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Bitter Fruit From Orchards of Tragedy

There are probably a million stories like the one that, today, I am remembering from some 20 years ago. We were teenagers, and the town was small, and everybody knew everybody else. There were these two boys in our crowd. They were athletes. Best friends. Beautiful kids. They were making a pizza run, driving probably a shade too fast, when the car hit an S-curve and went into a skid.

The boy who was driving was scarcely injured, but his friend, in the passenger seat, was killed. Not a quick death, either. Head injuries. The boy suffered for weeks before the family ran out of money and took him off life support.

It was awful. Our family was close to their family, and they asked us to come with them to the hospital that day. Their grief was convulsive. The doctors made everyone go to dinner while they unhooked the machinery. Midway through the meal, the mother said, “If only.” Then: “They must have done it by now.” She put down her fork, and began to sob. She scarcely made a sound.

But it was what came later that comes to mind this week, as Southern California approaches the one-year anniversary of another crash, involving another S-curve, another tragedy. Right after that funeral 20 years ago, the mother of the dead boy turned to our mother, her face mottled and raw. “Someone,” she said quietly, “has got to pay.”

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It will be a year on Saturday that Jason Rausch, now 19, took the wheel of a Chevy Blazer with nine other teenagers in tow. They were popular kids from Newport Beach; Rausch was new to the crowd.

He was, they would later say, the designated driver of their designated party truck. He was sober, but driving fast in an unfamiliar vehicle with more drunken passengers than seat belts. If you read the papers, you know what happened: The Blazer hit an S-curve and flew out of control.

One kid was killed, another spent 11 weeks in a coma, a third suffered brain injuries. The case was extraordinarily high-profile. Newport Beach is a small town; everybody knows everybody else. The boy who died was the son of a well-known criminal defense lawyer and a deputy district attorney. So many victims and lawyers had so many ties to so many members of the local Municipal Court bench that, when they brought Rausch up for a preliminary hearing on vehicular manslaughter charges, they had to go to the Superior Court to find a judge.

He was a good judge, and that was a good thing, because the pressure was pretty phenomenal. The mother of the boy who died demanded felony charges, jail time, wanted Rausch to suffer for her “blinding pain and agony.” At Rausch’s sentencing hearing, she forced the tortured boy to look at photos of her son’s mangled corpse. She wanted him to have it as “a present,” she said.

She wanted someone to pay.

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After the accident, our town felt ruined. The boy who had driven the car was shunned. There was a lawsuit; it was said that the family of the dead boy got $15,000. There was a vacation, new living room furniture; it wasn’t even the beginning of enough.

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The father would get drunk and curse the family whose precious child was still living, but you’d have been hard-pressed to say that that boy was really alive. Deeply depressed, he spoke to no one. Later, he dropped out of college. One day, he climbed into his car and just started to drive.

He ended up in California, land of second chances. Went back to school. Got a law degree. Twelve years had passed, but always, there was that thing he refused to let himself get over, the mental pictures that, for a lifetime, he would inflict on his memory. One night, having called his folks to say he was starting over, he checked into a hotel and pulled out a borrowed gun. “I don’t feel sorry,” said the still embittered mother when word reached her. It wasn’t enough, even after two beautiful kids were gone.

This month, the criminal case against Jason Rausch ended. Three years probation, restitution, community service, a fine. Punishment enough, you’d think, for a boy who was driving sober, who, it is said, is deeply depressed, getting death threats, suffering from nightmares, has considered suicide.

But this is California, land of second chances; if the criminal courts don’t deliver, there’s always the wrongful death suit. So now come the bereaved with civil cases, ripe with the promise of more if onlys, more bitter fruit.

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Oh, if only bitterness could bring back our loved ones. If only “closure” weren’t just forgiveness with a newer face. If only the million stories like this one could end more often in sweet mercy. If only you could buy wisdom with that price someone always pays.

Shawn Hubler’s column appears Mondays and Thursdays. Her e-mail address is shawn.hubler@latimes.com.


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