IONIA — He didn’t see the bodies. Not when he arrived. Just the car, a 1972 Chevy Malibu, parked right where the phone call said it was, on a tractor path just off Frank Road. State Trooper Jim Rogers got out of his squad car and sighed. “Probably some guy fell asleep,” he figured. Happens all the time. It was, after all, Saturday morning, and most people don’t leave their vehicles overnight in a deserted field with the motor running.
He approached on the driver’s side and peeked in the window, which, like the others, was rolled up tight. Suddenly, he felt a shiver. There was a kid slumped in the backseat and another one slumped on the front passenger side and the driver had his head back and eyes closed and, oh, God, he knew him. Danon Pierce. Football player. On the high school team. His folks had that restaurant over in . . .
“No,” thought Rogers, the horror leaping into his thoughts. He grabbed for the door. It was locked. He banged on the window. No response. He shook the car, and the bodies barely budged. A crowbar, he thought. I’ll get one from my trunk. As he headed back, he pulled instinctively on the Chevy’s rear door and it opened. He crawled inside. The radio was playing softly. A capped bottle of Scotch was on the floor. The kids did not move. He dragged the one from the backseat out into the grass and laid him down, safe from the fumes. Then he went back for the other two.
“I need some help out here!” he barked into his police radio, but even then, it was too late. They had been there for hours, the carbon monoxide poison was inside their bodies, finished, victorious, their flesh cold to the touch. When the other officers arrived, they found Rogers — who, like the victims, grew up in Ionia and attended the high school — standing helplessly in the field, with three dead teens and a whole world of sorrow.
This is a story about growing up, which everyone in high school is in a hurry to do — but not this way, not this fast. Danon Pierce, Kevin King and Chris Sawtell were three good faces in a small-town mural who were in the wrong car at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. They had played a football game, stayed out late, drank a little, parked the car and never woke up. And now there are empty chairs at empty lockers and a team with black arm bands and a coach who sighs and tries to find answers; there are grieving parents and whispering teachers. And most of all, there are the other kids, friends, who, as you might remember, are the plasma of high school. You’ve got to have friends; you die without your friends.
You die with them, too.
No one ever figured on that. I keep thinking, why couldn’t they have been with me? Then nothing would have happened.” Bart Cunningham leans back on a steel bar and shoots a weary glance across the field, his reddish hair still sweaty from practice. It is late afternoon, and the sun is moving out of the sky.
One day earlier he had attended the funerals of his three teammates, an event so heartbreaking to this small town it closed the school and a number of area businesses. Notes were dropped in the caskets, personal messages. The families wept. The Ionia players wore their football jerseys and formed a human wall from the church to the hearses and again from the hearses to the grave sites, shoulder to shoulder, silent, big adolescent bodies, watching the coffins go by. Bart helped carry Kevin King’s casket.
“The thing is,” he says, almost apologetically, “normally we go to my father’s house after a game. We shoot pool, play cards. It’s a regular thing on Friday nights. But this time, my sister had the chicken pox, so my dad didn’t want us all around.
“If they had come over to my house, they’d be alive now. If only they came over to my house. . . . ”
If only. If only. What happened that night seems to be a road map of near-misses, all of which led to that empty field at 4 a.m. If only Bart’s sister didn’t have the chicken pox. If only the guys didn’t drink that alcohol. If only they knew about the rotted exhaust system. If only it wasn’t so cold outside and they didn’t roll up the windows, sealing their death.
“The funerals are over,” Cunningham says softly, “and I still can’t believe it. I don’t know how long it’ll be before it hits me that . . . ”
He looks up, then down.
“I’ll never see them again.” How much do we know about our kids anymore? To ask friends about Kevin, Chris and Danon is to get a disturbing picture of teenage popularity and make-believe adulthood. On the one hand, they were good students, got A’s on their report cards, belonged to the student council. They were good-looking, nicely mannered, they liked to laugh and of course, they were football heroes. Kevin, 17, was the star fullback, Danon, 16, was the center, and Chris, 16, was the linebacker. They were leaders; on the last night of their lives the team lost, 46-0, to a rival school, and yet even in the fourth quarter, Chris Sawtell was urging his teammates: “Come on! We can still win this thing!”
