This is what awaits the survivors.
Joe Lelli gets out of the car and squints against the cold December wind. That’s the lake, he says, the last place he remembers them all together, Jim, Jack, Graham and him. It was just before Christmas, the water was frozen over, hockey time, and he remembers the way they jostled for the puck. “We hit each other so hard we just started giggling,” he says. “It was so much fun.”
He sniffs, digs his hands into his pockets and rotates his stiff left leg. There were other days that followed, but he can’t remember any of them. This blue Ford Bronco keeps crashing into his head. It lands there with a deadly impact and blows out anything that happened a week before and a month after. All Lelli knows is that the four of them were together, playing hockey on this lake, and now, one year later, he is the only one alive.
“I believe they’re in heaven,” he says. “I really do. And there were a lot of times this past year I wished I’d gone with them.”
This is a story about a life of nevers, which is the life that awaits the mothers, the fathers, the friends, the relatives, the survivors, the victims, everyone involved in a drunken driving tragedy. A life of nevers. It was the phrase Graham’s father used at the trial, telling the judge, we will never look into our son’s eyes again. Never know whom he would marry. Never hear him laugh. Never hug him. Never anything. Ever again.
This is a story about a life of nevers and it ends here, at this lake, where Joe Lelli tries to piece his body and his world back together. But it begins, well, it begins one year ago, on New Year’s Day, in a bar outside Howell where, in keeping with the American tradition of starting the calendar with a hangover, the place was offering a New Year’s Special — a chicken sandwich, a Bloody Mary and 22-ounce beers.
And a 36-year-old named Donald Hokenson was chugging down every bit of it.
By the time he left the Sports Den bar and got into his vehicle, around 10:30 that night, Hokenson had enough alcohol in his bloodstream — at least five of those 22-ounce beers, along with the Bloody Mary — to triple the legal limit on the roads. This did not stop him. But then, it never had. Incredibly, Hokenson, who lived in Brighton and worked in the heating and cooling business, had at least 43 prior traffic citations in Michigan — everything from speeding to accidents to four suspended licenses — along with a string of 14 violations in Colorado, including two drunken driving arrests and convictions.
Somehow, he was still free.
Somehow, he was still driving.
He started the Bronco and headed for the highway.
Had it been one minute later or one minute earlier, what Hokenson did still would have been reprehensible. But it would not have involved Lelli, a former Brighton High baseball player, or Jim Mitchell, a handsome soccer star, or his younger brother Jack, an accomplished wrestler and placekicker on the football team, or their friend Graham Morsehead, who played guitar in the basement of his house where they hung out all those years. The four of them, friends since childhood, were on their way home from Kalamazoo, where they had watched TV and seen Michigan win a slice of the national football championship with a victory over Washington State in the Rose Bowl.
Now their car was headed north on U.S.-23. Jim was driving. They were going the speed limit. They were 20 minutes from home. Had it been one minute earlier, one minute later . . .
But no. Hokenson, with all that alcohol in him, was already speeding and weaving on the road. He zoomed up behind one vehicle, swerved to barely avoid it, and now was ready to make contact. He came up hard on a black Dodge Ram truck, banged it from the rear, and forced it into a ditch. He then veered to his left, lost control, sped across the median in excess of 80 miles an hour and lifted off, the entire weight of his 1990 blue Ford Bronco suddenly airborne, a four-wheeled missile of chromium and steel, dropping over the northbound lane.
And then it crash-landed.
It plowed into Jim Mitchell’s 1988 red Pontiac Grand Prix, and it literally tore the roof off. The Mitchell brothers were crushed beyond recognition. Morsehead, likewise, never knew what hit him. Lelli, who had been sitting in the back on the passenger side, was somehow ejected from the car and hurled alongside the highway, landing close to death, with critical injuries to his skull, spine, leg, arm, knee and jaw.
And the perpetrator, Hokenson? He came down relatively unscathed, with two broken ankles. He was awake and yelling when people began arriving, and his breath so reeked from alcohol that several witnesses who stopped at the scene mentioned it to police.
One of those witnesses was an off-duty nurse. She stopped her car and instinctively ran to the bodies in the Grand Prix. One glance told her it was too late. She looked up at the dark winter sky.
“Lord,” she whispered, “we give you these three boys….”
