After the crash

On July 4, 2006,a drunk-driving accident in Sacramento took the lives of two teens, sent the driver to prison and destroyed friendships forever. Here’s one survivor’s first-person account.

Ryan Neal stands at the corner of Folsom Boulevard and Hazel Avenue, the site of a fatal car accident he was in with four friends on the Fourth of July, 2006. Two of Ryan’s friends, Kendall Lui and Brian Haight, were killed on impact when the 4Runner Mike Dimitras drove smashed into a utility pole. Another, Colin White, suffered a broken neck and hand.

Ryan Neal stands at the corner of Folsom Boulevard and Hazel Avenue, the site of a fatal car accident he was in with four friends on the Fourth of July, 2006. Two of Ryan’s friends, Kendall Lui and Brian Haight, were killed on impact when the 4Runner Mike Dimitras drove smashed into a utility pole. Another, Colin White, suffered a broken neck and hand.

Photo By Ken James

As far back as July 4, 1778, when Gen. George Washington offered his troops a double portion of rum, many Americans have chosen to celebrate Independence Day by drinking alcohol. It’s as much a part of the tradition as fireworks, barbecue picnics and baseball games. But it all comes down to the choices we make, and unfortunately, some people still choose to drive themselves home after the festivities.

On July 4, 2006, my friends and I made a choice.

And I’ve seen firsthand the suffering, anger, broken friendships and ruined lives that it led to. The accident I’m about to describe has had an effect on the entire Sacramento area, and the story has been told many times by many different people.

It’s time the full story gets told by someone who was there.

The rafting trip

With the exception of younger readers and newcomers to the area, most Sacramento residents will remember the massive parties held on the American River, between Sunrise Boulevard and Goethe Park, every Fourth of July and Labor Day. I first experienced one of those parties on July 4, 2005, and still remember the overwhelming awe I felt at the whole scene.

Rafts, mostly filled with people in their 20s, were packed together so densely it seemed you could cross the entire river on them and never get wet. There were families waiting on the shore to ambush you with homemade water guns. There were rope swings, people doing back flips off the bluffs and an endless supply of cheap beer. I was there that day with a friend and his family, so I was just a spectator to the shenanigans. The entire time, the same thought repeated itself in my head: I cannot wait to bring all my friends here when we get back from college.

Like many other groups, the former Bella Vista High School students were there to drink beer and “participate in all the craziness of the river with the thousands of other revelers.” Left to right are Brad, Brian, Kenny (lying on his back), the author, Colin (lying on his stomach), Mike and Lauren.

The following Fourth of July, I pitched the idea to my friends, and they all thought it was an excellent plan. We eventually got a group of 10 (seven guys and three girls) of our closest friends rallied together for a reunion on the river. All of us had graduated with Bella Vista High School’s class of 2005, where we took honors and advanced-placement classes together, shared our lunch breaks, and took each other to the school dances. After being away at colleges all over the state of California for the past year, we were excited for the reunion and opportunity to do some college-style partying in our hometown.

Some took care of getting the raft together—which we decided should be an inflatable, above-ground children’s pool, two attached yellow rafts and two rubber sharks for defense—and others were assigned to gather food and necessary items such as sunscreen and water balloons. I was charged with finding the alcohol. The plan was to spend the day together as a reunited group of great friends and participate in all the craziness of the river with the thousands of other revelers before heading back to my house for food and fireworks. One person would leave their car at the park ahead of time and stay sober to drive half of the group home, while the other half would get picked up by one of our parents.

At 18 years old, the only alcohol I could round up was one 30-pack of cheap, American light beer that I convinced an older friend to buy for me the previous night. At first, concern was raised that by splitting this between 10 people, there just wouldn’t be enough to generate any sort of buzz, but these were assuaged when one of the other guys arrived waving around a half-empty plastic bottle of vodka he had hidden from his parents.

There was some confusion about how exactly we were going to get home after the day’s festivities. While Brad had arranged for his dad to pick up half of the group at the park, no one wanted to volunteer to leave their car at the park early and be the sober driver. Two guys in the group debated who it should be, and it was somehow decided that Mike would be the one.

