girls weak, and he knew right away that Jono
was dead. He turned to look in the backseat at John, a snowboarder with a
taste for adventure, and he knew at once that John was dead, too. He
looked out the window and saw the others, scattered in the wake of the
truck. Steven, Drake, Pig, Joe, Tony. He jumped out the window and ran to
each one, begging them to be alive.

Encrusted with bits of windshield and chrome, the desert glittered in
the morning sun like a diamond field. Nearby campers and dirt bikers,
thinking a plane must have crashed nose first, came running toward the
swirling plumes of smoke and found him sitting in the glassy dust,
stroking the hand of Pig, his best friend since grade school. “It’s my
fault,” he told them, sobbing. “I killed my friends!”

California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. His breath reeked
of beer, and a blood test showed that he was legally drunk. Had he been
an adult, James Virgil Patterson probably would be in prison right now,
perhaps for years to come. But because he was an honor student at
Anaheim’s Katella High School, because he was an Eagle Scout, because he
was two months shy of his 18th birthday, the law regarded him as an
errant youth. Though he admitted to killing four boys–Steven “Pig”
Bender, 18, Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro, 16, Tony Fuentes Jr., 17, and John
Thornton, 18–and seriously injuring three others, the law exempted him
from adult punishment.

Now, on a drizzly March morning eight months after the crash, he sits
in San Bernardino County Juvenile Court, awaiting his sentence. For
weeks, he and the parents of his dead friends have understood that he
will plead guilty to four counts of vehicular manslaughter and two counts
of felony drunk driving, then receive 120 days in jail and 120 days of
alcohol rehabilitation. (As a gesture to the parents, the court also will
bar him from taking part in graduation ceremonies at Katella, where he
ranks near the top of his 316-member class.)

“Awful as this was,” says Colin Bilash, a deputy district attorney of
San Bernardino, “he didn’t set out to kill these kids. There’s no chance
we would be able to try him under these circumstances as an adult. Our
hands are tied.”

So the real punishment this morning will be meted out by the dead
boys’ parents, who have waited months for one clean shot at James.
Officially, each parent will be asked to present a “victim-impact
statement,” something judges have used in recent years to let injured
parties directly address the courts. But none of the parents assembled
this morning intends to address Court Referee Joseph M. Petrasek. They
intend to address James. He is the sole reason they rose at dawn and made
the long journey from Anaheim to this dreary brown building behind a
mental hospital on the outskirts of San Bernardino. Before James receives
what they consider a slap on the wrist, they want to tell him about the
ruin he’s caused.

They are difficult to watch: four sets of heartbroken parents who move
in slow motion, speak in fragments, obsess about blame. Until blame has
been fully counted in this case, they can’t rest–though some understand
that such a reckoning may never come, an idea that makes them walk the
floor at night. Sometimes they blame fate, or God, or Budweiser.
Occasionally they blame themselves for letting their sons go unsupervised
to the desert, for looking the other way when their sons drank beer, for
the chain of parental decisions that led to one impossibly tragic crash.
But such self-doubts only strengthen their resolve to blame James.

Squeezed among the parents are grief-sick aunts and grandmothers,
cousins and brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law, a group of roughly 20,
all glaring at James, all eager to lend their voices to the chorus of
denouncement. In contrast to James, who sits alone at a table in the
front of the courtroom, the anti-James forces occupy both rows of
benches, like an entire side of chess pieces arrayed against an
opponent’s unguarded king.

Hangdog, James shuffles his Hush Puppies and takes care to avoid eye
contact. More than 6 feet tall, with strong arms and a swimmer’s
shoulders, he wears an expression that fluctuates between insolence and
innocence. His reddish-blond hair grudgingly obeys a part in the middle
of his head, but the bangs tend to fall forward into his acne-specked
face. Frequently, he brushes the bangs away with long, trembling fingers;
his other nervous habit is to blink hard, once or twice, as though
momentarily blinded.

Carved into the back of his right leg is a forest green tattoo,
“PJTJ,” which combines the first letters of his dead friends’ names in an
honorific logo. Several days after the crash, James and three other boys
walked into Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland in Anaheim and told the tattoo
artist, Paul Stottler, about a crash they had just survived. Four friends
died, they said, and they wanted the names of those friends emblazoned on
their bodies. “Every once in a while, [James] would be looking off,
spacing out,” Stottler says. “You could tell the crash scarred him, big
time.”

