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 . . .