After waiting for him to drop off his car at the park and get driven back to Fair Oaks, we shoved off into the water and began our four-hour lazy float down the American River’s slow current. We grabbed beers and, after a group toast, we cracked them open and eagerly drank them down. The vodka bottle also got passed around, but for most of us, the 100-degree day was simply too hot to enjoy the warm liquor. The next few hours were filled with swimming, shooting other boats with water guns and just enjoying the sun with each other.

The former high-school mates floated down the river that day on conjoined rafts and with two rubber sharks “for defense.” Left to right are Mike, Lauren, Colin and Kendall, with her back to the camera.

Although I thought it was fine for Mike to have a beer or two, I got concerned when I noticed him taking pulls from the vodka bottle. I had only just begun my first beer and wanted nothing to do with that vodka, so I asked if he wanted me to drive his car. He assured me that he was fine and wouldn’t have any more. I shrugged it off, figuring that the four-hour trip would be plenty of time for his body to process the booze.

The beer was gone about halfway down the river, before most of us could really feel any of the effects. We had gotten to the river late and most of the partiers had already disappeared, leaving us with no opportunities to procure more, which was fine with us. We had a great time floating leisurely down the river, talking about our lives at college, remembering times at Bella Vista High School and occasionally dipping into the cool, refreshing water. Unbeknownst to me, some of the other guys, including Mike, continued to drink the vodka.

When we arrived at Goethe Park, we pulled the raft out of the river and discussed how to get home. Brad made the call to have his dad come pick us up, and Brian and I walked with Mike to retrieve his car. Some of the vodka drinkers were visibly very drunk by this point, so the rest stayed behind to help them out. The car was parked in a residential neighborhood pretty far away from the park, and it took us more than an hour to get there. We walked past a long line of cars blasting pop music and took in the scene of screaming girls, cat-calling men, incessant honks from car horns, and police handing out DUI and drunk-in-public citations like raffle tickets at a fundraiser.

When Mike’s golden 4Runner came into view, a conversation began about who should drive. Brian said he was feeling the alcohol and definitely shouldn’t drive. I told Mike that I only had a few beers and finished my last one about three hours ago, so I could definitely drive if he wanted me to. Mike said he was fine and that it was no problem for him to drive. I thought he had quit drinking after the first time I asked him, and he appeared totally sober for the entire hour trek back to the car. Neither Brian nor I had any doubts to his abilities, so I climbed in the front seat to start looking for what music we should throw on while Brian got in the back behind Mike.

We had to wait in the same line we had just walked past, and by the time we had gotten back to the park, Brad’s father’s truck was already there. We loaded all of the gear into the back of Mike’s SUV while Kendall and Lauren handled our two drunkest friends. Our next stop would be a barbecue at my house, so we divided up the group between the two cars and hit the road.

Kendall—a gifted dancer known for her intelligence and humor—was sitting in the middle back seat of the SUV. She and Brian, who sat behind the driver’s seat, died on impact. The families of Kendall and Brian led the effort to make drinking illegal on holidays at the American River.

I kept my shotgun position in the front, and behind me sat Colin, a red-haired soccer fiend with an infectious laugh who was attending UC San Diego. Next to him was the gorgeous Kendall, another UCSD student known for her humor, intelligence and outstanding talent as a performance dancer. Brian, a quick-witted history buff and UC Berkeley student who could make anyone laugh in any circumstance, kept his spot behind Mike.

The accident

To avoid traffic, we took Folsom Boulevard—a wide and straight road that runs parallel to Highway 50. Without another car in sight, we sped down the road at about 70 miles per hour. I rocked out to some music while Kendall was handling some drunken antics from Colin. Mike slouched comfortably in his chair holding the bottom of the steering wheel with two fingers. At one point, Kendall and I mentioned to Mike that he should slow down, so he grabbed the wheel with both hands and let his foot up off the gas. Brian gazed out the window, silently.

Just before we got to Hazel Avenue, at around 7:30 p.m., the front left tire of Mike’s vehicle clipped the center divider, bouncing us off our seats. Like in a dream, a few seconds expanded themselves into disconnected flash frames of vivid detail. I smelled burnt rubber. A screech wracked my ears as the tires slid along the pavement in defiance of their brakes. Mike wrestled with the steering wheel, overcorrected, and the extra weight in the back of the SUV caused us to spin in violent circles.

