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|In the Mojave Desert, there is a memorial to those lost.|
THE EARTH FILLED THE SKY. In the Mojave Desert on Aug. 14, 2010, at approximately 7:45 on an otherwise unremarkable, hot summer evening 100 miles northeast of LA, seven men, ranging in age from 22 to 34, and one woman, 20, were standing among a crowd of spectators several feet from an off-road dirt track watching racers zip by. Without warning, a 5,000-pound truck tumbled off the course in a fury of dust and plowed into them, killing all eight. They were fathers, sons and a daughter, financial advisers, laborers and technicians, sales clerks and pizza delivery men. Their deaths amounted to the worst off-road racing accident in the history of the sport.
The truck's driver, Brett Sloppy, 28, was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. That much is known. But only now coming into focus, four months later, are the hundreds of fateful decisions made by Sloppy, the organizers of the event, the people who died and those whose lives were spared. Rules are typically meant to ensure the fairness of competition and the integrity of the sport. Sometimes, though, they're also meant to protect people -- from others and from themselves. When such rules are not enforced, or simply don't exist, even the most mundane choices can mark the difference between life and death.
It took only two words for Jakob Bonnar to know his dad was angry: "Get back!"
His 13-year-old ears rang and his heart sank. That morning, Jakob had ridden an hour into the middle of nowhere with his father, Travis, and met his sister Heather, 21. They'd parked with family and friends 60 feet from the makeshift track, after spending most of the afternoon riding quads, waiting until sunset to watch two-and-a-half-ton trucks blast across the desert at 80 mph, pick their way through precarious terrain and get air off low natural ramps. Now, just as some of the baddest trucks were to arrive at a popular spectator spot known as the Rock Pile, the fun was over, thanks to Jakob's dad.
With his neighborhood buddy Jose trailing him, Jakob sulked back to his father, who was standing near their ATVs and dirt bikes away from the track. Travis Bonnar, 41, had grown up with off-road racing. His best memories are of this desert, barren lands toward Vegas and Arizona where Southern Californians have been hauling ATVs and dirt bikes for unpoliced weekend fun since the 1970s. The scene at the California 200 was not unlike a football tailgate, where strangers become instant friends and everyone seems to know one another, even when they don't.
Travis had brought his kids to watch the races, go four-wheeling and talk under the stars. "Stuff you can't ask about during American Idol," says Bonnar. "Is God real? Or, how did our ancestors come to America?" It had been a great trip. The last thing Bonnar wanted was to embarrass his boy in front of Jose by being the heavy, but he couldn't shake the feeling in his gut. Something's not right, he thought. We gotta get out of here.
Jakob protested. He wanted to take pictures, maybe throw them up on Facebook to impress friends with his badass summer. After all, he was so close to the trucks he could tag himself in the frames. Father and son compromised. "I told him I'd do it for him but then we were leaving," says Travis, who remembers walking to the track, snapping a photo of one of the first trucks to come through and turning back toward his son.
Travis never saw disaster rushing toward him, as the next truck, driven by Sloppy, barreled through the 20-foot channel between fans lining both sides of the track. The trucks had stagger-started just two miles up the course from the Rock Pile, and the first racers had glided over the small crest of the hill, their tires maybe a foot off the ground. Sloppy's truck seemed to come in faster and a little farther to the left as it approached the jump. His brake lights glowed in the dusty dusk, and then the white Ford Ranger, with Misery Motorsports emblazoned on the sides, launched two to three feet off the ground and pitched slightly right. The truck landed hard on its right-front tire, and flipped to the left into the crowd. It came to a rest on its roof.
When Travis came to, he was staring into the eyes of a man suspended by a seat belt. "He was upside down and we were face-to-face," Travis says. He saw a steering wheel below the man and realized the roof of a truck had landed on his shins. He was eye-to-eye with its driver, Sloppy.
In shock, Bonnar didn't know that not only were his legs gashed but his neck was broken in three places, his C6 and C7 vertebrae shattered in fragments. The screams he heard told him he was still alive. His thoughts turned to the kids.