For the mothers
This is what awaits the mothers.
In the tidy kitchen of the Mitchell home in Brighton, sunlight beams through the squared glass panels on the backdoor. Janet Mitchell puts out cinnamon buns and cheese Danish, then sits down and begins to cry.
She is talking about the doorbell that rang that terrible morning, around 6 o’clock, the one she and her husband, Tom, were so sure signaled the return of their sons. Probably forgot their key, she figured, as Tom stumbled down to let them in.
Then she heard strange voices and she came nervously down the steps and there were these two police officers and Tom was asking, “What? Is it about the boys?”
“May we come in?”
“Were they in an accident?”
“How bad were they hurt?”
And then Tom was fainting, and Janet was running for a washcloth to revive him and she was screaming and she was numb and this couldn’t be, this just couldn’t be. Fatality? That means death. Not her boys. Not the boys!
Not Jim, not her first-born, the one with the magnetic smile and the iron will, the soccer star at Brighton High who made all-state and went to Western Michigan and played soccer there and was now, at 22, on his way to being an engineer at Michigan Tech. He was too focused to die, he had so much in front of him, his girlfriend, his sports, his motorcycle, his camping, his confident, relaxed, flannel-shirted way of taking things on. Hadn’t he just earned a 4.0 in his last semester? Hadn’t he called his younger sister, Jennifer, and taught her how to download on her computer? Hadn’t he once been in the hospital, after knee surgery, and his pulse rate was so low that Janet screamed for the doctor, only the doctor said, “Your son must be some runner; he’s in such good shape his pulse rate is 40.”
Kids like that don’t die, right? Not Jim. And not Jack. Oh, God, not Jack, the younger brother. Jack was too sweet. And too indestructible. Hadn’t he once windsurfed halfway into the Atlantic Ocean down in Florida? And he came back. Hadn’t he once bicycled from Brighton to Ann Arbor — in the rain — just to see a girl? And he came back. Hadn’t he flown his mountain bike down treacherous hills, hadn’t he wrestled all those muscular opponents in high school, hadn’t he gone out to kick on the football team, week after week? And he came back. He always came back.
He had to come back. He was only 21. He was too caring, too compassionate. Hadn’t he gone with a relief team down to Florida, after Hurricane Andrew, and helped the victims recover? Kids like that don’t die.
Their mother dabs her eyes now, softly choking on words. She never saw her sons’ bodies. The crash was so devastating, police needed dental records to tell the boys apart. Every few weeks now, she gets together with neighbors and they sew a quilt with material from the boys’ shirts. It makes her feel better somehow. Closer to them. Sewing their shirts.
“Just before the crash they had signed the nicest Christmas card,” she says.
Her husband holds it out for a visitor. Already on the table are photo albums of their family trips and prom pictures of Jim and computer drawings by Jack and now the Christmas card to their parents that begins, ironically, with
“Look down, Dear Lord, on two special people. . . .”
And this is what awaits the mothers — souvenirs and snapshots, because the sons are all gone.
For the fathers
This is what awaits the fathers.
In the lakefront home of the Morsehead family, you can look out over the spot where the boys would play hockey. It is a lovely view, maybe even privileged, but, at this moment, it is totally worthless to the saddened gathering at the large living room table. Here are the grandparents, mother and younger brother of Graham Morsehead. They are listening to his father, Richard, talk about the last time he saw them all alive.
“They were getting set to go to Kalamazoo, they were gonna go to that New Year’s party and then stay over and watch the ballgame. I remember pulling Jim Mitchell aside and saying, ‘Be careful driving out there.’ And he was almost surprised. He said, ‘Mr. Morsehead, you know I’m not gonna drink and drive.’ And I said, ‘I know you won’t. But you gotta be careful of the other guy.’ “
He pauses, and he, too, begins to choke up.
“And Jim said, ‘I’ll be careful, Mr. Morsehead. I will….’ “
Graham Morsehead — whose real first name was Richard, like his father — was a smiling kid who was deceptively quiet. Sometimes, he was only being quiet because he refused to say anything bad about anyone. He was in the same grade as Jack Mitchell and was great friends with Joe Lelli, and together they dubbed the lake outside his house “Graham’s Lake.”