Behind James this morning sit his parents, grimacing at what lies
ahead. Like their son, David and Elizabeth Patterson have maintained a
perfect silence about the crash these last eight months, except to offer
sympathy to the other parents–some of whom were once friends–and to say
that James has been unfairly maligned by blame-happy lawyers and
reporters. Elizabeth, a reed-thin clerk for the Orange County Marshal’s
Department, wears tweedy skirts and never takes her eyes off James.
David, a white-haired ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran who now decorates
trade shows for a living, wears thick glasses and purses his lips like a
man on the verge of telling someone off. (Before the crash, James dreamed
of following in his father’s footsteps, but plans to attend the Naval
Academy seem unrealistic now.) Seated with the Pattersons, looking
petrified, are James’ younger sister, 16-year-old Vianne, and brother,
14-year-old Sam.

Low-ceilinged and oppressively small, the courtroom can barely
accomodate everyone present, with many forced to sit sideways or
shoulder-to-shoulder. But no one dreams of waiting outside, other than
the handful of flannel-clad kids who make up James’s entourage. They seem
more than happy to pass the morning in the parking lot.

James’ friends normally form a protective shield around their leader.
They attend him at court, stay with him during his house arrest, clash
with anyone who dares criticize him publicly. Like James, most are
seniors at Katella, where they led a successful write-in movement shortly
after the crash to nominate James for homecoming king. (At the
principal’s suggestion, James declined the nomination.) Most have
scrutinized the 78-page police report, and they don’t believe a word of
it. The report concludes, for instance, that James was drunk because his
blood-alcohol level exceeded .16%, more than twice the legal limit for
adults. But many kids think the beer in James’ blood was neutralized by
the five hours of sleep he got before driving.

James knew he was the designated driver for the ride home, the kids
say. So while the other boys stayed awake and drank around the campfire,
James did the responsible thing and crawled into his sleeping bag. Many
offer this as irrefutable proof that James was sober.

“It’s a freak accident,” spits 18-year-old Drake Gustafson, one of the
four crash survivors, who suffered a fractured skull and severe facial
bruises and continues to cope with one lingering aftereffect: He can no
longer taste or smell. Truth be told, Drake says, whatever beer remained
in James’ body may have saved some lives. “What if James was sober?” he
asks. “He’d probably think he could handle the Suburban. He’d be going
faster, we’d probably have rolled 12 times, and everyone would’ve been
killed.”

A curly-headed boy named Mike Gordon, a friend of James since
kindergarten, says James was well known as a loudmouth who liked to
lecture others on the evils of drinking and driving. Many kids tell
stories about James cornering them at keg parties and seizing their car
keys. Several think they owe their lives, or at least their driver’s
licenses, to James. “Out of all of us, he’s the most responsible,” says
Jeff Phan, who shocked James after the crash by issuing this warning: If
you give up and kill yourself, I will, too.

“The parents should blame themselves for at least half,” Mike
continues. Most of these parents knew their sons were drinkers, he
claims, and they knew the camping trip would include beer. Some even
tolerated teenage drinking parties in their homes. After consenting to so
much illicit drinking, how can they blame the results on James?

Even before the homecoming controversy, some kids devastated the
grieving parents by leaving gift-wrapped beers at the graves and posting
a wooden sign at the crash site: “Brews Forever.” But Mike scoffs. The
beers were left by some misguided souls, he says. And brews? That was
just a nickname James and some of the other kids gave themselves years
ago–a reference not to beer but to a song, “We’re the Brews,” by the
punk band NOFX.

“Someone asked me if I learned a lesson from this accident,” says
Drake, drawing the words out slowly, knowing how many parents want to
hear his answer. “And I honestly said, ‘I didn’t learn anything from it.
It’s an accident.’ “

One teenager not content to wait outside the courthouse is Steven
Cass, a stocky boy whose military crew cut clashes sharply with his baby
face. Though the crash sent Steven to the hospital for days with a
fractured left clavicle and rib cage, and though he retains nasty scars
up and down his back, Steven means to speak this morning on James’
behalf. (The fourth survivor, Joe Fraser, who suffered a broken left arm
and a severe concussion, has never spoken publicly about the crash.) “If
James was drunk, then we all were drunk,” Steven says, “because we didn’t
realize that James was too drunk to drive.”