Jakob and Jose -- who stayed where they'd been told, 25 feet off the track -- were low-bridged by flying bodies. Jose was bloodied and had a broken pelvis. Jakob, relatively unharmed, stood over his father, certain his dad was dying. To keep his boy occupied, Travis told him to find the camera, not realizing he was sending his son through a war zone, that flashbacks of exposed intestines and brain matter squishing through eye sockets would cause Jakob to wake up vomiting in the night for weeks. Then he thought of Heather. Where was she? To his right he saw his girl lying in the dirt under the bed of the truck, moving -- but eerily silent. Miraculously, she'd only broken a leg.
Nikki Cariola, 21, was on the ground too. She's sure she lost consciousness but says it's possible that the black cloud of dust and smoke simply made it seem that way. She'd known Andrew Therrien, 22, for more than a year, but their friendship had only recently deepened into romance. The California 200 fell on the couple's one-month anniversary, and they celebrated by having a friend take a photo of them sharing a kiss just before her life changed forever. On the way to the desert the night before, in a caravan of around 20 friends, Therrien, a single dad, stopped at McDonald's to buy his 3-year-old daughter, Kaylin, ice cream and French fries because she'd been so good on the drive. Cariola was stoked to finally be dating a guy who seemed mature beyond his years.
She says she had a feeling the three of them were too close to the action, but there were no barriers keeping them back and she figured the Rock Pile area was safe because it's where everyone met to socialize and watch the racers jump. (Officials estimate that 500 of the 2,000 fans lining the 50-mile course were at that spot. Witnesses say the number was higher.)
At first the trio stood with friends on the east side of the track, but Therrien wanted to move. Cariola still isn't sure why. The west side of the track was downhill from the jump and seemed more dangerous. What if something went wrong? She picked up Kaylin.
Their friend, Derek Cox, 26, decided to grab a beer and asked Therrien if he'd keep an eye on his son, Zeek, 7, for two minutes. Therrien said yes and turned to Cariola: "After this next truck passes, we'll take the kids and cross to the other side." Those were his last words.
"All I remember is turning to get Kaylin's face out of the dust that was coming at us," Cariola says. "The next thing I know Andrew pushes my lower back so hard that I go flying away from him. I woke up and saw blood on Kaylin's face, and I'm looking for Andrew and he wasn't there and I just knew he was gone." Witnesses say Therrien's last act was to shove Cariola, Kaylin and Zeek to safety. Cariola, focused on finding a way to get Kaylin home to Riverside, Calif., had to be persuaded to be airlifted out after paramedics feared she was bleeding internally. A friend drove Kaylin home as Cariola was examined and cleared at the hospital. In addition to the eight killed, 12 spectators were taken to various hospitals.
Robbie Falkoski, 23, had gone to the desert to meet girls. He spent the afternoon playing beer pong and listening to the hard-core band As I Lay Dying. He lined up to watch the race across the track from Therrien -- a buddy from high school. He says the crowd was thick and oblivious to danger, waiting for the 500-horsepower Class 1450 trucks to race through on the opening circuit of a four-lap, 200-mile contest that would likely end at 2 or 3 in the morning. The race had a seven-and-a-half-hour time limit to complete, and it's not uncommon for half the field to fail to finish. Falkoski says he could see that Sloppy was coming in faster than the previous trucks, and he shouted at friends to get back. "Sloppy's truck came through, and the whole world got stupid slow," he says. "After he crashed, it was quiet. Then madness took over. People panicked. It smelled like gasoline and death."
Falkoski found his friend Andrew dead near the passenger window of the truck, then turned to assist an off-duty EMT help the wounded. He hugged those who were in shock and held the hand of a badly injured young man. "He looked right at me and said, 'Dude, I'm going to f---ing die,' " Falkoski says. "I kept telling him, 'Stay with me, bro. You're here.' But I knew he was right."
For all its beauty, the desert hid a secret that soon loomed large: What drew the young crowd to this spot, the freedom and isolation, also kept help from arriving quickly. Some of the injured lay bleeding for more than an hour. There wasn't much to do except wait and pray.