They seemed perfect models of small-town adolescence. And yet, they also liked to drink, even at such young ages. They would cruise town and make trips to Lansing or Grand Rapids, and they never had problems getting booze — beer, wine, Scotch, Jack Daniel’s, Southern Comfort, you name it. Good kids. Smart kids. Drinking shots. This is a portrait of our youth.
Bill May was supposed to be with them that night. He had been with them before, on nights when they went from children to adults, nights when they drank or rumbled or raced around town in the Chevy and stayed out until sunlight. A beefy, strong-looking 16-year-old with a face that seems too old for high school, he sits now and tries to figure it out.
They came to his house after the game. There was this party, they said, these two girls were throwing it. “Come on, let’s go. It’ll be fun. Get some booze. Get a little buzz.” Bill said his shins were really hurting him; he wanted to go but he couldn’t. Thanks anyway. Next time. And they drove off in the Chevy.
It was the last time he saw them.
“I know what happened that night, because something like it happened about two months ago,” he says now, his voice full of regret. “It was the time we went downtown in Danon’s car. We found a buyer, got some alcohol, then we went to the back roads and mixed some drinks, did some slammers.
“Then we went back into town. Chris was the type who would get rowdy when he got buzzed, you know? He was just 150 pounds, but it didn’t matter. He’d take you on, even if you weighed 350 pounds. We were on Main Street, and these guys pulled by in an IROC-Z, and he yelled something and they stopped. They got out of the car. Chris said, ‘We’re gonna rock ‘n’ roll. Come on.’
“They started slapping each other, and Chris knocked this one guy down like a ton of bricks. ‘You want some?’ he yelled. ‘Come on!’ Then another guy hit Chris and he fell into me, so I jumped in and took care of things. Chris’ lips were all cut up; it looked like somebody took a razor blade to them.
“Of course, we got in trouble when we got home. We were all grounded. I think what happened Friday is that they just didn’t want to go home. Not after that last time. You know how your parents are if you come home late and were drinking? So they figured they would camp out and go home in the morning. We’re really into the Rambo stuff. We have this field where we stash our sleeping bags underground, and we hide food in a hollow tree. . . . ”
He pauses. “I bet they wanted to camp out, but it was too cold, so they just left the car running with the heater on and you know, they fell asleep. .
. . ”
What makes kids act this way? What is the big hurry to be so grown up? Bill May blows a lung full of air and shakes his head. There is a sadness in his face. The whiskers seem to fall off, and the man-sized body slouches like a school kid on a swing.
How did it all come to this, he wonders? The driving, the drinking, the fooling around. They were just having fun.
“We’re not saints,” he says. “But I lost my two best friends in the whole word in one night.” The police have reconstructed the tragic night. The boys were last seen by their coach and teammates in the locker room after the game, which had been a disappointment. Kevin was ejected by an official for a skirmish, and afterward he was near tears. “It’s my fault,” he told his teammates. “I’m the reason we lost. I feel like crap.” The others assured him he was not to blame.
After the game, the kids stopped at a house, then went to a party given by Wendy and Kathy Nobis, two girls who also attend Ionia High. They left the party and went to a friend’s house, then drove around town, went to another house, then drove to the Farmers Market on Steele Street, where they were last seen talking to friends about 3:30 a.m. Somewhere along the line there was alcohol consumed. But not a lot.
After that, only heaven knows. Kevin, Chris and Danon fell asleep with the motor running, sometime after 4 a.m. on that hidden tractor path off Frank Road — which, ironically, is not far from the high school — a narrow dirt street of fields and sprawling trees that grow close to the edge and hook branches overhead, like soldiers crossing swords. It is dark there, and remote. A good place to park. A good place to sleep it off. Apparently, that’s what they were doing.
