Crime & Courts

Teen-drinking crashes weigh on Ness County

NESS CITY — Three names surrounded by hearts on the rear window of a Ford pickup outside Ness City High School hint at the emotions of its driver.

"Miss you guys," and underneath the names Dustin, Chris and Josh.

But few in this small western-Kansas county will talk about what the sign really means.

The anguish that family, friends, teachers and the community are feeling since the 2009 deaths of 18-year-old Joshua Stieben on Dec. 27, 17-year-old Chris Rupp on Aug. 2 and 18-year-old Dustin Johnson on Feb. 8 is still too raw.

According to Kansas Highway Patrol reports, the three fatality accidents were caused by underage drinking and driving. This has sent a wake-up call to some in the community, and those willing to speak about the accidents know they need to take responsibility in stopping the problem.

"We've had... fatalities with alcohol as contributing factors, there have been near misses, and alcohol served at parties with adults present," said Ness County resident Dennis McNinch, father of an 18-year-old.

"When you have children behind the wheel, when it's 25 miles from home, it's hard for an adult to drive impaired, what's more a child."

Each year about 5,000 people under age 21 die from motor vehicle crashes nationwide, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

While the December accident that killed Stieben happened on an icy rural road, it was alcohol that contributed to the crash, not adverse weather conditions, according to Kansas Highway Patrol's Steven Sites, who filed the accident report.

Stieben's blood-alcohol level was 0.25, three times the 0.08 the law says is legally drunk.

"In my opinion, when you have a BAC of 0.25, you can barely walk," Sites said. "It's a fact that alcohol contributed. If he wouldn't have been intoxicated, he would have had better judgment on icy roads."

Rupp's alcohol level at the time of his crash was 0.17. Johnson's was 0.08, according to KHP records.

After the second fatal accident, several residents in the community decided it was time to make some changes and find a place where teens could hang out on weekends.

Jerry Clarke, owner of the local newspaper and the father of two high school boys, worked with Russell King, a local Baptist minister, to open a place where kids could go on Saturdays and not be involved in drinking. They wanted to include kids from both school districts in the county — Ness City USD 303 and Western Plains USD 106.

"We gave them a place, cheap pizza, and a snooker table in the Baptist church basement," Clarke said. "No adults were allowed to go in, and it was opened from 8 to midnight."

Maybe 10 or 11 kids would show up. After four months it went the way of other well-intended plans.

"It wasn't the cool thing to do," Clarke said. By mid-December they had given up on the idea.

The third fatality came at the end of December, during Christmas break.

Tom Flax, principal of Ness City High School, admitted there was a teenage drinking problem, but said it was the same problem he experienced 23 years ago when he was a teen growing up in Ness County.

Despite the deaths of two of his students who were the best of friends, he wonders how anyone can measure whether the student body is getting the message.

"Who's to know if kids learned from Dustin and Chris and have gotten a ride home?" Flax said. "We won't know."