Indeed, Steven and the boys were very drunk at the time of the crash.
Before leaving Anaheim for the desert, they bought dozens of beers at
Me-N-Paul’s, an Anaheim liquor store allegedly favored by many local
kids. A jury recently acquitted the store clerk of criminal charges and
deadlocked on charges against the owner, perhaps because every beer James
drank before the crash came from his parents.

Five days after the crash, CHP officers confronted the Pattersons
about letting their 17-year-old son take a 12-pack of Henry Weinhard’s
Private Reserve from the kitchen refrigerator. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
the officers asked.

James’ father sighed and said nothing.

“Believe me,” Elizabeth Patterson said, “we’ve asked that.” Pressing
into the courtroom now are several solemn members of Mothers Against
Drunk Driving, led by Reidel Post, whose file cabinets are full of
statistics about alcohol and death, such as drunk driving kills more than
2,000 Americans between 16 and 20 each year. Reidel spends her days
crusading against drunk drivers (she was disfigured by a drunk driver
eight years ago), but she can’t recall many drunk drivers like James.
Hours after the crash, Reidel began lobbying for James’ victims,
representing them in meetings with the district attorney’s office,
listening to their anguish. She had no choice but to immerse herself in
this case, she says. She still hears that first tearful phone call from
Tony Fuentes’ father, begging for help. “I have never in my whole life
heard a man sound so sad,” she says. “I will never as long as I live
forget the sound of his voice.” David and Elizabeth Patterson scowl at
Reidel, convinced she wants their son to suffer, and they are right.
Reidel wants an example made of James. “I’m the parent of two teenage
kids,” she says. “If one of my children chooses to drink and drive, they
have to pay the consequences. And the truth is, I might want to look at
it as an accident. But it’s a choice.”

A few feet from Reidel sits Steven Cass’ mother, Joanne Marsh, who
wears tinted glasses through which she shoots bright looks of
encouragement at James. Like most of the parents whose boys survived the
crash, Joanne counts herself among James’ most ardent backers. She thinks
these people glowering at the top of James’ bowed head are no better than
a lynch mob. “If they had monitored their own kids as closely as they’re
now monitoring James,” she says, “maybe they could have prevented this
tragedy from happening.”

At first she also wanted James to hang from the highest tree. Walking
into his room at Victor Valley Community Hospital just after the crash,
she thought she was stepping into a brewery. “He reeked of alcohol,” she
remembers. “And I said, ‘You lied to me! You said you’d never, ever,
drink and drive!’ And he says, ‘I didn’t! I swear! I was not drunk! I am
not drunk!’ I said, ‘But you smell like alcohol!’ ” Clinging to her,
crying, James swore that when the truck somersaulted across the desert, a
cooler full of unopened beer cans exploded and sprayed him. “I felt
better,” she says. “I knew that’s why he stunk. When the crash happened,
the beer got on him.”

First to speak is Jono’s mother, Laura Stewart. unsteadily she walks
to the lectern, which stands just inches from James, her blond hair
lapping against the leather arms of Jono’s letter jacket. Laura wears
this jacket whenever she visits Pacific View Memorial Park in Newport
Beach, where Jono lies beside Pig and John on a gently sloping hill above
the ocean. (Tony is buried in La Mirada, near his father’s house.)

Most of Laura’s visits to Pacific View are accompanied by Jimi
Hendrix, who hovers in the moist air, rattling the wind chimes. Jono
adored Hendrix, so Laura gives him a Hendrix concert every weekend.
Setting her portable stereo atop Jono’s headstone, she cranks the volume
as loud as it will go and grins at every vibrant guitar lick. With the
music blaring, she sets about performing simple chores, like decorating
Jono’s grave with seashells or polishing the gray marble headstone until
it glows like the screen of a TV set that’s just been switched off.

Laura went through 30 hours of labor with Jono, “really hard labor.”
After several abortions and miscarriages and a diagnosis of hemophilia,
doctors doubted she would ever be a mother. But Jono changed all that.
From the moment of conception, nothing could stop Jono. Nothing but
James. She turns to face James. “Accountable,” she tells him, pausing to
give the word weight.

