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BURYING THE DEAD

Ripon High teens told of ultimate price of DUI

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BURYING THE DEAD

A teary-eyed young Linden woman in her mid-20s shared her memories with the audience of losing her 16-year-old sister in a DUI crash when she let an impaired teen drive her car. It was a fatal dec...

GLENN KAHL/The Bulletin


POSTED April 5, 2013 2:31 a.m.

Death and dying on state highways has become an accepted consequence of getting where we need to go. And having a drink for the road often signs the fate of the innocent.

Upper class students at Ripon High solemnly took part in a memorial service for two of their own Wednesday that was educationally designed to protect them from highway carnage caused by drunk drivers behind the wheel.

The funeral was the final attempt in a two-day Every 15 Minutes drinking and driving scenario intended to reach the junior and senior students at the high school. It was clear that it brought everyone face-to-face with the reality of unexpected deaths.

Always held in the spring, the collective message is meant to be strong and to remain fresh in their minds prior to prom night and graduation. It is a time when students are excited about the end of their high school days and are often open to excessive partying and being carefree in their driving.

The near 300 students, parents and some instructors packed the north gym on the Ripon campus where they were unusually quiet during the entire presentation, focused on each speaker who stood near a wooden casket.

Superior Court Judge Richard Vlavianos left the lectern and walked close to the stands, making sure the students were listening.

“We are here to give you understanding,” he said as he leaned into the crowd. “You are going to make choices that will determine your consequences. I need you to take care of each other, love each other, and help each other in life.”

Making a vivid point to the known value of the Every 15 Minute program, Judge Vlavianos told of one school in the county that had lost one student every year to drinking and driving for over 40 years.

The difference came when students witnessed the E-15 Program for the first time, ending the carnage at the school, he said. There hasn’t been a DUI death since the program was initiated about nine years ago.

The judge recalled a Lodi High girl who sat in the stands and listened to the speakers at a similar event, but didn’t actually listen and she ended up drunk behind the wheel in a crash. He quoted her remarks after being sentenced to state prison for second degree murder in a fatal DUI crash: “Alcohol got me nowhere – it got me a prison sentence, because I killed one person.”

The Stockton jurist pleaded with the students to use the information they were getting at the scripted memorial to make everyone safe.

“If you wind up in my courtroom, I will do my job,” he insisted. “Everyone loses. One has a hole in her heart and I put a hole in another’s heart.”

Students also got a strong message from white-haired, longtime civil attorney Vladimir “Mirko” Kozina who had gone after a family’s resources following a Ripon crash years ago on Wilma Avenue that resulted in a death. It was a DUI case.

“The driver was driving in the fog and didn’t care about another person,” he said. “We wanted the jury to pain her and the family to the amount of $3.3 million because they gave her the instrument that caused the death – her car.”

At the top of his voice, Kozina thundered, “I will do everything in my power to destroy you and your family – that is my job!”

Retired Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Stevens related the trauma a deputy coroner faces when knocking on the family door in the middle of the night and telling parents their son or daughter has been killed and that they need to come down to the hospital to identify them.

He emphasized the importance of family, even for those who say they don’t get along well with their parents and their siblings – feeling they wouldn’t care, but that’s not often actually the case, he said.

“Your little brothers and little sisters want to look like you, they want to dress like you. They will always remember that you died in a car crash when they were little,” Stevens said.

The law enforcement veteran told students to look at each other in the stands – at the friends next to them and say, “I am not going to let you die young. I’m taking your keys away from you if you are drinking.”

In a direct statement to the teens making up the audience, he said, “You are our future. We love you. You have to love each other enough to take care of each other!”

Stevens’ 19-year-old brother had been killed by a drunk driver when the officer was still in his teens. He was fatally injured when he was coming home from a party. His dad also died earlier in his life when he was driving home as well as a cousin.

A veteran AMR paramedic had the audience follow along with him in his vivid memories about coming upon a terrible crash on the freeway in his ambulance where he used everything in his power to save a young woman’s life after her car collided with a DUI driver and rolled over.

She was hanging from her seat belt with major injuries to her head. She hadn’t been drinking, he said, just being in the wrong place at the wrong time and had her life cut short in minutes.

There were tears everywhere in the gym, from parents at the lectern reading their letters to their “deceased” children with students doing the same. At the end of the presentation it was obvious how everyone had been touched with the countless hugs between parents and teens, between classmates and their friends, all with a new perspective on how fragile life can be on the highway.

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