There is little comfort afforded a parent who loses a child, but in light of the stories he's heard of the tragedy, Todd Frantzich is grateful his daughter did not suffer in death. His two kids -- Danica and Cheyenne -- had driven from their home in Las Vegas to watch the race. Back when Danica turned 16, Todd had offered to buy her a BMW convertible. She turned him down, said she wanted a truck. She soon replaced the truck with a raised Jeep she named Hannah-Belle.
Danica and Cheyenne stood side-by-side as Sloppy's truck careered into the crowd. Danica, who'd just turned 20, was killed instantly, the only female victim. Todd was at work when his wife, Lisa, called to tell him that one daughter was gone and the other unaccounted for. The event was three-and-a-half hours from Vegas; a friend drove Todd and Lisa while Todd called coroners to ask if both girls were dead. Halfway there, they learned 15-year-old Cheyenne was safe at Loma Linda University Medical Center with bruises on her hip and lower back.
Dustin Malson and his friend Zachary Freeman, both 24, had gone to watch Dustin's little brother, Darren, race. Dustin and Zachary were killed. Brian Wolfin, 27, also died. Later, a friend, Jason Brown, told a reporter that Wolfin was "the biggest guy you'd ever meet, with the softest heart." Friends initially told Michael Dickinson's wife, Janet, that her husband was injured but alert and joking how lucky he was to be alive. Dickinson, 34, had no idea that he was bleeding internally. Following a cardiac arrest, he was pronounced dead at the hospital.
In another cruel twist, Aaron Farkas, 25, and his best friend, Anthony Sanchez, 23, had gone to the event to see their pal Brett Sloppy race. On the way to the desert their car broke down several times. When they got to the site, they walked to the Rock Pile to ask if anyone could spot them jumper cables. "Sixty seconds later they were hit," says Aaron's mother, Cindy Farkas-Lake. Both were killed.
In the aftermath of the accident, several racers said they had been concerned that the crowd was too close to the track. Darren Malson, 20, whose brother Dustin was killed, had planned to split racing duties with Brian Metcho, his best friend. Metcho was to drive the first two laps, and Darren would handle the back end. Brian started in the group before Sloppy, while Darren went to the Rock Pile to see how the suspension on their truck looked on the jump. "Brian told me he was scared the truck wouldn't fit through the crowd," says Darren. He considered trying to move the crowd back, then decided no one would listen to a dude who wasn't in uniform.
Even if Malson had wanted to ask a cop or park ranger to help, he would have had trouble finding one. Federal officials say the growth of the sport has outpaced the number of staff trained to regulate it. From 2000 to 2010 the number of special recreation permits approved in this district by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) jumped more than 27 percent, to a total of 130 for motorized-use events. During that same time frame the number of field-office employees in the California Desert District dwindled from 32 to 19. Although 51 law- enforcement officers are charged with covering the 11 million acres of public land in the region, only 38 of those positions were filled at the time of the crash. Of those officers, just seven were assigned to the region where the event was held. One of those seven was on medical leave, another was in training, one was on vacation and one was working for another office. Of the two officers assigned to work the race that day, only one showed up. The other called in sick.
"An officer I talked to later told me straight up it was the worst thing he'd ever seen," Todd Frantzich says, adding that other races his daughters had attended had been secured with barriers, ropes or signs. "If I'd known it was going to be like this, I'd have never let them go."
Cindy Farkas-Lake says she has a picture of her son, Aaron, racing at the California 200 from a few years back. "Every time I look at it my heart breaks because you can see where the course is marked by orange plastic tape," she says.
|Despite the large crowds, only one uniformed officer worked the event.|
According to the race permit, course safety was the responsibility of the promoter, Mojave Desert Racing Productions. The company, founded in 1997, stages as many as seven races a year in its California Series and another six in its Superstition Series. MDR had never had a fatality due to an accident. Although fans are admitted for free, each of the estimated 200 drivers pays an entrance fee of $200 to $440, depending on the class of the vehicle. The BLM suspended the permits for the final two races of the California Series and the last three of the Superstition Series. MDR officials did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Both Frantzich and Farkas-Lake are wary of assigning blame. Travis Bonnar, Jakob's dad, says he understands: "Mistakes were obviously made, but legally I don't know who's at fault. Plus, the off-road community is very close, and everyone's upset. No one wants to see this hurt the sport. People just want better safety precautions."