Like several parents in the room, Laura coached her son to drink
responsibly instead of forbidding him to drink at all. She gave at least
one party at which Jono and other teenagers drank. But there was a
designated driver, she insists, and James shouldn’t use a few
adult-supervised parties to avoid responsibility.

“The loss of Jonothan caused a wake-up into a reality that is hopeless
and dark,” she tells James. “The past is a beautiful, carefree dream that
I’ll never have again. If I didn’t have two young children, I would have
no problem, or hesitation, ending this nightmare I now call my life.”

Laura’s ex-husband decided not to come this morning, though Laura
urged him to attend. Laura hoped Fred Curtis could persuade the court to
stiffen James’ sentence, but Fred told her the fix is in. Let the other
parents flail away at James, Fred will stay in his Fountain Valley
jewelry-making studio, hammering his antique anvil. He still has a $7,000
mortuary bill to pay, he says.

Fred can’t always concentrate on his work, but when he can he often
wears above his heart a giant button made from Jono’s picture. The button
is so large, the father-son likeness so striking, that Fred seems to have
two faces: One young and shockingly handsome, the other creased by
grief.

For much of his 38 years, Fred has been three things. Father, jeweler,
Apache. With Jono’s death, the lovely trinity of a life has been
disrupted. Lost without his son, unable to work with any consistency,
Fred devotes himself full time to American Indian grieving rituals. Every
weekend he attends powwows and ceremonial dances, beating a poplar drum
and crying out to the spirit of his dead son. Every few days he visits
Pacific View, serenading Jono’s grave with music from one of his sacred
flutes. Sometimes Fred plays a red cedar flute for which he traded a few
pieces of jewelry. Often he plays a smaller flute with burn marks along
the mouthpiece, a delicate instrument given to him by a spiritual elder
who said it mysteriously survived a raging house fire. When Fred can’t
even find the strength to beat his drum or play his flute, he simply
floats on Jono’s surfboard or lies on Jono’s bed, breathing in the boy’s
smell.

Though he doesn’t drink much these days, Fred remembers being 17,
vomiting on the side of a road, sleeping it off in a car before driving
home. That was 20 years ago, however. With greater public awareness of
drinking and driving, Fred thinks James should have known better. “If
James would’ve had a better education about alcohol, none of this would
have happened.”

Endlessly, Fred mulls over this scene: Jono asks if he may go to the
desert, saying nothing about beer. Fred deliberates, then says OK. What
else can a father tell a trusted son? Particularly a father who went
light on the discipline, believing the wellsprings of youth are the
wellsprings of life itself. “I’ll have to live with that decision for the
rest of my life,” Fred murmurs.

No one knows how much Jono drank that night. Fred might have asked the
police to perform a blood test on his son, who died instantly from blunt
head trauma. “But I figured dead is dead,” Fred says, “what’s the
difference?” More relevant is how much James drank, how much James should
suffer. “It’s a shame,” Fred says. “You kill four people, then you walk
away.”

Having said this, however, Fred frowns. He knows that Jono and James
were dear friends, and he wonders how he can hate a boy his son loved.
“If I hate James Patterson, my life becomes very complicated,” he says.
Fred tortures himself with this dilemma, because he wants more than
justice. He wants to do right by Jono.

“When I threw the first shovelful of dirt on his coffin,” Fred says,
“a feeling came over me–I held up my end of the bargain. He always came
first. I was always there for him 100%. I did a good job.” With a catch
in his throat, Fred looks down at his heart, where a mirror image smiles
back in perpetual agreement.

Unlike her ex-husband, Laura indulges her hatred, even embraces it.
Watching James and his friends outside the courthouse shortly before one
of the many hearings on his fate, she says, “He should get the chair.”
Such violent fantasies make her the emotional ally of Tony Fuentes Sr.,
who now stalks toward the podium like a wounded prizefighter in the late
rounds, his niece by his side.

