Longreads: Crash kills 4 teens, but there are other casualties
James Patterson rolled over his father's Chevrolet Suburban during a desert road trip with friends. Four of his friends were killed in the crash, and police determined he was drunk. Then-Times staff writer J.R. Moehringer spent nearly a year looking at how the 1995 crash altered so many lives.
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July 28, 1996
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.
California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. His breath reeked of beer, and a blood-alcohol 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 teenagers -- 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 San Bernardino County deputy district attorney, "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 in 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 once were 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 accommodate 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' 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 desrt, 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-alcohol 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 lecturn 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 homogeneous 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 and teaching him to be strong. He lavishes them with praise, unlike the dead boys' parents, who abandoned him and depicted him as an alcoholic monster. He was not a monster, he says, but an average American teenager, doing average American teenager things, which frequently included beer.
"Kids are going to drink," he says, "no matter what you say."
Over time he hopes to dedicate his life to the dead boys. He decorates his room with their pictures and wears a baseball cap with their names sewn around the crown. Often he wears Pig's pants.
He wants to attend college, then graduate school, eventually earning a PhD, and he hopes the responsible life he leads will demonstrate the maturity many say he lacks. As for blame, he accepts his share.
"I've pretty much admitted everything I did," he says. "I know everything I did was wrong. But at the same time, we all messed up, not just myself."
This is the point he stresses over and over. All eight boys were to blame, and he was the scapegoat. He resents that a lifetime spent earning the respect of others went out the window with one mistake. For 17 years and 10 months, he studied hard, worked hard, obeyed his parents. Then one little slip, one fleeting lapse in judgment, and he became an outcast, his life stretching before him like that bleak patch of desert.
"I don't like it when people disrespect me," he says. "And all of a sudden, everyone does. And it's just me. It seems they feel sorry for the other guys because they were with me and I took advantage of them. But in actuality, we were all together."
Does he think he was drunk at the time of the crash?
"I don't think so. Obviously, I was, in hindsight. But that morning I didn't feel that way. I think so, I had to have been, with that blood-alcohol level. But in the morning I didn't think I was, I didn't feel like I was. I don't know what to say about that."
Photo: Geovanna Fuentes, left, the sister of accident victim Tony Fuentes, embraces James Patterson and his friend Elaine Morse.
Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times