The Every 15 Minutes memorial delivered a dose of reality about the folly of teens driving and drinking to students and parents alike Friday morning in a packed church auditorium.
High school seniors from Manteca, East Union, Sierra and Calla high schools had already been through Thursday’s series of scenarios where they witnessed a fatal car crash at the Gus Schmiedt Field followed by the arrest of the student DUI driver. They also witnessed an air ambulance helicopter airlift one of the victims from the field to a nearby hospital.
They had seen their friends lying motionless on the ground at the crash scene while others crawled from the smoking wreckage as firefighters cut open one vehicle to recover a body. It was all part of a script that saw parents following the ambulance and the helicopter to the hospital where they found their “lifeless” daughter on an examining table.
Parents and other family members visibly broke down in tears kissing their loved ones with their heartfelt and sometimes hysterical reactions to seeing their teen in a body bag.
A video played at the church that captured Thursday’s events made it impossible for many to separate reality from make-believe was impossible for many as was captured on a video of the day’s events.
Emotions ran rampant as they did at the evening trial of the suspect, Sierra High senior Daniel Coe. He appeared in a mock proceeding under the supervision of Superior Court Judge Tony Agbiani.
A jury of high school students – peers of the drunken driver – found the responsible teen guilty of second degree murder. They recommended a sentence of 15 years to life in state prison.
Students were asked to write letters from the grave to their parents. Parents in turn penned heartfelt notes to their dead sons and daughters to be read in public at the memorial. It was a daunting task with seniors and the parents obviously doing some soul searching.
Senior Kasey Milam had a difficult time containing himself as he read his thought-out piece to his mother who was standing against the wall in the back of the darkened auditorium. After he finished, he walked down from the stage and searched her out. They hugged for some two minutes.
Manteca High mom Aja Smith poured her deepest concerns into her letter, telling her son on the microphone what she had wished she had already told him. She, too, had a hard time containing herself. When she came to the last line on the page, she turned around and walked into the middle of the “Living Dead” group sitting on the stage behind her and gave Jesse a sustained hug. He was alive and she had said what was in her heart.
The memorial began with a complete news-styled video of the day’s accident 24 hours before. It included the 911 calls to a dispatcher and showed a clip of the responding emergency fire, police and ambulance equipment. The video also detailed how the students had been partying down by the river south of town and ultimately showed them driving back into town after they had been drinking leading up to the crash.
While the video was dramatic and got the audience into a proper perspective for what was to come – it was the testimonials that followed that made the greater impact.
California Highway Patrol public affairs officer Angel Arceo acted as the master of ceremonies introducing the speakers who were to follow.
Church pastor and police chaplain Joey Macias – an East Union grad of some 20 years ago – took to the lectern and literally told the students of his concerns in the possibility of losing just one of them to drinking and driving.
“You are all precious,” he said.
Macias made his presentation very graphic when he told of getting a call from a distraught, crying mother in the middle of the night waking him from a sound sleep.
Her daughter had just been killed by a drunken driver and she needed him to come to the hospital to help soothe her pain and to pray with her. Pastor Macias begged the students to let the senior classes of 2011 make a difference by stopping the partying with alcohol that leads to student injuries and deaths.
San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Tony Agbiani pointed out that he has had fun in the Manteca community with teens as their soccer coach and hosting them at his house. He and his wife have nine children. But, he added, when he goes to work and puts on his black robe he has a specific job to do – especially in the sentencing of felony drunken drivers. He’s not always seen as a nice guy at work sitting on the bench in a courtroom.
He explained when someone is aware that their actions can end in death the penalty can be second degree murder. With the students having attended the two-day Every 15 Minutes event they learned that lesson, he said. The penalty will be 15 years to life, he added.
Getting directly to the point at his conclusion, the judge told students to be smart in their decisions of whether to drink and drive – don’t be stupid.