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Pine Seedlings Planted on Park Hills to Honor Drunk Drivers’ Victims

Times Staff Writer

Family and friends dotted a couple of hillsides at O’Melveny Park on Sunday with 300 pine seedlings in memory of Darlene, Duane, Mary Kaye and others who have died in drunk-driving collisions.

The planting, co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and TreePeople, an environmental group, was on the slopes near the Granada Hills park entrance. Much of the 714-acre park was scorched during a December fire that burned 3,200 acres above Northridge and destroyed or damaged 40 homes.

During a brief ceremony, the more than 100 friends and family members of 60 victims held hands in a circle. They had come from as far as Pomona and Corona. Except for some teary sniffles and some birds’ chirping, all was quiet as Sandy Freeman, co-president of the chapter, urged them to feel the energy and support flowing around the circle. Drunk driving should not be labeled an accident, she said. “It’s a crash or collision, but certainly not an accident.”

Canary Island Pines

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Then, with shovels, buckets of water and the delicate, foot-tall Canary Island pine seedlings, people hiked up the slopes, which bear sproutings of natural mustard and laurel, as well as California poppies, lupine and other wildflowers that were planted by area residents after the December fire. The MADD chapter paid for one seedling for each family--at the wholesale cost of $1 per seedling--and families paid for as many additional seedlings as they wished, said Arlene Joye, the chapter’s former director of victim services.

Darlene Davis’ family--her parents, six sisters and a niece--planted 50 trees and remembered her as a laughing, loving woman who wouldn’t drink at parties so she could drive her friends home afterward. “She was the only one that would never drink and drive,” said her sister Charlotte, 25, her eyes filling with tears.

Last year, 27-year-old Darlene was driving home from her metal-brazing job in Chatsworth around 1 a.m. after working overtime. About a mile from the North Hollywood home where she lived with her parents, an intoxicated man driving 80 m.p.h. ran a red light and broadsided her car, her family said. He was sentenced to four years in prison, they said.

Six years ago, Duane Dickinson and four of his friends were killed when their car was struck by a drunk driver, said Duane’s mother, Mary Dickinson of Sylmar. The drunk driver and her passenger were killed as well.

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Duane was then a 19-year-old Pierce College student interested in lighting and theater set production. “He was very well-loved by all his peers--they used to take their troubles to him,” Mary Dickinson said.

She said her daughter Nancy Lee had died 10 years ago in a motorcycle accident that was not alcohol-related. “We’ve lost a lot,” she said, pausing while smoothing the dirt around a freshly planted seedling.

Anita Butler, director of education for the MADD chapter, and Becky Gustafson planted a tree for Mary Kaye Chaleff, 49, killed April 8 in Sherman Oaks by a woman suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Familiar With Case

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They didn’t know Mary Kaye, but as employees of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Immediate Booking and Release System, they had accompanied the investigators to the crash scene for the experience. They had talked to the nurses at the hospital where Mary Kaye died.

“We thought this could be very special for her family, even though they don’t know us and we don’t know them,” Butler said of the planting. “It’s a celebration of life--for the people we’re remembering and because of the trees, what they do for the atmosphere, helping us preserve life.”

Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn came to the planting and said he supports proposed state legislation that would lower from 0.1% to 0.08% the blood-alcohol level used to determine whether a person is presumed to be driving under the influence. The Senate approved the bill last week and sent it to the Assembly.

More than 2,000 people died in California last year in alcohol-related traffic collisions, nearly 600 of them in Los Angeles County, Hahn said. Even though “that’s more than the numbers who died in gang violence,” gangs still grab the news headlines, he said.

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Candlelight Replaced

At least for this year, the tree-planting replaces the chapter’s annual candlelight vigil, which had been held at the Federal Building in Westwood since 1981 and featured a recitation of victims’ names. The vigil was depressing and just too emotionally intense for some people, MADD officials said.

The tree-planting, in contrast, serves “to restore life to a burned-out area” and is a “positive way to remember those killed in a very violent way,” Joye said.

With irrigation provided by the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department, about half of the seedlings will grow to maturity in about 12 years, according to officials of TreePeople, which is based in Coldwater Canyon Park. The natural survival rate is one-third, they said.

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Mary Dickinson and her husband, Larry, planted 11 seedlings in about two hours. “If they contribute as much to this area as our kids did to our lives, it’ll be all right,” Larry Dickinson said.


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