A distant telephone pole grew larger at an alarmingly fast rate.

Kendall grabbed the two front seats and I heard her say, “Oh my God.” Brian continued to silently look out the window. Then there was the impact, the feeling of force slamming into me like a tidal wave without water, and I could feel the metal crunch, twist and collapse.

I opened my eyes. A stranger tugged my right arm that was now completely gnawed by road rash. My head had slammed against the dashboard, and blood trickled from my forehead to my cheek. I only vaguely remember the strangers helping me out of the car, asking me questions, telling me that they heard the accident and that help was on the way. Half conscious, I stumbled to some gravel lining the railroad tracks next to the road.

Firemen had to tear back the roof of Mike’s SUV to get inside. Channel 13 was on the scene shooting video for its newscast of the accident.

The car had struck the telephone pole on the driver’s side between the front and back doors. Brian, Kendall and Colin were still in the back seat. Mike launched from the driver’s seat to the asphalt.

The scene acted itself out before me.

Firemen tore back the roof of Mike’s car, exposing the bodies of my three friends folded in half. A policeman escorted Mike to the side of the road for questioning. The way he rested his head between his two hands told me that he knew less about what was going on than I did.

One of the paramedics called out, “Hey, you! What are you doing here? Were you in that car? Jesus Christ, get a board over here!” Within seconds I was strapped to a gurney and hoisted into the back of an ambulance. They used scissors to cut my shorts and shirt along my right side. Lying naked, cold and strapped down made it even harder to fight off the nausea from the speed of the ambulance, the swaying with the turns and the confusion.

“What about my friends? What happened to my friends?” I asked.

“It doesn’t look very good for any of them,” the young paramedic told me as my bottom lip started to quiver.

Later, Mike was lying next to me in the emergency room at UC Davis Medical Center. All he could do was ask if I was OK and tell me, “I’m so sorry.” Eventually a doctor informed us that Colin was alive, but in critical condition and could be completely paralyzed.

Mike was one of the 10 close friends gathered on the American River that day. He’s seen here hours before the accident that would change their lives forever.

The lives of my young, bright friends Brian and Kendall had tragically ended at the moment of impact. I was devastated.

The aftermath

I spent the night in the hospital and was released to my dad the next morning. On the drive home, I was almost completely silent. I knew that those few seconds had forever changed my life, but I had no idea what was coming.

Everyone’s first reaction seemed to be anger, and the first steps taken were to cast blame. The next day, I was asked by Brian’s family to meet with them and explain exactly what had happened. I could feel their pain and devastation as every one of my words was dissected, analyzed, doubted and checked for flaws. I could never imagine how they felt, but it was received like I was hiding a secret to protect myself, when all I wanted to do was tell my friend’s loved ones exactly what happened. They said later their son had not been drinking that day, but when asked last week by SN&R, the county coroner confirmed Brian had detectable alcohol in his blood at the time of death.

I left feeling guilty that I was alive and relatively unharmed while others were dead or still in the hospital.

Later that day, an officer from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control interviewed me. They wanted to know exactly what we had to drink, who provided it, what store sold it and who actually bought it. I told them that it was me who provided it, but I kept silent on who bought it for me, out of a desire to not bring anyone else’s life into the tragedy. When my friend who’d helped me buy the beer later sent a text message to me to find out if I was all right and give condolences, the texts back to her were traced without my knowledge. Weeks later, ABC officers publicly confronted her at work and issued a ticket for furnishing alcohol to minors in front of customers, co-workers and supervisors.

Mike, who was under 21 years of age at the time of the crash, was found to be driving at excessive speeds with a blood-alcohol level of .09 percent. He was sentenced to six years and four months in prison.

Photo courtesy of Department of Corrections

I expected to have a similar meeting with Kendall’s parents, but they declined to see or speak with me. Very soon, a letter campaign was started, using MySpace and Facebook, to ask people to write to the district attorney requesting that Mike be tried for murder and receive the maximum 20-year sentence for the accident. I was also asked personally to write a letter to Mike to tell him how I hate him and will never forgive him.