Most mornings Tony Sr. sits in his living room, staring at his
homemade shrine: Two dozen portraits of Tony Jr., from baby pictures to
yearbook photos; two photographs of twisted tires and sheared metal
strewn around the crash site; a photocopy of Tony Jr.’s headstone, with
the inscription “Safe In the Arms of Jesus”; two votive candles adorned
with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe; two vases of red and white
carnations; one faded birth certificate from the State of California,
issued in the name of Jose Antonio Fuentes Jr. Like three of the four
dead boys, Tony Jr. was his father’s only son. Sometimes a woman friend
drops by and prays with Tony Sr., but this only helps a little. Sometimes
his niece drops by to check on him, but she can’t seem to cheer him up,
and lately she worries that he may be slipping away. When not staring at
his shrine, Tony Sr. sits outside in his car, motor off, gazing dully
ahead.

A meat-cutter for 15 years at a Vons supermarket, Tony Sr. earns
roughly $800 every two weeks. For years it was his habit to work 52 weeks
straight, without a break, then cash his two-week vacation pay and put it
toward something special for Tony Jr. Last year it was a 1963 Ford
Falcon. This year it’s a headstone.

Tony Sr. doesn’t trust himself around James. “I got a lot of anger,”
he warns visitors. “I got a lot of anger.” With his son gone, Tony Sr.
has no one. His wife left him several years ago. Now his daughter, Geo,
wants no part of him because he publicly condemns James. Geo loved her
brother, but she also loves James, her former schoolmate and one of her
best friends.

This is not how Tony Sr. expected life to look at 47 years old:
Separated from his wife, mourning his only son, estranged from his only
daughter, poisoned with hatred for a boy he’s never met. If only his
family had stayed together, he says. “If she’d left the kids with me,
he’d still be alive.”

Too overcome to speak this morning, Tony Sr. lets his niece speak for
him. She reads the carefully typed statement he prepared, beginning with
his description of racing to San Bernardino County Medical Center.
Mashing the accelerator, he begged God to let Tony Jr. live. But soon he
found himself beside his son’s irreparably broken body.

“I never expected to see my son lying in a coma,” she reads, “bleeding
from his head, not able to respond to the sound of my voice, lifeless . .
. All the wonderful memories of his life were going through my mind. I
prayed and asked God to please let Tony and me walk out of the hospital
together. Unfortunately, the worst moment in my entire life was when the
doctor arrived and said he was going to pull the life support to see if
Tony was able to survive without it. Then the doctor said, ‘Sorry, Mr.
Fuentes, your son is dead.’ “

Crying, leaning against her uncle, the niece continues to read:

“I wanted to die right there with him. My heart just broke in pieces.
My only son had been taken from me . . . . Now I have no one left. Not
only was my son taken from me, but it has destroyed my relationship I had
with my daughter. I have nightmares of my son trying to tell me
something. I hear his voice telling me not to let him die.”

Tears streaming down his face, Tony Sr. hugs his niece and watches
James. He seems to be daring James to look up from his lap, but James
never does. Shortly after the crash, James got a call from his lawyer,
warning that Tony Sr. had threatened revenge. Home alone at the time,
James spent the rest of the afternoon cowering in the back of the house,
jumping at every sound.

When the niece reaches the end of Tony Sr.’s statement, she helps him
back to his seat, and Geo Fuentes stalks forward.

“My brother was not killed by anyone!” she declares. “He died in a car
accident!”

Hearing someone speak in his defense, James now pitches forward, his
body convulsing with sobs. While his mother stretches tissues toward his
hands, Geo praises James’ honesty and integrity. Yes, Tony Jr. was her
brother and best friend, she says. But James is her friend, too, and he’s
hurting. She pauses, tears springing to her eyes, and Tony Sr. bounds
toward her, a distance of two steps in the tiny courtroom. He places a
hand on Geo’s shoulder, but she spins and shoves him away. “Go sit down!”
she barks. “Don’t stand beside me!”

*

Only two hours have passed, but everyone appears limp with exhaustion
by the time Steven “Pig” Bender’s mother approaches the lectern.

For Cindy Bender, grief has been a tortuous ride. Just after the
crash, she threatened a wrongful death lawsuit against the Pattersons.
Then she dropped it. In the fall, she declared that James must pay for
what he did. Then she begged the district attorney to be lenient with
him. Periodically Cindy meets with lawmakers or talk show hosts, lobbying
for tougher laws regarding teenagers and liquor. But this morning she has
only forgiveness on her mind.

