Irrevocable Damage : Victim of Freeway Tragedy Struggles to Control Bouts of Rage, Forge New Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the night of Feb. 29, 1988--a leap day in a leap year--Kurt Meyering and his girlfriend, Jane Casey, were heading north on Interstate 5, minutes after picking up Casey's new car, a bright red Corvette with a removable plexiglass roof.

They were listening to rock music at top volume on the car's pulsating sound system. As Meyering would say later, it was like a snapshot of the California dream--cruising on the freeway, in a " 'Vette," no less, with the skyline of "America's Finest City" in the distance and nothing but good vibrations on the road ahead.

It was every bit that way until "the incident."

The incident, as friends and family members refer to it, with a scowl or a sigh of resignation, forever changed Kurt Meyering's life. The miracle is that Meyering, then 24, lived at all.

He was driving the 1984 Corvette; Casey was in the passenger seat. As the car approached the Broadway overpass, a 6 1/2-pound chunk of concrete was hurled toward the car.

The projectile, which court records indicate was about the size of a cantaloupe and carried the force of an object traveling at 65 m.p.h., crashed through the car roof and struck the top of Meyering's head, shattering his skull.

Almost two years later, Meyering, a former fashion model, is unemployed and may never work again. Doctors say he has permanent brain damage but is lucky to be alive.

He lives with his family in Wenatchee, Wash., where his father sells and repairs televisions. Meyering is almost totally dependent on his mother, who gave up her job in an apple-processing factory to care for him full time. The family calls hers a labor of limitless love.

Doctors say Meyering, 26, has the intellectual ability of an 8-year-old. He suffers seizures, which leave him limp, weary and paralyzed with fear, sometimes for hours afterward. He cannot drive a car or ride a bicycle, and he worries that he has no chance for a love life.

He is estranged from Casey. For reasons the family declined to discuss, Casey and Meyering no longer keep in touch. They don't even know her whereabouts.

Meyering's mother says that Kurt sometimes lapses into fits of rage at teen-agers--the two boys implicated in the incident were ages 13 and 15--and at bicyclists or skateboarders who don't wear helmets. Sensitive to a fault, he doesn't want what happened to him to happen to them.

Like a child, Meyering has had to learn--or relearn--how to feed, dress and bathe himself and go to the bathroom without his mother's help.

He says he has no sense of smell, can no longer tap his foot to the music he craves (Culture Club and The Cure) and worries that, if anything ever happened to Trouble, his cat, he would fall apart. Meyering said "Rain Man," about an autistic savant, was the first movie he has "gotten into" since the incident. He loves the film, especially Dustin Hoffman's performance as the savant, "because that's me up there--that's a movie about me."

Last week, Meyering returned to San Diego to visit friends and consult with attorneys who have filed a $10-million lawsuit on his behalf, naming the state as primary defendant. The state is accused of failing to provide a proper guardrail on the overpass from which the teen-agers, each with a troubled past, hurled the concrete object that irrevocably altered Meyering's life.

David Rosenberg, Meyering's attorney, called $10 million "a realistic value for damages, because what we have here is a human being that was not what he was before."

Rosenberg said the suit also names C.A. Larson Construction, which managed the site where the teen-agers picked up the concrete chunk. Another suit, initially dismissed but now being appealed, seeks damages from General Motors, maker of the Corvette, and the dealership that sold Casey the car.

In an interview with The Times, Meyering said he longed to drive to the overpass and photograph it. He said he wants to remember the place where "the old Kurt died and a new one was born."

"I want to see the doctors who put my brain back together, and the one who saved my life by stopping on the freeway and helping me," he said. "I want to see the place where I lost two years of my life. I wish I had lost my arm, or my leg, but I lost a big chunk of my life.

"The hardest part for me has been hope--false hope. I want to be the self I used to be but can't be. I've lost a lot but do have a lot of hope. I can almost reach out and touch it, like a $1-million bill right there in front of me. But when I reach to grab it, it flies away. I miss San Diego a lot, but it scares the hell out of me. I feel I have to come here, though, to close one chapter and open a new one."

To a stranger, Meyering hardly appears unusual. He doesn't look much different from the man his best friend said women used to call "the hunk." He is tall and strong, with dark curls and a wispy Viennese beard. A cross dangles from one earlobe, a thin ring from another.

His mother, Carol, 61, stood nearby as Kurt eyed the waters of his motel swimming pool in El Cajon. She said the hardest part for her has been anger--not hers, his. At times, he swears vehemently, involuntarily, she said, becoming virtually impossible to control.

"He gets frustrated because he so wants to be just like he was before," she said. "He wants to ride his bike and take girls out. He's been out on one date. He wants a girlfriend so bad.

"The doctors don't give us a timetable for the future, but Kurt will never be the way he used to be. He may become more socially adaptable and less afraid, but it may not get much better than that."

She said his medical bills now approach $700,000, the bulk of which the state has paid. She said the family pays for medication, primarily Valium to help him sleep, which costs about $30 a month. Kurt's care also takes a large investment of time, hers as well as his. She said he routinely sees three specialists--a psychologist; a physiatrist, who oversees his overall rehabilitation, and a neurosurgeon, who monitors his recovery from three brain surgeries.

The Villains

The boys on the overpass received, in the words of Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Amador, "absurdly lenient" sentences.

The 13-year-old, who threw the object, pleaded no contest to assault with a deadly weapon. He was ordered by Judge Sheridan Reed to spend a year in Vision Quest, a "wilderness experience program," as an alternative to the California Youth Authority.