“Kids had hung out around there before,” said State Police detective Jack Van der Wal, who found McDonald’s fast-food bags and other refuse near the scene. What the three boys didn’t know, though, was that the tall weeds beneath the car served as stuffing for its faulty exhaust system, which was riddled with holes, allowing the fumes to be sucked in by the heater, through the rusted trunk and into the car.
They were sleeping in a coffin.
Had that car been registered in Detroit, it never would have passed the emissions test. But there is no such test in this part of the state. So the carbon monoxide filled the boys’ lungs as they slept, attacking the blood cells, robbing the oxygen. They died with the radio on.
Chris Sawtell was wearing his high school letter jacket.
When Van der Wal inspected the car, he found a duffel bag, a portable radio, a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of Southern Comfort, still mostly full.
Toxicology reports show alcohol was in the victims’ systems, but not much. Danon, the driver, had the least, not even enough to fail a breathalizer test.
“People want to make this all about alcohol, but it isn’t,” Van der Wal said. “It was just a terrible accident. Had they been stone sober, they still would have died.”
But would they have been there in the first place? In the days since the accident, a 21-year-woman has been arrested and charged with providing liquor to minors at that party. She was jailed for 10 days.
Empty chairs at empty lockers. And the kids are left to figure this all out. Dead? How could they be dead? Kevin King, the strong, tempestuous one, who would gather the team together after victories and lean in, real quiet, then explode in a yowl: “LET’S ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!” Dead? Chris Sawtell, the guy who made freshman girls swoon, daring, adventurous, with the easy smile of confidence. Dead? Danon Pierce, who owned the car but dreamed of motorcycles, and who was on the student council, and, according to his coach, Dan Painter, “was always coming up with some idea to make the school better.” Dead?
No. Can’t be. They were the kinds of kids who worked at the local market or the local nursery; they waved at honking cars in this small town where everybody knows everybody else. Friday nights they carried the pride of the school, which always seems to ride on shoulder pads at that age, and they fought hard for it, football, good and real. How do kids like that die?
There is no answer. They just do. Brian Snyder knew Kevin since they were little kids. They had grown up in each others’ houses, they were on the team together, Brian was an offensive lineman, and they had this special look whenever the coach would call “44 Trap.” That was Kevin’s play, and Brian’s job was to block the safety. Do it right, and Kevin could spring for big yardage. He would come back to the huddle and high-five his buddy. Thanks for the hole. Nice play.
“It was really hard to hear that play called today and not see Kevin there,” says Snyder, a husky kid with wavy brown hair and a trace of freckles. “I never played a football game without him before.”
He stops and picks at the knee of his pants. His eyes are watery and he sniffs when he can’t help it. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s not a lot of fun seeing the casket come down over your friend’s face, you know? I . . . haven’t really figured this all out yet. . . . ”
There was a favorite photo Brian had of him, Kevin and Bart, posing like muscle men. It always made him laugh when he saw it. He doesn’t have it anymore. The day before, he placed it alongside Kevin’s body.
You hear that, and you see these kids, and you are overwhelmed with a sense of wrong. They are too young for this. They are too raw for tragedy. In the inner-city schools of Detroit, death has become a frequent classmate; there are, tragically, guns and knives and youths who seem anything but young. But here in Ionia, where the halls are freshly painted and the gym floor is freshly waxed and the cheerleaders practice cartwheels in empty corridors, it seems too remote. Kids here are just having fun, right? That’s what everyone keeps saying.
“I know about the drinking and stuff,” Snyder says. “But they weren’t doing anything bad. They weren’t doing anything everybody else wasn’t doing. .
. . ” Where do we stand on all this? The lenient will say, “We all did the same thing in high school. Alcohol didn’t kill them. The car did.” The more conservative will wring their hands. “What are teenagers doing out at that hour, driving around with liquor bottles, sleeping out all night? They weren’t even 17 years old.”