Cindy likes to say that Steven would have been the best man at James’
wedding one day, a claim no one disputes. When the Benders moved from
Arizona to Anaheim in 1989, Steven was the fattest, clumsiest member of
the seventh grade. He was the playground laughingstock, with round
eyeglasses and no friends. Then James rode to the rescue, took charge,
ran interference– and when someone observed that Steven looked like
Piggy, the overweight crybaby in “Lord of the Flies,” James guffawed and
declared that a nickname had been born.

Pig hated the name at first, but James taught him to develop a
self-deprecating sense of humor. James coached Pig through Boy Scouts,
prodded him to attend Katella, counseled him through hard times. Once, in
a quiet moment, Pig confided to James that their friendship had saved his
life. If not for James, Pig told him, suicide would have been the only
answer.

Under James’ tutelage, Pig was reborn, a sort of teenage Pygmalion.
Along with his nickname, he grew into his body (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and
his new personality. He transformed himself into the wild-haired life of
the party. Loud-dressing, chain-smoking, pot-loving, beer-swilling, he
didn’t care if people laughed at him or with him, as long as they
laughed.

They never laughed harder than at his viewing. As Pig lay in his
casket, the many traumas that caused his death concealed by a mortician’s
makeup, roughly 20 kids gathered round, James at the center. The mood was
somber, grim. Then a beautiful girl said under her breath, “Pig, you
better not be watching me in the shower,” and the mood changed. Suddenly
they were laughing at Pig again, teasing him about the folly of donating
his organs. Pity the poor slob who gets those dingy lungs, they said. Or,
God forbid, that beer-soaked liver! Raucous laughter filled the funeral
parlor, and every giggle was like a gift for Pig. How fitting that Pig
should be named for a character in “Lord of the Flies.” The novel about
boys creating their own world on a deserted island was the ideal parable
for Pig, James and their inner circle. Though all lived on the narrow
margins of Orange County’s middle class, they were not a homogenous
group. Some came from broken homes, others from stable families. Some
were excellent students, others were failing. Some were college-bound,
others were hell-bent on military careers. Some were talented athletes,
others were layabouts. What united them was a ferocious love of Pearl
Jam, a fondness for beer and a powerful disenchantment with the adult
world, which compelled them to form their own tribe and make James
Patterson the paterfamilias.

One of the group’s proudest moments was vandalizing Katella High
School. (Six of the eight boys involved in the crash were among the
participants.) Sneaking onto campus one night, they scattered garbage,
hoisted a mock flag and crowned the school roof with an old Volkswagen
chassis, a prank school officials seemed to accept with wry amusement.
Another time they flew down the Costa Mesa Freeway in Pig’s beefed-up
1973 Mustang convertible, the speedometer quivering around 140 miles an
hour and flames spewing from the tailpipe, a stunt typical of Pig, who
once got airborne in his car and landed in the drive-through lane of a
fast-food restaurant.

By sifting through his yearbook, Cindy Bender learned only recently
about the central role her son played in the lives of his friends. The
pictures made her smile, but the inscriptions made her blood run cold,
each one a paean to beer and drugs.

“I have watched you grow up from a chubby little boy who was lost from
the start into a tall drunk that is still lost,” James scribbled in the
back of the book. “Good luck in whatever the hell you plan on doing in
life. I hope one day we can drink beers together as old men. Don’t get
too sober this summer. Remember–sober sucks.”

With her husband looking on, Cindy speaks only briefly this morning,
telling the court that Pig and the others knew what they were doing when
they went to the desert, so James should be spared severe punishment.
“James will never slip again,” she promises, adding: “I’ll always welcome
James into our family. [Pig] only wanted justice, not revenge.”

Returning to her seat, she draws irate stares from several parents
when she stoops to kiss James on the cheek.

Moments later, John Thornton’s mother steps forward and brings the
morning to its emotional climax. Unlike her husband, William, who uses
his statement to read a consolatory letter from Barbara Walters,
Christine Thorton keeps her statement intensely personal. A sad-faced
woman with close-cropped auburn hair and royal blue eyes, she begins by
describing everyday sorrows, such as feeling her heart sink whenever she
sees a slice of leftover pizza after supper. There was no such thing as
leftover pizza, she explains, when John was alive.

“There are constant reminders that we have been robbed of his life,”
she says in a high-pitched monotone. “The life that would take care of
his large aquarium, or train his new puppy, Bailey, or do the chores
around the house.”

