Wyoming remembers 10-year anniversary of tragedy
September 18, 2011
LARAMIE, WYO. — For the families and friends of these eight running men, 10 years feels like both yesterday and forever ago.
But they recently came together as they always do at this time of year — more than 225 people, the largest turnout in years, gathered at Undine Park in town, one of the most beautiful days for the "Always a Cowboy" run in recent memory.
"This is the 10th anniversary of the loss of our boys," the race starter called over a megaphone before a moment of silence. "And when I say our boys, I believe the Laramie community has adopted these young men. We hold them in a special place in our hearts."
Just north of mile marker 417 on U.S. 287, 17 miles south of Laramie at Tie Siding, a small outpost a few miles north of the Colorado border with a general store that doubles as a post office, the two-lane road divides into a four-lane highway before snaking upward and vanishing over a hill.
There is no sign that 10 years ago today this was the scene of one of Wyoming's most horrific crashes, one that claimed the lives of eight University of Wyoming cross-country runners — Cody Brown, 21, of Hudson; Kyle Johnson, 20, of Riverton, Wyo.; Joshua Jones, 22, of Salem, Ore.; Justin Lambert-Belanger, 20, of Timmins, Ontario; Morgan McLeland, 21, of Gillette, Wyo.; Kevin Salverson, 19, of Cheyenne; Nicholas Schabron, 20, of Laramie; and Shane Shatto, 19, of Douglas, Wyo.
Around 1:30 a.m. Sept. 16, 2001, the man responsible, Clinton Haskins, of Maybell, then a Wyoming student on the school's rodeo team, was barreling down what was then a two-lane highway driving drunk in his pickup truck headed south to Fort Collins.
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He crossed the dividing line at the curve and slammed into the 1990 Jeep Wagoneer filled with the eight young men, who were returning to Laramie from a night of team bonding in Fort Collins. All but one — the driver, Schabron, who had no drugs or alcohol in his system — was ejected from the car. They died instantly.
The crash wiped out two-thirds of the team, leaving all but three runners and a handful of freshman track athletes who, without being asked by then-coach Jim Sanchez, signed up to help the team finish the season. Former teammates of the runners — Christopher Jons, Ragan Driver, Jason Delaney, Jennifer Titus — recently toed the starting line, then led the way outside of town, alongside Wyoming's current men's and women's teams. A decade later, they lead the lives the eight never could — as doctors and engineers and teachers, married, and, in some cases, with children. Many carry small tattoos as a reminder of their bond.
"You see some of his other friends who are married and having babies and you just wonder what Shane would have been doing right now," said Shatto's mother, Margo.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attack anniversary is a yearly reminder that their sons might still be here if they had been in Denver for their scheduled race, canceled by the school after the events of that day.
"For me … every year is the same," said Kerry Shatto, Shane's father. "It's just another day to remember that he's not here."
Wyoming's legal limit for blood-alcohol level has since been dropped from 0.1 to .08, and police, as of July, have a right with a search warrant to withdraw blood from motorists they suspect are intoxicated but refuse to provide a sample. Construction of widening U.S. 287 from mile marker 405 to Laramie began several years ago, but while the stretch near the crash was completed last year, the rest of the project has stalled.
"There's just no sense of urgency … and the next phase isn't supposed to start until 2014," said John Schabron, Nicholas' father, who has worked tirelessly to widen U.S. 287, one of the most treacherous highways in the nation.
Haskins, now 31, is expected to be released sometime in mid-February on parole, short of the eight concurrent 14-to 20-year sentences he received after pleading guilty to eight counts of vehicular homicide. He declined an interview request and is living in a minimum-security adult community corrections facility in Gillette, Wyo.
"I didn't think I'd ever be able to forgive, and I haven't come out and said, 'I forgive Haskins for what he did,' " said Loni Johnson, wearing a race T-shirt with her son Kevin Salverson's beaming face. "But I've asked God to guide Haskins in the direction God wants him to be in. Somebody told me that was forgiveness."
In the months and years after the crash, Johnson poured her sadness, frustration and anger into letters addressed to Haskins. She then burned all but one, which she dug out a month ago.
"I was angry," she said, lightly touching her wedding ring. "I hope I do (forgive Haskins) one day before I die, and not just for killing my son but for hurting so many people. I want him to forgive himself for what he did someday, but I hope he touches a lot of peoples' lives and makes them understand, 'You're not invincible.' "
Haskins has worked with an unlikely partner, Debbie McLeland, the mother of Morgan, to speak of the consequences of drinking and driving.
"When we talk, he adds a perspective to the program and a voice that's different from mine," McLeland said. "It's not about me just being a victim. To just stay stuck in hate, that doesn't help me or help him or help others make better choices."
After the recent race finished, it was former coach Sanchez who stayed until the last parents departed. The man, who on that fateful day grieved over eight dead sons, lost his wife this May after her long struggle with illness.
"I think the smartest thing I've done is surround myself with a lot of wonderful people," Sanchez said, tears streaming down his face, "What keeps me going? Faith in God, faith in yourself, and faith in everybody else around you."
Sanchez now assists at a Casper high school working with one of his former athletes.
He was inducted into the Wyoming Sports Hall of Fame this summer, along with the eight runners and the surviving teammates of that 2001 team.
"In a cross-country race, there are no timeouts," Sanchez said. "You adjust as you go. That's what we're doing (with life) right now. We're not stopping, we're just going and following our cross country philosophy. You finish the race.
"There are times in the race when you're falling apart, but you keep going, and maybe that's why we've made it through."