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O.C. Teen Who Drove in Fatal Crash Charged

October 06, 1995|KEN ELLINGWOOD and J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Prosecutors filed felony charges Thursday against a teen-age driver from Anaheim who admitted drinking 10 beers before a car crash in Victorville that killed four of his friends and injured three others.

James V. Patterson, who turned 18 on Wednesday, was charged with four counts of vehicular manslaughter--one for each of the teens killed in the July 29 desert wreck. He also faces two counts of felony drunk driving.

Meanwhile, the Orange parents of one of the deceased teens filed a wrongful death lawsuit seeking unspecified damages from Patterson and his parents.

"We have no choice," said Cynthia Bender, whose 18-year-old son, Steven Richard Bender, died in the wreck. "And I think there'll be three more filed too."

Bender said, "All four boys died as a result of somebody getting behind the wheel who should never have been behind the wheel. He has to live with that the rest of his life. But you have to change behavior patterns, or it's going to happen again."

Patterson's father, David Patterson, declined to comment except to say, "I feel like up to now my son has been tried in the press."

James Patterson was at the wheel when his Chevy Suburban careened out of control on a desert dirt road and rolled over several times. His blood alcohol level was found to be 0.16%, twice the legal limit for adult drivers and 16 times the limit for drivers under 21. A police report shows he was driving at least 58 m.p.h.

Four friends died as a result of the crash, which left 40 beer cans strewn in its wake.

The others who died were Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro Curtis, 16, of Garden Grove, John Thornton, 18, of Anaheim, and Anthony Fuentes, 17, of Anaheim. Three other friends were seriously injured.

Patterson, a Katella High School senior, suffered only minor injuries.

The prosecutor said Patterson will remain free pending an Oct. 20 arraignment hearing in Juvenile Court in San Bernardino, when a judge will decide whether he should be kept in custody until trial.

San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Colin Bilash said the allegations against Patterson did not meet legal requirements--such as nature of the alleged crime and the way it was carried out--for trying him as an adult. Bilash said the youth's clean record was also a factor in the prosecution's decision to try him as a juvenile, which means Patterson could be held in Juvenile Hall until he turns 21, if convicted.

"He's not been involved in the [criminal justice] system before," Bilash said.

That decision disappointed the father of Jonothan Curtis.

"It was four deaths and my son Jonothan, he was my only child. . . . This case should send a message out to kids that it's not OK to drink and drive," said Fred Curtis. "It's not OK to drink and drive, and it's not OK to kill your friends."

Fred Curtis also said Patterson displayed "arrogance" and "total irresponsibility" when he told police about his drinking.

Patterson told California Highway Patrol investigators he drank 10 beers around a campfire during the group's overnight camping trip to the desert. He said he got four hours of sleep in the back of the Suburban and figured that was enough time to sober him up, according to a CHP report.

Patterson told police he considered himself able to drink a 12-pack and still act "normal."

"Normally when we go and spend the night somewhere, our designated drivers will drink what they think they can handle, which would for a lot of guys be a 12-pack, and then they fall asleep and then they go," Patterson told investigators after the wreck.

According to the report, Patterson took a 12-pack of beer from his parents' house before heading to the desert. The group of teens then went to Me-N-Paul's Market in Anaheim where they bought five more 12-packs, Patterson told police.

Anaheim authorities have filed misdemeanor charges against the market's owner and a clerk who allegedly sold beer to the youths, and state officials are seeking revocation of the market's liquor license. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is seeking a court injunction to prevent the store from selling alcohol to minors during the lengthy administrative procedure against the market.

The mother of John Thornton said she trusts the prosecutors to do the right thing.

"Possibly more good will come out of it in the juvenile system. I understand it's not so much focus on punishment as it is on rehabilitation," said Christine Thornton. "If this is the way they feel best going about it, we just hope and pray the system will work."

She added: "We'd like it to be the last tragedy of this kind. . . . We just don't want this to ever happen again."

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