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WHY?

James Patterson Rolled His Dad's Suburban and Four of His Friends Died. His Blood Alcohol Level Showed He Was Drunk. More Than a Year Later, Everyone Touched by the Accident Is Still Struggling to Answer the Question.

July 28, 1996|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a Times staff writer in Orange County

He dreams that they are driving again, all eight boys cruising along the unpaved back roads of his mind. He begs them to pull over and let him out, he should get home, but they tell him to shut up and relax, everything will be fine. Reluctant, he sits back and lets himself be chauffeured across the stark landscape of his subconscious, past low-flying clouds of blame and guilt. He lets himself be ferried through the long night, until morning comes and the alarm goes off. Time to go to school. Time to face what happened.

It was 6:20 a.m., July 29, 1995. Starting home from an overnight camping trip with seven friends, he lost control of his father's 1987 Chevrolet Suburban and sent it tumbling across a barren stretch of the Mojave Desert north of Victorville. Like a Ferris wheel set free of its mooring, the 5,000-pound truck rolled across the desert floor, and with each revolution a friend vanished, a family shattered, a future dissolved.

When everything came to a shuddering stop, he opened his eyes and saw Jono, beautiful Jono, a swimmer with out-to-here shoulders and bottomless brown eyes that made all the girls weak, and he knew right away that Jono was dead. He turned to look in the backseat at John, a snowboarder with a taste for adventure, and he knew at once that John was dead, too. He looked out the window and saw the others, scattered in the wake of the truck. Steven, Drake, Pig, Joe, Tony. He jumped out the window and ran to each one, begging them to be alive.

Encrusted with bits of windshield and chrome, the desert glittered in the morning sun like a diamond field. Nearby campers and dirt bikers, thinking a plane must have crashed nose first, came running toward the swirling plumes of smoke and found him sitting in the glassy dust, stroking the hand of Pig, his best friend since grade school. "It's my fault," he told them, sobbing. "I killed my friends!"

California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. His breath reeked of beer, and a blood test showed that he was legally drunk. Had he been an adult, James Virgil Patterson probably would be in prison right now, perhaps for years to come. But because he was an honor student at Anaheim's Katella High School, because he was an Eagle Scout, because he was two months shy of his 18th birthday, the law regarded him as an errant youth. Though he admitted to killing four boys--Steven "Pig" Bender, 18, Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro, 16, Tony Fuentes Jr., 17, and John Thornton, 18--and seriously injuring three others, the law exempted him from adult punishment.

Now, on a drizzly March morning eight months after the crash, he sits in San Bernardino County Juvenile Court, awaiting his sentence. For weeks, he and the parents of his dead friends have understood that he will plead guilty to four counts of vehicular manslaughter and two counts of felony drunk driving, then receive 120 days in jail and 120 days of alcohol rehabilitation. (As a gesture to the parents, the court also will bar him from taking part in graduation ceremonies at Katella, where he ranks near the top of his 316-member class.)

"Awful as this was," says Colin Bilash, a deputy district attorney of San Bernardino, "he didn't set out to kill these kids. There's no chance we would be able to try him under these circumstances as an adult. Our hands are tied."

So the real punishment this morning will be meted out by the dead boys' parents, who have waited months for one clean shot at James. Officially, each parent will be asked to present a "victim-impact statement," something judges have used in recent years to let injured parties directly address the courts. But none of the parents assembled this morning intends to address Court Referee Joseph M. Petrasek. They intend to address James. He is the sole reason they rose at dawn and made the long journey from Anaheim to this dreary brown building behind a mental hospital on the outskirts of San Bernardino. Before James receives what they consider a slap on the wrist, they want to tell him about the ruin he's caused.

They are difficult to watch: four sets of heartbroken parents who move in slow motion, speak in fragments, obsess about blame. Until blame has been fully counted in this case, they can't rest--though some understand that such a reckoning may never come, an idea that makes them walk the floor at night. Sometimes they blame fate, or God, or Budweiser. Occasionally they blame themselves for letting their sons go unsupervised to the desert, for looking the other way when their sons drank beer, for the chain of parental decisions that led to one impossibly tragic crash. But such self-doubts only strengthen their resolve to blame James.

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