An enormous tragedy

A week ago I was driving to town on Sheridan Lake Road and I noticed an accident investigation vehicle from the Rapid City Police Department on the sidewalk near Arrowhead Golf Course. It particularly caught my eye because there are also a couple of Pennington County Sheriff’s Department vehicles parked there as well. After years as a Sheriff’s Chaplain, I’m always looking to see of the officers are people that I know. The officers weren’t right next to their vehicles and I needed to pay attention to my driving to keep from being in the way of whatever the officers were doing. A while later, returning and going the opposite direction on the road, I was paying close attention as I approached the site where there were still several law enforcement vehicles parked. This time I recognized one of the officers and I also saw that there was damage to the tennis center building at the club. It struck me as strange that the tennis center was damaged. The hillside is steep at that place and the damage reached to the roof of the building. I kept looking at the site as I drove by. I saw the marks on the road that had been carefully made by the accident investigation team, marking the path of the vehicle. I could tell by the marks that it had been going at a pretty high rate of speed - much higher than the 40 mph limit in the area.

I have no access to any inside information about the accident. Even when I was a chaplain, I would not have asked officers to tell me more than was available to the public. Now that I have retired, I know what is posted on the newspaper web site. It was from that source that I learned that a 16-year-old girl died Tuesday who had been riding in the car that hit the tennis building. The details are sketchy, but the article had the rough outline of the events of the wee hours of September 16. The story reads like a parent’s worst nightmare.

Around 1:25 a.m. a single-vehicle crash was reported. A neighbor called police to report that a southbound car had run into a tree near the tennis center. Officers arrived and found the vehicle and the driver lying next to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He was transported to the hospital with serious injuries. The officers then found the 16-year-old girl. Life-saving measures were instituted and she was rushed to the hospital.

There was evidence that alcohol had been a factor in the accident. The driver, aged 22, was charged with vehicular battery and driving without a license and issued a personal recognizance bond which allows him to be out of the jail while he is being treated at the hospital for his injuries. He is scheduled to appear in court on October 20 for the charges.

After six days of intensive care at the hospital the 16-year-old died. The police are now investigating the case as a vehicular homicide. Under South Dakota law vehicular homicide occurs when the driver of the vehicle is impaired by drugs or alcohol.

It makes me nauseous to think of the accident. You can say that a 16-year-old girl who gets into a car with a 22-year-old man who has been drinking is up to no good. You can say that the failure to wear seat belts was a huge mistake. You can say a lot of things. None of them change the simple fact that a life is ended. It was a short life. She died too soon.

I know nothing of the rest of the story. I haven’t met any of the people who are grieving her death. I don’t know who went to visit her in the hospital. I don’t know who now needs to make funeral arrangements. There is a lot that I don’t know and that leaves a lot of room for my imagination.

What I do know is that a 22-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl made some bad decisions on the night of September 15 as the clock turned to the morning of September 16. The decisions turned out to be fatal.

Our teens and young adults are incredibly vulnerable. Every parent who has had children those ages knows that fear that grips you in the middle of the night when you don’t know where your teen is. You know that they need the freedom to make their own choices and you also know the terrible consequences of poor choices. You want to trust your child, but you also know that the stakes are high and that risks will be taken. What I also know is that there are plenty of teens and young adults in our community who don’t have strong advocates in the form of parents or relatives who advocate for the young ones and guide them through the maze of difficult decisions. Add alcohol or drugs to the mix and the quality of the decisions doesn’t improve.

I remember the conversations we had with our children when they were that age. I remember how I repeatedly said to them that they could call me any time, day or night, if they were tempted to get in the car with someone who had been drinking. I would immediately come and give them a ride with no questions asked and no punishment offered. The decision to call instead of getting into a car with a driver who had been drinking would be treated as a good decision every time. Those conversations didn’t stop me from worrying.

Into your hands, Almighty God, we command the spirit of Alexis Black Elk. We know that you have already received her as your own child and a sheep of your flock. We know that for her all pain and suffering are ended and that she has entered into your realm where all of your people are gathered into your grad love.

Gracious God, we also commit to your unending care the life of Terrance Richard, whose decisions resulted in her death and who now has to live with the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life. May he discover ways to contribute to the community and become a part of the solution to the dangers that face teens and young adults. May the rest of his life not be squandered, but invested in bringing peace and safety to others.

Comfort the grieving. And, dear God, protect the other teens and young adults who face choices with similarly huge consequences. May they choose life in the situations they face. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!