By Patty Unruh
Thursday, April 30, 8:57 a.m. A teen glances down at a text message while driving and veers into the path of oncoming traffic. A crash ensues, and a death results. In a moment of time, lives are changed forever. Was that text message worth it?
That was the message that area first responders wanted Gilpin County teens to get. And they got it in a very graphic manner when they witnessed a staged car wreck at the driveway entrance in front of Gilpin County School last week, followed by a mock arrest and trial.
Students were unaware of what they were being taken to see when they spilled out of the school’s front door at 9:00 that morning. They quickly found out.
A Ford Focus with its side caved in and a Chevy Tahoe with front end damage were blocking the school driveway.
The scene was unreal, yet all too real. Screams. Blood. Sirens. Rescuers working urgently. The finality of a body covered. The dispatcher’s voice crackling over a loudspeaker.
“We have a couple red (critically wounded) and one black (deceased), and some walking wounded … helicopter on standby …”
In the midst of the blur of activity, the driver of the Ford Focus got out and sat on the embankment, dazed and weeping. The students knew that person: classmate Stephanie Siegrist.
School Resource Officer Lee Ramsey took a statement from Stephanie. It turned out that she had simply glanced down for a moment to answer a text. She didn’t see the other car…some people were hurt…her friend was dead…she knew it was her fault.
As students looked on, an officer placed Stephanie under arrest and led her away in handcuffs.
“What you just witnessed here today is a very real event, and it was completely avoidable,” Corporal Jason Sparks of the Highway Patrol advised the students. “Every day there are fatalities across our state and nation due to texting. This was staged, but this is what it looks like.”
With that exhortation in mind, the group adjourned to the Gilpin County Justice Center to participate in a mock trial.
Before we get to the trial, let’s examine some background.
The event was organized by Diane Stundon of Gilpin Ambulance Authority, who began planning last fall. She arranged to have the State Highway Patrol come for an “Alive at 25” lesson for the students, through means of the staged scene. The safety program as a whole is a survival course targeting the 15-24 age group with the intent to prevent auto crashes, the number one killer of teens.
All community emergency organizations were involved: Gilpin Ambulance, Timberline Fire Protection District, Central City and Black Hawk Fire Departments, Gilpin County Sheriff and Coroner, and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Staff and students from the theater department at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley came to do makeup and to play roles as accident victims.
Parents had been notified in advance, and because of the disturbing nature of the scene – four people “injured” and one “dead” – they could have their child opt out if they chose. An advisory was also posted on Twitter the morning of the incident that it was an exercise.
Highway 119 was blocked off in front of the school and traffic was reduced to one lane for the duration of the staged crash and rescue, with safety as the objective for participants and passersby.
Now, let’s join the 60 or so students packing the small Gilpin County Court for the mock trial.
All rose as the Honorable Judge David C. Taylor called the trial of “People v. Stephanie Siegrist” to order. The charge was careless driving causing injury.
All eyes were on Stephanie as she was brought in wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.
Twelve students and staff members were called as jurors.
Ali Shubert and Katherine Decker from the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office were prosecuting attorneys. Melissa Daruna was the defense lawyer representing Stephanie.
In opening statements, the prosecution informed the jury that Stephanie had picked up Cicely Lepro, another Gilpin student, that morning. At 8:55 a.m., a text came in to Stephanie’s phone. At 8:56, she took out the phone and looked at it. At 8:57, she crossed into the oncoming lane. The opposing car had no time to react and slammed into the passenger side of Stephanie’s car, killing Cicely.
“The defendant is not a bad person, but she is to be held responsible,” the DA advised. She asked the jury to find Stephanie guilty as charged.
The defense attorney countered, “Stephanie loved her friend. She is a great student. She never intended to harm anyone.”
Several witnesses were called, including two Highway Patrol officers, who testified about the crash investigation. Donna Taylor, Gilpin’s deputy coroner, testified about removing Cicely’s body. Several items were entered as exhibits, including Stephanie’s cell phone. With a search warrant, law officers had used technology to retrieve the final text message.
Stephanie’s friends, Alyssa Chareunsouk and Ariel Planck, testified about the texts they had sent to her just prior to the crash. Both had asked Stephanie where she was and whether she could bring them some coffees.
Ariel sent her text at 8:57 a.m., the moment of the crash. She didn’t get a response.
Stephanie’s own testimony showed that she was an 18-year-old senior with a 3.9 grade average. She admitted that she was looking at her phone while she turned in at the school driveway and didn’t see the other car.
“They were asking where I was, and I felt I needed to respond,” she said. She recalled the blood on Cicely’s head and said how upset and frightened she was.
In closing statements, attorneys for both sides acknowledged that Stephanie didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Prosecutors said, “She’s not a bad kid, but she made a deadly mistake.”
As the jury left the room to deliberate Stephanie’s fate, the judge prompted the student audience to thank their classmate for performing in the difficult role. “It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of your classmates wearing an orange jumpsuit.”
As one, they rose in a standing ovation.
While they waited for the jury to return, the students learned some grim statistics. There were 482 traffic deaths in Colorado in 2014. Eighteen to twenty thousand died throughout the United States.
Also, instead of careless driving, the charge could have been vehicular homicide, a felony. Victims’ families could file civil wrongful death charges, asking for millions of dollars in damages. Sgt. Madden noted that 40 percent of the people in the Department of Corrections are HIV positive, reason alone to stay out of jail.
Judge Taylor urged the students to use that day’s experience. “I’ve never met someone on trial who was not devastated. If one of you changes their mindset, this is successful.”
The jury then returned with the verdict: guilty of careless driving causing injury, including a death.
The judge’s sentence was one year in jail and, when released, 150 hours of community service. He noted the negative effect of such a sentence on future college, military, or career plans.
After the event, Stephanie herself concluded, “It felt real. It was upsetting to think about what could have really happened.”
Other students volunteered comments about the lesson. “It made a big impact on me,” said one. “It made me think what it would be like to lose a friend.”
Another added, “What’s so necessary about a text?”
Right. A teen’s death can devastate an entire community like ours.
Turns out, it isn’t worth it.