How many afternoons had they spent fishing out there in a pontoon boat? How many nights had they all gathered in Graham’s basement, playing guitars and pantomiming rock stars? It was so often, such regular chaos, that Richard and his wife, Kathy, had no idea they should have been counting the memories.
And then their doorbell rang that cold January morning, and there were police officers, and they were saying “dead” and the tears started flowing and no, no, no, “dead” does not happen to your oldest boy, not this way, not so sudden, so brutal. Earlier that week he had told his father, “Dad, this is the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
And now the police didn’t even want them to see their son’s body, and Richard and Kathy so desperately wanted something positive to happen they kept saying,
“You can use any organs, Graham would have wanted that . . .” and the police said nothing back, because they didn’t have the heart to tell them that the impact of the crash had destroyed their son’s organs beyond salvation.
Richard bites his lower lip now and stares straight ahead. He is a teacher, as is his wife, and teachers are supposed to set examples. But at the hearing for Donald Hokenson, it was all he could do to control his anger.
“We pulled into the parking lot at the same time, and it took me an hour to calm down…. All we kept hearing about was his rights. Here were three young men laid away in the prime of their lives. What are three lives worth in our legal system?”
A bond was set at $75,000, and Hokenson was free for months before judgment. Meanwhile, Graham was buried with a shirt from his brother, Matt, and some favorite fishing lures, and a U-M hat from the championship game that was the last happy moment the friends had together.
“You hear these things happen,” Richard says, “but it’s not supposed to happen to your son. Our life has changed. I’ll never walk the same. I’ll never look at things the same. I’ll never move the same….”
He pauses to catch his breath.
“I will never have another drop of alcohol. That industry has caused so much pain to my family…. I will not contribute to the myth that having a drink to relax is all fun and games and parties and there’s no pain to it, because . .
He is crying now.
“…because it’s completely unbearable . . .”
“…it is heart-wrenching . . .”
“…it is so real . . .”
Not too long ago, Kathy called home.
“How are you doing?” she asked her husband.
“I sold the couch,” he said.
Sold the couch?
“I couldn’t bear to look at it without Graham.”
That is what awaits the fathers — wandering around a beautiful home, selling off the furniture, because the dead child is in everything you see and do.
For the drunks
This is what awaits the guilty party.
Donald Hokenson sat in a wheelchair during the hearings. At times he hid behind a podium, to avoid face-to-face contact with the victims’ relatives. And at other times he simply looked at his feet. His lawyers argued against the second-degree murder charges. They questioned the accuracy of the blood-alcohol tests, which showed Hokenson at a level of .24, more than twice Michigan’s drunken level of .10 and three times the impaired level of .08. They also argued that his driving record — which by anybody’s standards was an abomination — should not be admissible.
It didn’t seem to matter that Hokenson had lied about his Michigan driving record — which featured 43 citations — when he applied for a license in Colorado in 1993. And despite two alcohol-related convictions in that state and charges of driving without a license or insurance, he was still able to get another license here in Michigan. (A new law, which goes into effect in October 1999, would have prohibited him from acquiring a Michigan license for at least one year because of his Colorado offenses. But the secretary of state’s office says that because the Colorado charges were for impaired driving instead of drunken driving, enough time had passed that there was no legal way to deny him under existing law.)
The hearings were emotional. Prosecutors sought the most severe penalties. But in the end, after living free for nearly nine months, Hokenson offered a plea bargain a week before his trial was scheduled to begin. He pleaded no-contest to three second-degree murder charges and one charge of operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol.
At the sentencing, the mothers and fathers of the murdered sons spoke of their pain and loss. Richard Morsehead pleaded for a severe punishment, saying,
“Some people get messages, others don’t…. Just as Mr. Hokenson has brought the full meaning of ‘never’ to our lives, we think it is time for the courts to return the favor to him.”
Finally, Hokenson made a brief statement.
“I am truly sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.”
This from a man who had at least 100 ounces of beer and a Bloody Mary in his bloodstream when he started his car.
The judge gave the sentence: maximum 15 years in prison. They took Hokenson away.
With parole, analysts say, he could be out in seven years.
For the survivors
This is what awaits the next person who lives through it.
Joe Lelli now dreads sleeping. He stays on the couch as long as he can each night, staring at the TV, flipping channels, delaying the inevitable, because lying in bed is when the depression is the worst.