And out on Frank Road, there is now a gate across the path where the boys were found. Leaning against it is a wooden board, a tombstone of sorts, reading “RIP” and carrying a heart and a message of love from fellow students. There are roses and private notes, and most every day some girls from the school come out and tend to the site, straightening the flowers and crying in the shade of the large branches.
Empty chairs at empty lockers. Once upon a time, the three used to talk about opening their own business. Chris would be the lawyer and Danon the operator and Kevin, well, he would find something to do. Once upon a time, before they could drive, they snuck the Chevy out and their football cleats accidentally ripped a hole in the carpet, and they had to run and get some glue and pray Danon’s mom wouldn’t notice. Once upon a time, they used to sleep under the stars in sleeping bags, as far back as seventh grade, just go walking in the woods like those kids in “Stand By Me,” come back into town for food and soda and then be gone again, on a teenage adventure.
And once upon a time, they took the Chevy out to the gravel pits with a .22-gauge borrowed from a father and were target shooting when a bullet ricocheted off the fender and narrowly missed Danon’s hip. They laughed, as kids will do. From that point, they called the car “the Gold Bullet.”
Can irony get any more painful than that? This Friday is homecoming for Ionia. It will be the first football game on the home field since the night of the accident. The players will wear black arm bands. They will dedicate the performance to their missing teammates.
And survivors such as Bill May — who could have been with them that night — will try to figure out whatever happened to simple old high school. “I tell everyone now not to drink,” he says. “I’m never gonna drink again. I think we were kind of starting to have a problem, you know? We’d get a fifth of this or that and just drink it for the feeling of being drunk. Not anymore. I’m never touching a drop again.”
“I just wish I could have been with them,” says Brett Krause, a red-headed senior lineman who worked this summer with Chris at the tree nursery. “I wouldn’t mind if they had a good time. I’d be there, sober, just to make sure they were safe. Better to be home and drunk than not to go home at all.”
“I wish,” Bart Cunningham says, “that my sister never had the chicken pox.”
Where is the moral of this story? Where is the silver lining? These were good kids, smart kids, well-liked and healthy. Were it not for a rolled-up window or a rusty trunk they would still be alive. They were not drunkards. They were not drug addicts. It was an accident. And yet the image is haunting, our children, out there, in cars, behind bottles, acting like adults when they are really still forming, still stretching their flesh. Where is the silver lining?
There is none.
“I’ve been sleeping about three hours a night,” says May, who may never stop missing these guys. “I keep having this dream. We win the game, and we’re all celebrating. Everybody’s in the huddle, holding their helmets up. And then we’re at my house, and Chris, Danon and Kevin are there, just like that night. I get out of the shower, and this time they talk me into going with them. We all get into the Chevy. . . .
“And as soon as the doors close, everything goes black.”
He stops talking and stares at the field. A fall breeze blows his hair up, then drops it gently on his forehead. It is October now, and nobody here is as young as they used to be. Jesus. Is anybody? CUTLINE Friends painted the boys’ jersey numbers on a tree. Kevin King Chris Sawtell Danon Pierce
Bill May: “I’m never gonna drink again. I think we were kind of starting to have a problem, you know? . . . Not anymore. I’m never touching a drop again.”
Brett Krause: “I just wish I could have been with them. I wouldn’t mind if they had a good time. I’d be there, sober, just to make sure they were safe. Better to be home and drunk than not to go home at all.” Bart Cunningham: “If they had come over to my house, they’d be alive now. If only they came over to my house… ” Flowers and balloons decorate Danon Pierce’s grave. Rhonda Comstock, 17, (standing) and Michelle Patrick, 16, visit the gate near the site of the accident every day after school. Below, messages from classmates cover one of the signs left at the gate. Signs, flowers and funeral flags mark a gate near the site where Kevin King, Chris Sawtell and Danon Pierce died.