John was a mischief-maker, Christine concedes, though she doesn’t
mention that weeks before the crash she found a cache of marijuana plants
growing in his bedroom closet. She believes John turned the corner just
before his death, that he was on the verge of putting his life together,
maybe becoming a minister.

After dropping out of Katella, John was earning his high school degree
through a program at Rancho Santiago College in Orange. But schoolwork
always came second to his many hobbies, which included snowboarding,
fishing, mountain biking, collecting remote control cars, keeping
tropical fish and attending monster truck races. He was a feather-light
soul who painted his bedroom green and pressed beer caps into the ceiling
to improve its acoustics.

Weeks after John’s death, the Thorntons remembered a chocolate
Labrador retriever puppy he’d picked out for his 19th birthday. In their
grief, they’d forgotten all about the dog; now they were inclined to
forget about it again. But at the urging of their children, they decided
to adopt the dog, even though its presence provides a daily reminder that
John will never return. Each day they watch the pup romp through the
house, its frantic energy a counterpoint to their gloom.

John and James were not close friends, Christine tells the court. John
considered James a drunk and a bully with a quick temper. She wonders
aloud if James was mad about something in the moments before the crash,
maybe driving crazily to make a point with the other boys?

“The pain is so great,” she tells James, who hangs his head lower.
“The loss of John has broken my heart–there are pieces missing that will
never be replaced.” Since John’s death, Christine’s health has slipped
away. Driving down the freeway one afternoon, months after the crash, she
suffered an attack of stress-related blindness that forced her off the
road and sent her to a battery of doctors.

Turning now to the Pattersons, Christine accuses them of being
cavalier about the crash, of ducking responsibility. Then, in motherly
tones, she urges James to break free of his family’s influence, to quit
drinking before it’s too late. Knowing teenagers, understanding their
ability to tune out adult anger, Christine leans into James and speaks
with crisp precision: “You have a choice to make. The justice system will
give you a new start.”

And for this uncommon show of mercy, she adds, the justice system
should be ashamed. She looks over the lawyers as though surveying a sink
full of dirty dishes. “Everyone’s got their job to do,” she tells them,
dejectedly. “It’s a fruitless question–but who is to blame?”

Finally she produces a large, gruesome photo of John in his hospital
bed. Plainly visible are the “multiple blunt force injuries” that the
coroner cited as the cause of death. Eyes closed, face void of any life,
he is difficult to recognize, which is Christine’s point. Holding the
picture aloft, she demands that James raise his head. Slowly he
obeys.

“I don’t know who this is,” she says. “Do you recognize him?”

He shakes his head slightly, then turns away.

At the end of the day, after more than four hours, Court Referee
Petrasek asks Deputy Dist. Atty. Bilash if he has anything to add.
Bilash, who spent months helping the parents prepare for everything
happening today, now seems unprepared himself.

“In my personal opinion,” Bilash says in a rapid-fire cadence, “we
should be sitting here discussing how long Mr. Patterson goes to state
prison. It’s not even a close call. This offense just fell through the
cracks, and that really, really bothers me.” He glances at the parents,
who gaze at him with astonished expressions. He glances at the
Pattersons, whose frowns grow deeper. He glares at James, who hangs his
head still lower. “All I can say to the families is, ‘I’m sorry we
couldn’t do more.’ “

According to the most recent probation report, Bilash says, James
harbors no remorse. Repeatedly, James regales the probation department
with stories about “what everyone else did,” while sloughing off
responsibility for his own deeds.

“When he talks about his use of alcohol,” Bilash says, raising his
voice, “I do not get any sense that he thinks he’s got a problem. And
that’s what frustrates me more than anything else. Because he’s going to
get out, and he’s going to be back on the streets again.”

Bilash flips through the pages of the probation report, shaking his
head. “He does not feel that his consuming alcohol had anything to do
with the accident! That is such a ludicrous statement that I’m
embarrassed to read it!”

Despite feeling disgusted by James and his nonchalance, Bilash says he
will not revoke the plea agreement. He thunders for several minutes more,
then falls strangely silent. When James declines his right to speak,
Petrasek approves the deal that will send James to jail for 120 days,
beginning June 13, the day after his final exam. On his way to the
parking lot, James does an odd thing. He shakes Bilash’s hand.