Frantzich has hired a lawyer but says he's relying on God to sort out who is to blame, while Andrew Therrien's mother, Dori Levinson, takes some comfort from knowing her son died a hero, saving others. "Only in death did I realize my little boy was a man," she says. "He is now with the Lord. My concern is with the young man who was driving and his mental state."
The mental state of Brett Sloppy is largely unknown. Unmarried, he still lives in the town where he was raised, San Marcos, Calif., more than two hours south of the accident site. His Facebook page lists his occupation as "owner of Misery Motorsports" and message board posts indicate he supplemented his job as a welder and fabricator by selling auto parts online. His family's home sits on a corner and is the quietest on the block, with little sign that anyone lives there.
Sloppy still faces the threat of lawsuits from surviving families and did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Magazine. After the accident he wrote on his Facebook wall that he was "so incredibly devastated and lost." In October, the off-road blog bajaracingnews.com reported that Sloppy, during a brief interview, had placed blame for the wreck on tire failure.
Amanda Jones, 23, who witnessed the accident, is friends with both Therrien and Sloppy. "Some people have been telling me God has a plan, and to that I say, What kind of a plan involves one friend accidentally killing another?" she asks. Jones says gossip is filling in the blanks created by Sloppy's silence. "There's some shit being talked because he used to have a Mohawk, as if that means anything. He's the biggest sweetheart in the world. He broke down and cried and said, 'I'm sorry for killing your friend.'"
Farkas-Lake says her son had known Sloppy for about 10 years before he died. She heard that Sloppy attended Aaron's memorial service at her home, but she didn't see him. "After the service we heard he was scared and nervous," Farkas-Lake says. "So we reached out to him and sent him the message that we don't hate him, that we know it was a horrible accident and that it could have been our son behind the wheel."
Other drivers say that it's unlikely there was anything fatally wrong with Sloppy's truck; each vehicle had to pass a tech inspection before it could race. The California Highway Patrol is investigating the crash but will not comment on the condition or whereabouts of the truck; Malson says several theories are circulating about what happened when Sloppy hit the jump, the most popular being that his steering column broke. "If it's true then it's mechanical error, not human error," says Malson, who has camped in a group with Sloppy. "It means he had no control."
Joedy Muha, 22, co-driver in a truck steered by his cousin Brent Veenstra, passed through the Rock Pile two minutes after the accident. Seeing Sloppy's Ranger upside down, Veenstra instinctively stopped in the middle of the course. But fearing they'd get hit from behind if they didn't keep moving, he started driving the 11 miles to the next pit stop. "Honestly, we didn't know how bad it was because trucks wipe out all the time in these races," says Muha. "More than half break down because everyone wants to go fast."
Muha says trucks like Sloppy's can hit 80 mph without the driver's even knowing it because spinning tires render a speedometer useless. Officials estimate Sloppy was traveling at 50 mph when he crashed.
Bonnar says that when he was under the truck staring at Sloppy, he saw the driver bring his hands to his helmet and shake his head. And contrary to Internet reports, Sloppy was not pelted with rocks thrown by an angry mob as he departed. After the accident, Bonnar says his friends helped Sloppy out of his truck and sat him on the back of a quad just yards away. When they noticed him staring at the wreck in shock, eyes glazed over, they moved him to a nearby pickup truck facing away from the scene.
Since the wreck, Farkas-Lake estimates she's been to five or so California 200 benefits, and Sloppy, who escaped serious injury, has stood quietly at every one, including an off-road exposition in October at which a victims memorial was unveiled. At a fund-raiser in September, the two came face-to-face. "I don't remember words because there wasn't a lot to say," says Farkas-Lake. "I just hugged him. He's going to have to deal with this for the rest of his life." Friends say Sloppy knew at least five of the dead and injured, but his lawyer is advising him not to speak to survivors, to grieving families or to the media. Brian Wolfin's relatives have also hired a lawyer, and other families may follow, but lawsuits have not yet been filed against Sloppy, the BLM or MDR.
Jones says Sloppy wants to dismantle his truck, the monster he built with his own hands, but she says a court order forbids him from touching it until the investigation is complete.
