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One Wrong Move : In an instant, their lives changed--and others' ended. For teens who make a mistake behind the wheel, the pain never ends.

November 01, 1995|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a story of young lives changed in an instant, of bloodied bumpers and broken bodies, grieving parents and tearful classmates. It is a story not of those who died, but rather those who lived, knowing their actions were the cause--however accidentally--of another's death.

In August, four Anaheim High School athletes died when the Chevy Suburban they were riding in crashed near Victorville. Police found more than 40 empty beer cans strewn about the wreckage. Days later, two Fountain Valley teens died in a high-speed crash en route to a drivers' education class.

Every year in this country, some 5,000 young drivers--most of them male, a third of them drunk--get behind the wheel of a car and kill someone, often another teen-ager, often a friend.

*

It was the last day of 1981 and Kevin Tunell, armed with his older brother's ID and a plan for New Year's Eve, drove to a market near his home in Fairfax, Va., and "scored" two bottles of champagne. After a full night of partying--and drinking--Tunell was, as he put it, "feeling no pain" by the time he started out for home on early New Year's Day.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 2, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 7 View Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Incorrect Name--The story "One Wrong Move" in Wednesday's Life & Style misidentified the high school attended by four teen-agers who were killed in an August car accident. The name of the school is Katella High School in Anaheim.

When friends tried to stop him, Tunell brushed them off with the famous teen motto: "Nothing ever happens to me!"

But a mile or so from his home, something did happen. As Tunell's big gray Dodge rounded a blind curve, it swerved across the double yellow line and into the path of Susan Marie Herzog's tiny compact.

The force of the impact fractured her skull, broke her neck, both of her arms and both of her legs. She died instantly. Tunell walked away with a bump on the head and a few cuts.

Later, as he sat in the lockup surrounded by police, "What I'd done sounded an awful lot like murder to me. I was terrified," Tunell recalls.

Because it happened on a Friday and because Susan Marie Herzog was 18 years old, Susan's grieving parents reasoned that it was only right that Kevin should pay for what he did every Friday for 18 years.

With the court's approval, Tunell, then only 17, agreed to write out a $1 check in the dead girl's name and send it to her family every Friday of every week of every month until the year 2000.

After nearly six years of check-writing, Tunell stopped. "It just hurt too much to continue," he told a judge. Instead, Tunell offered the Herzogs 12 years' worth of checks in a box. They gave it back.

The whole point, the Herzogs reminded, is to make sure Tunell "never forgets that he killed our daughter."

As if he ever could.

In a country where car crashes--with or without alcohol--still kill more 15- to 20-year-olds than guns, disease, drowning or any other cause, Kevin Tunell was for a time the most famous adolescent drunk driver in the land.

Make that the most famous repentant drunk driver.

After pleading guilty in a Virginia juvenile court to DWI manslaughter, Tunell was ordered not only to write 18 years of checks to his victim but also to publicly confess his crime, over and over again.

Turning his tragedy into a cautionary tale for other teens was inspired, says educator John Berndt of the L.A. County Office of Education's Friday Night Live program to deter youths from drinking and driving. He remembers student, as well as adult, audiences transfixed by the sweet-faced Tunell's tearful telling of the worst night of his life.

Although Kevin never was charged as a murderer, some people treated him like one.

As he told auditoriums full of high school students, "I realized there were hundreds and hundreds of people who hated me. Her sisters, her parents, her best friend in school and her best friend at church. They all just wanted to take my head and rip it off my shoulders because I took away one of their best friends and they didn't even have a chance to say goodby.

"I can tell you if you end up in my shoes, you won't like it, you won't like it one bit," he warned.

For years, he says, he was haunted not only by what he had done but by visions of Susan herself. At night, and sometimes during the day, Tunell would be seized with a chilling premonition "that she was coming to visit."

While the dead girl seemed to always be with him, Tunell says that after the accident, some of his friends were not.

"They sort of disappeared. It seemed like no one wanted to know me anymore." Even today, thousands of miles from his past, friendships can be difficult. "It's awkward to explain what I did for all those years. When I do tell people the truth, it's awfully hard to believe," Tunell says.

"When you're young, you think nothing bad can ever happen to you. And, even if it does, so what? You get over it, you move on. Let me tell you, it's not that easy knowing that while you're alive, somebody else is dead."

Although he doesn't dwell on it, he dreads the coming of what he calls "the anniversary." He won't make plans for New Year's Eve. "It's generally just a time for reflection, I guess, and . . . " Tunell takes a big breath. "Let's just say it's a touchy time. There have been some rough ones."

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