He rolls his own cigarette, sprinkling tobacco meticulously along the
paper and sealing it with his tongue. “Nobody can even imagine the amount
of stress,” he says in a permanently adolescent warble, a voice forever
on the verge of changing. “Everything that’s happened, it kind of calms
you down, I guess, when you have a smoke.”

He goes to jail soon, but he tries not to think about that. In fact,
his mind is an obstacle course, filled with things he’d rather not think
about, though the crash doesn’t seem to be among them. Drinking coffee
one night at a Denny’s not far from his school, he reconstructs the day
everything changed.

It started with a group of boys hoping to get out of town, yearning to
let off some steam before summer ended and senior year began. The list of
who would go changed throughout the day as they weighed different plans.
Finally Pig suggested the desert. That sounded good, so James borrowed
his father’s Suburban, plus a 12-pack of beer from the kitchen
refrigerator, and before leaving Anaheim they stopped at Me-N-Paul’s.
They were regulars at Me-N-Paul’s.

“I realize that we–myself included–had a problem with the drinking,”
he says. “We definitely did drink too much.”

But buying the stuff was easy, and they often consumed it under adult
supervision, so they never thought they were committing any grave sin.
Besides, he was always careful not to drink and drive.

They reached the desert after dark. Someone built a fire, and he
cracked open a beer. He drank at least 10 over the course of the night,
sitting next to Jono and talking about the future. Pig and John were off
in the shadows, making monkey noises and smoking marijuana. Tony was
watching the sky, hoping to see a shooting star. Everyone was drinking,
some were getting high. But James never used pot, he says, because he
aspired to military and political careers. “I didn’t want to be like
Clinton and have to say I never inhaled.”

Around 1 a.m., James said good night and made a bed for himself in the
backseat. It seemed like only minutes later the boys were shaking the
truck and telling him to wake up. Two of them needed to get back to
Anaheim for a baseball game.

As dawn brought the desert into soft focus, he walked in circles,
trying to clear his head, helping collect the empty beer cans. The boys,
meanwhile, stood around the truck, bickering about who would sit where.
None of them imagined that in a few moments seating arrangements would
determine who survived. Then James climbed behind the wheel, fastened his
seat belt and off they went. They were a quarter-mile down the bumpy dirt
road when he felt the truck start to skid. The police say he was going 58
miles an hour, but he thinks that sounds fast. Whatever the speed, he hit
a berm and lost control. “It wasn’t scary at all,” he says. “I remember
thinking, Oh, s – – -, the truck’s rolling, my parents are going to kill
me. And then the truck stopped rolling and you’re already in shock and
you’re just, like, shaking and everything. And I looked next to me and
Jono is laying down on the bench seat and, like, he was just f – – – – –
up. And I checked his pulse and I knew he was dead right away. And it
didn’t even register, I was just like, ‘Goddamn, Jono’s dead.’ “

He jumped out the window and ran from boy to boy. Then he saw Pig,
lying in the road and making all sorts of weird noises.

Pig. His best friend. It seemed unreal, sitting in court one day,
hearing the referee ask: Is it true, according to Count Three, that a
felony was committed by you, that you did unlawfully and without gross
negligence kill Steven R. Bender, a human being?

“I feel so sorry for these parents,” he says. “I imagine losing Pig is
a lot like losing a kid, just because of how close we were.”

He wants the Benders, Fabbros, Fuenteses and Thorntons to know that he
bears a heavy weight of responsibility. His mind is so full that he often
has trouble sleeping, drifting off for merely a few hours with the help
of soft classical music on the radio. But he also believes all eight boys
were culpable, and he thinks it possible that a defective tire caused the
crash, although police found no evidence of a blowout. “We’ll never
know,” he says.

Not long ago, while reading James Michener’s “Hawaii,” he came upon an
unfamiliar word: Opprobrium. He checked the dictionary and found that it
means “disgrace or infamy attached to conduct viewed as grossly
shameful.” Such an ugly word–he wondered with alarm if he was guilty of
opprobrium. His English teacher, however, assured him that the word
implies sustained conduct, not one mistake.

He was relieved.

He no longer drinks, vows never to drink again, but not necessarily
because of the crash. “When you get drunk, you get a lot more emotional,
and at this point in time I don’t want to get emotional.”

He credits his mother and father with standing by him.

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