Teen in Fatal Crash Had 10 Beers, CHP Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In interviews with California Highway Patrol investigators, 17-year-old James V. Patterson admitted to drinking 10 beers before he got behind the wheel of his Chevy Suburban and crashed it near Victorville, killing four of his friends and injuring three others.

The CHP report offers the first detailed account of the night of drinking that preceded the fatal wreck, and the sense of teen invulnerability that put Patterson behind the wheel July 29 with seven friends in his charge.

The Katella High School senior spoke freely to investigators about the alcohol he consumed around a campfire during an overnight trip to the desert, and what he considered his ability to drink a 12-pack and still act "normal." Patterson also said he believed the four hours of sleep he got that night in the back of the Suburban would have been enough time to sober him up.

Usually, Patterson said, the group's driver wouldn't drink on an outing, but the informal rule did not apply for overnight trips.

"Normally when we go and spend the night somewhere, our designated drivers will drink what they think they can handle, which would for a lot of guys be a 12-pack, and then they fall asleep and then they go," he said.

Before heading to the desert, according to the report, Patterson took a 12-pack of beer from his parents' house. The teens then went to Me-N-Paul's Market in Anaheim where, Patterson told investigators, five of his friends each bought an additional 12-pack.

Patterson's father, David Patterson, told investigators that before his son left the house that night he "had reason to believe that [James] might have taken a couple of beers with him." When asked why he didn't stop his son, David Patterson took a deep breath and remained silent, according to the transcript of the interview.

"Believe me, we've asked that," said James' mother, Elizabeth Patterson. The Pattersons declined to comment Tuesday on the CHP report.

Killed in the accident were Steven Richard Bender, 18, of Orange; Jonothan Croweagle Fabbro Curtis, 16, of Garden Grove; John Thornton, 18, of Anaheim, and Anthony Fuentes, 17, of Anaheim.

Patterson's blood alcohol level was 0.16 after the wreck, twice the legal limit for adults who are driving and 16 times the limit for those under 21. The report shows he was driving at least 58 m.p.h. when he lost control on a desert dirt road. Patterson was not wearing the prescription eyeglasses required by a restriction on his driver's license, the report adds.

CHP officials have recommended that Patterson be charged with four counts of vehicular manslaughter and four counts of felony drunk driving. The San Bernardino County district attorney's office is reviewing the report and has not yet made a filing decision.

Patterson told investigators that two of his friends were smoking marijuana the night of the accident, but that he has never tried the drug. Instead, he said, he stuck to beer, thinking that he would still be able to drive back to Anaheim early the next morning.

"I knew that legally it would still be in my blood," Patterson told investigators. "But from prior experiences I didn't think I'd feel it because I've done it before numerous times."

The peer pressure to drink is evident from Patterson's interview, during which he talks about "a lot of guys who buy 12-packs just so they can be seen with a 12-pack."

Fred Curtis, Fabbro Curtis' father, said Tuesday he had just visited the cemetery where the teens are buried and was sickened to see a pile of beer cans on Bender's grave. After the crash, Curtis added, someone had written "Brewskis Forever" with pebbles on the desert floor where the boys died.

"I'm hoping that this tragedy will generate some sort of rude awakening to these kids so they can really get some sort of understanding as to how serious this is," said Curtis, who is still struggling to pay off his son's burial.

"I just think that parents need to adjust their values to pay a little more attention to their children and be more a part of their life," he said. "As close as my son and I were, and we spent a lot of time together, he still was able to slip through my fingers and be exposed to a sense of peer pressure and end up in this tragedy."

Cindy Bender, the mother of Steven, called the report "a big-time wake-up call" for parents.

The Anaheim city attorney has filed misdemeanor charges against the owner of Me-N-Paul's and the clerk who allegedly sold beer to the teens, and state officials are seeking to revoke the store's liquor license. An attorney representing the store has denied the charges.

Patterson told investigators he has bought beer at the store "a couple of times," and that the clerk does not ask to see identification very often.

Patterson, an Eagle Scout and member of the high school water polo team, told investigators that he drank 10 beers from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. as he and his friends sat around a fire at the desert campsite, joking and talking about their senior year to come at Katella High School.

About 1:30 a.m., Patterson said, he went to sleep in the Suburban. He was awakened about 6 a.m. by his friends "goofing around" and rocking the truck. One of them had to get back home in time to play in a baseball game.

Patterson said he drinks almost every Friday night during the school year and more often during the summer, usually consuming about a 12-pack in one evening.

"After a 12-pack, I feel intoxicated, but I feel that after 12 I can still act normal," he told investigators.

The report also reveals in detail the horror of the accident, which scattered the dead and injured bodies of Patterson's friends on the desert floor at dawn.

Patterson said he heard one friend yell for him to slow down just before he lost control of the steering wheel. When the truck stopped rolling, Patterson recalled, he reached over and felt for Jon Fabbro's pulse and "knew he was dead."

"Then I started running around and I ran to all the different bodies lying around. They were scattered everywhere," Patterson told investigators at his home Aug. 3. "I couldn't do anything for any of them. And then I fell down in the dirt and I started crying in the dirt."

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