The 15-year-old, who bet the younger boy $1 that he "didn't have the guts" to throw the block, Amador said, was found guilty on three counts of assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced by Judge Lawrence Kapiloff to an indefinite term in a Palm Springs reformatory, from which he later escaped, allegedly with his mother's help. He has since been rearrested and returned.

Both judges have been sharply criticized--in public and in private--by the Meyerings.

"Those sentences were nothing less than a crime," said Ralph Meyering, Kurt's brother, an actor and screenwriter who lives in Hollywood. "They're a telling comment on a sick society."

"It's typical in juvenile cases that we win in the trial but lose in the sentencing," Amador said. "The problem is in the nature of Juvenile Court--it's designed not to punish but to rehabilitate. And we only have jurisdiction over minors until they're 25.

"In other words, if a 13-year-old murders 25 people, he's released from the California Youth Authority at age 25, no matter what."

Amador said both boys were from "dysfunctional families" and had records of delinquency. They found the chunks at a construction site and threw them out of boredom, the 15-year-old said. Another object struck a second car, but the driver, a San Diego teacher, was unhurt.

The Good Samaritan

Meyering's tragedy is not without heroes. Dr. Lucien Jassy, whom many people credit with saving his life, arrived seconds after the incident, a passer-by who saw trouble and decided to help. No detail of that moment has escaped his memory.

"It was a foggy night," he said. "I was driving home from Coronado Hospital. It was around half past 8. I was driving with my thoughts to myself when I saw brake lights come on in the middle of the freeway. Cars were veering wildly around the Corvette, which had come to a standstill.

"I parked my car near the median and approached the Corvette. There was this woman inside (Casey) who kept yelling, 'The car blew up, the car blew up!' Kurt was slumped over the steering wheel--unconscious. A dog sitting on the back seat jumped out of the car and disappeared. I don't know where the hell he went. It was a surrealistic scene, with the fog, the woman screaming, rock music blaring and a man bleeding profusely. And there we were in the middle of the freeway, cars whizzing by within inches of us.

"I reached for Kurt's carotid artery and discovered he had a pulse. Until then, I thought he might be dead. Blood was just gushing out of his skull."

After calling paramedics on his cellular phone, Jassy, a pulmonary and critical-care specialist, inserted a tracheal tube to help Meyering breathe. After he was taken to Mercy Hospital, Jassy went home.

"My wife was furious with me for being late for dinner until she saw I was covered with blood."

Jassy, who works out of Mercy Hospital, checked on Meyering later that night.

"For the amount of damage he sustained, Kurt has done remarkably well and is lucky to be alive. Had he not been as strong as he was, there's no way he would have made it."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Amador said Meyering would have died if fate had not put Jassy at the scene. "He saved his life--period," Amador said.

Ralph Meyering said his brother "would have bled to death on the freeway" without Jassy's aid. "You could not have had a better guy there," he said.

The Best Friend

Al Lehmann met Kurt Meyering in 1985. Lehmann worked at California Tan in El Cajon; Meyering worked for the company at a salon on Mission Gorge Road. They became friends, Lehmann said, by talking business on the telephone and then "hanging out together."

Lehmann said his friend's tragedy has been "a shock, a complete mess, horrible stress. . . . I went to see him after the accident, and there he was with tubes hanging out. It was like some horrible dream."

Since Meyering moved to Washington early last year, the two have exchanged letters and talked frequently on the phone.

"His personality has changed dramatically," Lehmann said. "He talks about the accident a lot. . . . He's very self-absorbed. I still consider him a friend, but there's lot of things he really can't discuss. You know, like stuff about women, and jobs."

Lehmann said in the summer of 1987 he and Meyering went to rock events together and worked out almost every night. He has his memories of Meyering and "a lot of grief" about what happened to the man he calls his best friend.

The Brother

Ralph Meyering is Kurt's hero. Ralph, 38, has worked for years as an actor, appearing on shows such as "L.A. Law." He has also worked as a writer, earning a recent credit on the CBS hit "Murder, She Wrote."

He is now writing a screenplay about what happened to his brother, the youngest of eight boys and a girl. He plans to focus on the tragedy that befell "an average man, the average American, just driving down the road doing nothing, and your whole life changes." But a major character will be Carol Meyering, the matriarch.

"Here was my mom, who had never been out of this small town, having to come to the big city and do battle," Ralph said. "Then she had to help Kurt back on his feet. She had to leave her husband, my father, for seven months and come to San Diego and nurse Kurt. She was by his side constantly, exercising his extremities, keeping his joints moving, stretching his muscles so they didn't cramp up. The district attorney kept telling me I had to write this movie because my mother is the heroine. She's been a saint--nothing less."

Ralph said Kurt's tragedy has brought the family together, but at the same time has created an odd distance.

"It showed everyone how vulnerable we all can be," he said. "In a way, the feeling is, 'Don't get too close now, something bad might happen.' Some of the family members were not as supportive as they could have been, I guess because they were overwhelmed by it."

Kurt credits Ralph and his mother with being loving guardian angels, without whom he would not have made it.

"Ralph has kept me going," Kurt said. "He's such a comedian. And his wife is the best person. She's great. I feel so close to them. After it happened, I got closer to some people, while others slipped away, like sand."

The incident was painful in many ways. Ralph said he was surprised by his own response to such pain.

"I was surprised by how well I handled it," he said, "and by how easily I was destroyed. I always thought I was so strong, and then I encountered this. I've played tragic roles in plays, but this was a real role and a real tragedy from which none of us will ever recover. Not completely. This is real pain, and we're all victims because of it."

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