10 Years Later, Local Tragedy Has Become A Teaching Tool
By Patti Rasmussen
Exclusive to KHTS
Ten years ago the community of Santa Clarita woke up to horrific news - three students from Canyon High School were killed in a collision on Soledad Canyon Road. Also dead was a 45-year old man driving home from a workout at the gym. The person responsible for these deaths was 18-year-old Marcus Lellan, another student from Canyon.
It was 10 years ago this month that the Renolds' family's life was turned upside down. On that cold night in February, Alice and Tom Renolds were told that their two sons - Tim, 17 and Danny, 15, were both dead in the back seat of Lellan's car. Also dead in the back seat was 17-year old Nicki Ianozzi.
Marcus Lellan was an acquaintance of Tim Renolds and had come by the Renolds' home earlier that evening to pick him up. Daniel Weber and Ianozzi were also along for the ride. Unbeknownst to Tom and Alice, the high school boys would pick up Danny later that night.
According to reports and court records, Lellan was speeding on Soledad Canyon Road when he lost control of his vehicle, hit the curb and went airborne. The car landed upside down in the opposite lanes on top of a Mustang being driven by Rodney Adams.
Lellan and Weber survived the crash. Lellan pleaded guilty to four counts of vehicular manslaughter and was given an 8-year sentence (two years for every death). A native of Denmark, Lellan was deported back to his homeland after serving half of his sentence. Tom Renolds spoke at his deportation hearing. Word is that Lellan is now back in Santa Clarita. Tom and Alice were not notified of his release and only found out through friends.
For a time it seemed like all across the Santa Clarita Valley, high school students were dying in vehicle-related crashes at an alarming rate. The death of the two brothers struck a nerve with the community. For five years after the death of their sons, Tom and Alice, along with their oldest son Scott, held a candlelight vigil every year on February 17 - the date of the crash, and at the exact time the brothers' lost their lives. Hundreds of friends, family and community leaders attended these walks.
Mike Shapiro was the traffic detective on the scene the night the boys were killed. Now the president of the Newhall School District board of trustees, Shapiro cannot shake the images of that night. He was the one to tell Alice her sons were dead.
"Kids do stupid things, they think they are invincible," Shapiro said. "They just don't understand the consequences."
Shapiro is getting first-hand knowledge of teenage driving habits as he drives around town with his 15-year old daughter who has a permit. "When we drive I go over everything with her," he said. "A lot of it is just experience. I want to see that my daughter is safe, that all the kids are safe."
When told Marcus Lellan was in town, Shapiro said he would like to ask him if he learned anything. "Did he grow up? Did he at least learn to be a good driver?"
Councilman and local educator Frank Ferry also was at the scene the night of the crash helping to identify the victims and console the witnesses. He speaks at every memorial service. Now the principal of Bishop Alemany High School in Granada Hills, Ferry is still very passionate about young people and the choices they make.
Ten years after the crash, Alice and Tom are still very much the old married couple as they finish each other's sentence and wait patiently for the other to speak from the heart. Their son Scott and his wife Jennifer have given them two beautiful granddaughters - Alexis and Natalie. Alice is still working at Mitchell Elementary School and Tom is getting ready to retire this year.
Tom and Alice have spent the last 10 years speaking out on the consequences of reckless driving. Working with the Santa Clarita Sheriff's office, the Renolds' help bring a face to the "Every 15 Minutes" program which rotates between the high schools and re-creates an actual two-car collision complete with "dead" students and the "arrest" of the student driver.
The Renolds' tell their story year after year to crowded gymnasiums full of juniors and seniors. They talk about picking out clothes for their sons' funerals, designing headstones, cleaning rooms and the constant buzz of the boys' pagers days after the crash. They believe the program and their talk makes a difference.
"We'll never know who we reached, but we know who we don't," Tom said.
"Even if I reach one, they may pass it on," Alice added. "I'll keep doing this as long as I can."
The Renolds' are active members of the Santa Clarita Blue Ribbon Task Force and the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Citizens Traffic Safety Committee. Out of these organizations, the Renolds supported and helped raise funds for the Youth Grove in Central Park. The memorial is a collection of concrete tree stumps bearing the names of young people killed in traffic-related vehicle incidents. An annual "Night of Remembrance" now takes the place of the candlelight walks the Renolds' once led. On that night, the community is invited to come to hear about the lives of those gone too young.
Both Tom and Alice lend their voice to Youth Court, where they speak to teens who have been cited for traffic violations. A recent invitation by the Dr. Phil show put the story of the Renolds' family on the national stage when they were asked to speak to a 23-year old New Jersey woman who has racked up more than 60 speeding tickets.
Some years back, Tom converted Danny's room into an office for Alice. She is an active member of Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost a child, and she has many plaques, photographs and mementos of her boys. Alice also has lots of angels - gifts that were given to her in the days after the boys' death. She said they comfort her.
Alice and Tom have both lost parents and siblings in the years since 2000. They said it's hard right now because Tim and Danny's friends are getting married and having babies - something they will never experience with their two youngest boys. Her sister-in-law lives just down the street from the crash site and Alice said every time she goes to visit her, it hurts.
But the grandchildren give them much comfort and they are once again enjoying family outings. Tim and Danny are never far from their minds. Every year Alice sends out her newsy Christmas cards and never forgets to add her boys to the salutation.
"It's the same every year," Alice said. "You shake you head and think, "It's been 10 years?"
While Tom and Alice still feel the pain of the loss of their sons, they both agree that Marcus did not set out to kill anyone that night. As for forgiving him or meeting him, it's a tough call.
"I will never call this an accident," Alice said. "It was a crash, people died and it was because he was speeding."
The Night of Remembrance will be held at the Youth Memorial in Central Park on April 21. For more information, contact the Santa Clarita Valley Blue Ribbon Task Force at www.santa-clarita.com, or call 661-250-3731.