The madness that set in on the evening of Aug. 14, 2010, has not ended. In the weeks following the accident, posters on off-road racing Internet message boards argued fiercely about who was at fault. Sure, Sloppy was driving fast, but he was racing. Yes, the spectators were standing too close, but doesn't the human brain recognize safety in numbers? Amateur footage of the crash on YouTube has inspired comments such as: "Those people deserved it," and "Natural selection at its finest." Jakob Bonnar has gone online and begged for the ridicule to stop, only to be derided as a 13-year-old looking for attention.
Even months later, Robbie Falkoski twitches like an angry colt when he talks, and he admits he's always one dirty look away from slugging someone. He's training to be an EMT, and he hopes one day he'll get a call to save someone, and it will be his friend Andrew and he'll get a do-over. "I know that makes me sound crazy, but it's what gets me through," says Falkoski. He wants to move to Holland, where none of this can find him.
A couple of days after his brother was killed, Robert Therrien, 26, tried to check himself into a mental hospital because his thoughts were spinning violently. "But it was a Wednesday, and they said they take people only on Fridays," says Therrien. "I had to work on Fridays." He drives his brother's car and wears his clothes. Before the accident Robert was running with the wrong crowd and had moved to Colorado to start fresh. He enrolled in school and got a job at a Walgreens. After Andrew died, everything changed. He still hasn't come to grips with failing to be there to help his brother. "Robert so badly needs to relive the last steps of his brother's life, and it scares me," says his mother, Dori Levinson.
In the weeks after the accident Robert grew obsessed with one gruesome detail of Andrew's death. He had heard that at least one victim had been decapitated. Bonnar put him in touch with an EMT, who left a message on his cell phone on Sept. 28. Robert can't bring himself to erase the voice mail telling him Andrew suffered serious head trauma but was not fully decapitated.
About two months after the accident, Amanda Jones tried to connect Sloppy and Robert Therrien by phone. Jones, a legal secretary who also promotes products at racing events, was with Sloppy at the Lucas Oil Off-road Expo and called Therrien to ask if he wanted to talk to Sloppy. Therrien couldn't talk then, but Jones set up a meeting for the two men at a later event, where they shook hands and spoke quietly. Jones says she hasn't had a chance to grieve because she's too busy balancing the emotions of everyone around her. One week after the accident, her mother found her huddled in a ball, cold and shaking, and drove her to the hospital. "People think you're fine because you weren't physically injured," says Jones. "I wake up with this every day. I'll never get over it."
Cheyenne Frantzich is struggling to cope as well. The 15-year-old wears her sister's jewelry, "and her entire Myspace is all Danica," says her father, Todd. She complains of feeling dizzy but doctors can't find a medical cause.
With his boy vomiting and his girl unwilling to talk about the accident, a scared Travis Bonnar wrote to the website for the Dr. Phil show seeking recommendations for child psychologists in Southern California. Producers soon called to discuss turning his story into an hour-long TV show. In return they promised to pay for therapy for Jakob and Heather. He agreed to the taping, which aired in late September, after they had promised not to portray the sport negatively. He caught flak for the show on off-road message boards but has no regrets, because he got his children back. Despite his neck injuries, he is able to walk. Doctors tell him that he's won the lottery.
On November 19, the BLM released the findings of its investigation. The report shed the first official flicker of light on what took the lives of eight people in the desert and shattered countless others. The document says MDR had acquired the proper permit from the BLM, which it had done every year since 1997, for $95. The report declared the BLM's "policies and procedures for permitting off-highway vehicle events to be sound, but the agency did not follow these standard procedures" in permitting MDR to host the California 200. Specifically, the agency took responsibility for failing to monitor and enforce rules listed in the permit, including: limiting attendance to 300 people and keeping spectators at least 50 feet from all moving vehicles.
In his interoffice memorandum, the BLM's California state director, James Wesley Abbott, wrote that he was "stunned" by the tragedy, adding: "This event happened on my watch, and I am accountable to the public to see changes are made to better ensure public safety."
Molly Knight is a writer for ESPN The Magazine; her full ESPN archives are here and her Twitter is here.