Students at Newbury Park High School had been preparing to stage a dramatic mock car crash as a cautionary tale about the hazards of drinking and driving as prom and graduation season approaches.
Then real life intervened.
Late Tuesday, a popular 17-year-old football player was killed and three classmates were seriously injured in a car crash on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu after a night of partying that authorities said involved alcohol. A fourth passenger suffered minor injuries.
Cody James Murphy, a junior who was a running back on the varsity football team, had been drinking and was driving the car that rolled over and crashed, authorities said.
On Wednesday, word about the accident spread fast at the Ventura County campus.
“You can just see people in groups crying and in hysterics,” said junior Brenna Fitzpatrick, 16. “The biggest football player at our school was in tears.”
Survivors told investigators that they had been drinking during a night of partying in Los Angeles. Investigators found a large, empty bottle of Jagermeister and, on the floor of the car, a glass pipe and a pill bottle containing medical marijuana.
Tests to determine whether Murphy was legally intoxicated are pending. Investigators said the teens apparently were not wearing seat belts in the 10 p.m. crash.
For Newbury Park High Principal Athol Wong, the pall on the campus where all five students attended had a sad irony.
The school had planned its mock car crash as part of a program called “Every 15 Minutes,” Wong said.
One of the student actors scheduled to take part in the two-day event was among those critically injured in the single-car crash, Wong said.
On Wednesday, friends of a 17-year-old girl, the only senior in the group, said she was fighting for her life at UCLA Medical Center.
“It’s just tragic,” Wong said. “It’s a program that stages exactly what happened.”
Wong said the school would be canceling the demonstration this year. But she and other educators, along with law enforcement officials, say this week’s tragedy underscores a message they have for years been trying to pound into high school students’ heads.
Mario Contini, superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District, said the message is simple: Don’t drink and drive.
“The sad part is that this is the end of one boy’s life and a huge interruption in the lives of so many wonderful kids,” he said. “And it is so unnecessary.”
Investigators called to the scene could smell alcohol on Murphy’s body and on the passengers: three 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old, said Sgt. Philip Brooks of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The names of the passengers were not released because they are minors.
The teens told investigators that they went to see a hip-hop group, Living Legends, play at Amoeba Music on Hollywood Boulevard, but they showed up late and missed the show. So the group headed to the Santa Monica Pier, where they told investigators that they drank from a bottle of Jagermeister.
Murphy was driving a 2007 Subaru Impreza that belonged to the parents of one of his male passengers, Brooks said.
As Murphy drove north on Pacific Coast Highway, he lost control in the 32000 block just north of Broad Beach Road, veered to the right into a mountainside and the car flipped end-over-end, coming to rest upside down, Brooks said.
The crash shut down PCH overnight and for several hours Wednesday morning as crews cleared debris. A skateboard, a Dodgers cap, tennis shoes and other clothing littered the road. Skid marks were visible on a nearby embankment.
One of the male passengers, from Newbury Park, was treated at the scene and released. The other three were taken to UCLA Medical Center, where two males, also from Newbury Park, were being treated. One had a fractured spine and the other had a ruptured bladder and a broken pelvis, said Jim McGlashen, a friend of the Murphy family. The youths were in stable condition, investigators said.
The only girl in the car, aCamarillo resident, suffered head trauma and was in critical condition, Brooks said.
McGlashen said he had been receiving updates all day from friends and relatives who accompanied the other three teens to the hospital.
“We’re just hoping that the poor girl who was injured pulls through,” he said.
McGlashen, who drove Murphy’s parents to the crash scene, said he had known the boy since he was a first-grader, had coached him in Pop Warner football and remembered him as an outgoing teenager with good grades.
Murphy played lead guitar in a friend’s garage band and planned to attend San Diego State with McGlashen’s son, Ryan.
Murphy also ran track, liked to surf and, a couple of years ago, developed his own sportswear, Ryan McGlashen said, adding that he and Murphy were close friends.
“He was funny, outgoing and loud,” Ryan McGlashen said. “He loved rock, reggae, all kinds of music . . . He was like a brother to me.”
At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Murphy called Ryan McGlashen to invite him to see a band with the other teens. But McGlashen had a sore throat and a 102 temperature, so he didn’t go with the group. Otherwise, he would have been in the car.
“By the grace of God, he wasn’t,” his father said.
Brooks, a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, said he often spoke to high school students and their parents about drunk driving.
He said he has noticed the effort schools have made to deter students from drinking at this time of year. More high schools are offering nonalcoholic after-prom parties and sponsoring programs to combat drunk driving, Brooks said.
But parents should still talk to their children about drunk driving and review their options, Brooks said. Let them know that if they do get drunk, they can always call home for a ride, he said.
“You have to talk to your kids and have a plan,” he said.
Larry Berlin, dean of students at Newbury Park High, said “Every 15 Minutes” is part of a health class curriculum that takes place each spring. The program refers to statistics showing that every 15 minutes someone dies from a crash involving alcohol.
“We try to get the students as early as we can,” he said, adding that administrators probably will meet with law enforcement officials to discuss expanding drunk driving outreach to students in the wake of the crash.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.