Yes, Mike made a very bad decision to drink alcohol and then decide to drive everyone home. He has never denied this, never tried to get out of it and has taken full responsibility for the deaths of two of his best friends. We’d all agreed that he was OK to drive, and we all willingly sat with him. The five of us counted each other as some of our absolute closest friends. We had known each other for years and gotten through high school together. Colin, Brian and Mike had been close friends since elementary school, and Mike had even taken Kendall to the prom.

What happened on July 4, 2006, was an accident, not an intentional killing. I believe today, just as I did back then, that Kendall and Brian would never want anyone to hate Mike.

After I refused to write either of the letters and instead wrote one asking the district attorney to recognize the incident as an accident and try Mike accordingly with no additional punishment added for my injuries, I became something of an enemy in the community. I soon realized that coming together for support and forgiveness was not an option. To say that this disheartened me would be an understatement. I genuinely hoped that our tight group of friends, including the many others that didn’t come rafting with us that day, would come together to care, support and help each other get through this horrible time.

Instead, I watched sides being drawn, and everyone had to be either for or against Kendall and Brian. By not writing the letters, I was taking Mike’s side against them. The friendship and love we all had for each other was discarded to allow room for blame and resentment. I was even told I wasn’t welcome at one of the funerals if I didn’t side against Mike.

One of the few moments of community togetherness that the tragedy brought out was a candlelight vigil held at Miller Park a couple of nights after the accident. Our friends and peers from Bella Vista High organized the event, and everyone we knew turned up to give support. After I told the crowd exactly what had happened, others used the microphone to tell loving stories of Kendall, Brian and Colin—who was still in critical condition at that time. Poster boards were brought for everyone to express their love through writing and pictures that were later given to the parents. There was no blaming; there wasn’t any hate, just a meaningful gathering to aid each other’s grief and honor the memories of our lost loved ones.

Brian and Kendall are remembered on posters at a media event following the events of July 4, 2006. This image also appeared on Channel 13’s newscast.

As time moved on and we all started attempting to return life to normal, I observed politics beginning to play a role. Assemblyman Dave Jones passed Assembly Bill 951, which banned the consumption of alcoholic beverages on bodies of water in the Sacramento area for the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Our story was cited specifically as the law took effect, and I couldn’t help but think that our loss was being used to further the political agendas and careers of others.

After what felt like ages, the legal process against Mike began.

Although other drunk-driving cases moved along with relative rapidity, Mike’s case dragged on for over a year. He’d had a blood-alcohol level of .09 percent and was charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and with causing great bodily injury. In their grief, the families of our departed friends continued to ignore the close bond we all had and pushed to have him tried for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. This carried a 20-year sentence, rather than the charge of two years for each count of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. Although Colin and I both wrote letters to the court asking for no additional sentencing on our behalf, the judge added an extra year of time to Mike’s sentence for each of us. Ultimately, Mike was sentenced to six years and four months in state prison.

Mike was sent to Folsom State Prison to serve his time. For the most part, he’s the same guy I remember, with a passion for music and sports so strong that you could talk to him for hours on almost any subject. He tells me that although prison life isn’t so bad and he gets a lot of visitors, he thinks about Kendall and Brian every day. He doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to move on from it, but he has no choice but to keep living and accept his punishment.

Mike says the worst things are the boredom, the lines and the amount of noise inside the jail. He wakes up every day at the same time and waits in line to be checked in for breakfast. After eating, he waits again to be checked out, only to wait again to be checked in to his job building desks and cabinets for less than a dollar an hour. Then he waits again, eats lunch, waits in line, has free time, waits in line, eats dinner and waits in line again after dinner. The accident on the Fourth of July 2006 claims another bright, promising young life as Mike spends his days marking time and watching hours of rerun television.

Thankfully, Colin has recovered from his physical injuries, and has recently graduated from UC San Diego. However, our once inseparable group has been torn apart from a single choice.

I have never wanted to be like the high-school assembly speaker with the horrifying tale to scare others out of drunk driving, nor have I wanted to cast judgment on the way anyone reacted or the way anyone celebrates holidays. However, drunk driving and getting in the car with an inebriated driver are bad choices that are made too often. So remember our story, and honor Kendall and Brian by keeping yourself and others safe the next time it’s your turn to make a choice.