He still doesn’t recall what happened. Everything is blank. From that hockey game before Christmas to the day he regained consciousness in the hospital, five weeks later. All white space.
“I know it’s somewhere in my head, but I’d rather it never came back,” he says.
He talks at a small diner in Brighton, a place where he once came for breakfast with his buddies, who are all gone now. Although he looks, at first glance, to be a normal 22-year-old — jeans, flannel shirt, backward baseball cap, brown bangs poking out from under the brim — there are scars all over Lelli’s 6-foot-3 body. He has needed 20 surgeries to put him back together, from the hole in his skull to relieve pressure on his brain, to the metal cage around his broken spine, to the plate in his broken arm, the rod in his leg, the screws in his knee, the repairs to his liver and spleen, the skin graft around his ear where his jawbone snapped and pushed through the flesh.
Lelli was in a coma for weeks. He was unconscious for his friends’ funerals. He was unconscious for the TV reports and newspaper stories. He finally came to — at least this is when he remembers coming to — during the Super Bowl, of all things, at the end of January. On the TV, John Elway of the Denver Broncos dove for a first down, and for some reason — maybe because the last thing he did with his friends was watch a football game on TV — for some reason, Joe smiled.
From that point forward, it has been a long, depressing climb. From bed to wheelchair, wheelchair to cane, cane to limp. Lelli goes to rehab three or four times a week, putting in hours of weights and treadmills. He is determined to play sports again, to run again, to lose the numbness on his left side and put on the new Bauer skates he wore just once before, in their last hockey game together.
He wants to skate one more time on Graham’s lake.
For now, he does what he can. He takes college classes. He goes to rehab. And he misses his friends. He is torn between the blessing of surviving the crash and the guilt of being the only one. “Graham’s mom likes to see me, she says it does her good, so I’m glad about that,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder if the other families feel cheated, ’cause I lived and their kids didn’t.”
About a month ago, Lelli went to the cemetery, to Jim’s and Jack’s graves. He stood there for 15 minutes, hoping it would make him feel better. Then he left.
“Nothing feels like it did before,” he says. “My whole life is completely different now. I don’t do the same things I used to. I don’t go out. I don’t cut loose.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I’m just not that happy anymore.”
Last year, 45 people died every day from alcohol-related traffic accidents in this country. And every weekday night, between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. — the hours in which Jim Mitchell, Jack Mitchell and Graham Morsehead left this earth — one out of every 13 drivers on the road is drunk. Think about how little time it takes to pass 12 other cars, and you realize how the odds are stacking up against you.
But then, they have been for a long time. Thanks to a court system that does not treat drunken driving as a serious-enough threat to put all offenders behind bars — or even off the roads — the majority of Americans, three out of every five people, will be involved in an alcohol-related traffic incident at some point in their lives.
So this might be what awaits you, too, fathers, mothers, sisters or brothers: At some point, a version of the flying blue Bronco with the drunken man behind the wheel will come crashing into your life. But as the Mitchells, Morseheads and Lellis will tell you, it doesn’t stop with the police or the funeral or the weeping friends and neighbors. That car keeps crashing into you. It crashes into every holiday, every birthday celebration, every time you walk past the old bedroom, every time you sit down to a meal with one less chair at the table. It crashes for days, then weeks, then years, then forever.
“I had this dream,” Lelli says now. “I was walking through the neighborhood and I saw Jim and Jack and Graham and they were all in Graham’s driveway. And I came over and grabbed them and hugged them, and they were all laughing and real happy to see me. It was so real.”
“And then I woke up. And I thought, aw, shoot . . .”
He looks off at the water. The lake will be frozen soon. Hockey time. You can almost hear the echoes of the four of them clowning around, jostling for the puck. But Lelli turns and walks away. Echoes are echoes.
They’re never playing hockey again.
Never is very real word now. It is etched in blood in Lelli’s life, and in all the families’ and friends’ lives, too. And the sad truth is tonight, every time a boozed-up New Year’s celebrant reaches for the car keys, someone else’s life of nevers will be just around the bend.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE
From 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., New Year’s Eve drinkers who want to avoid driving in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties can place a toll-free call to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s Project Liferide — 1-877-367-6233 — for a free cab ride home.