At 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 16, two hours after the accident, Jennifer Vessa, a 20-year-old junior and the university's best cross-country runner last year, was returning from Denver on 287 Like her teammates, Vessa had no fear about driving that night. Much of her trip had been slowed by fog, but the sky above Tie Siding was clear. Police cars sat at angles across the road. Vessa de-toured down the side of the highway, into a ditch and up again, past spotlights glinting off bent metal and shattered glass. Cody Brown was her best friend. She'd known Morgan McLeland since seventh grade. She'd gone out with Shane Shatto. She had no idea then that she was passing them, and for the last time. These days Vessa is scared to sleep, because she'll dream about them and not want to wake.
The prosecution has made the court appearances of Clint Haskins into a parade of damning evidence. Court documents show that Haskins has a history of scrapes with the law involving drinking: In November 1998 and January 2000 he was cited in Laramie as a minor under the influence of alcohol. State trooper Dave Rettinger, one of the officers at the Tie Siding crash site, testified on Sept. 26 that Haskins was driving with an expired license on the night of the crash and that the ambulance he rode in afterward "reeked" of alcohol. Investigators also testified that Nick Schabron was driving his Jeep at 62 mph and in the proper lane, while Haskins was going 76 when he crossed over the line to meet it.
None of this comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with Wyoming. The state has one of the highest levels of underage drinking in the nation, and its liberal open-container policies allow alcohol to be consumed in automobiles. Before setting out on that Saturday night, Schabron, a 20-year-old sophomore, told his mother, Joan, that he'd be driving a group to Fort Collins. When she begged him to be careful, he assured her he wouldn't drink. (His autopsy blood-alcohol level would be 0.00.) "It's not you I'm worried about," Joan told her son. "It's some drunk driver."
At the funeral the palms of Nick's hands still bore the imprint of the steering wheel. He was the only passenger not thrown from the Jeep. Since the accident public meetings have been held about widening 287, but the victims' families worry that the road's reputation will obscure the crash's true cause.
"When someone drinks and drives it is intentional," Schabron's brother Greg wrote in a letter to the Laramie Daily Boomerang on Sept. 30. "A person doesn't accidentally get drunk, drive his truck without a license down the highway on the wrong side of the road. [Haskins] made his decision when he turned the ignition to that truck, and now he must accept the consequences of his actions."
The crash at Tie Siding has propelled people in Laramie, only 16 miles to the north, and beyond into a frenzy of self-examination, with both the state's image as a bastion of macho self-reliance and its conservative political establishment coming under fire. The tragedy sliced to the heart of Laramie with no less emotional force than the gay-bashing murder of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard in 1998. Alcohol abuse has replaced intolerance as the issue of the moment. "When eight students die, it's a wake-up call," Shumway says. " Laramie is not a cowboy town anymore."
Greg Schabron knows. These days, Laramie is the university. Greg, Nick and the six other Schabron kids grew up in the town's mainstream. Greg, who graduated last spring, was an all-MWC runner and is sure that Nick could have surpassed him. In the weeks since the accident, Greg has run every day, sometimes with the surviving Cowboys, spending as much time with the team as he did his final two years as a student. He's thinking of training for a spot in the 2004 Olympic trials. He has never felt faster. "I don't know how to explain it" says Greg. "The pain doesn't hurt as much anymore. I don't think about running when I'm running. I think about the guys."
It's when he stops that the pain returns. On Sept. 15, Nick had asked Greg if he could borrow Greg's Chevy Suburban, which was bigger and sturdier than the Wagoneer. Greg turned him down. "Part of me wants to get in a car and just disappear," he says.