Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old Todd Stansfield was behind the wheel of his car when it smashed into another vehicle on a rural, two-lane road in Douglas County. Four people died. Stansfield lived. And ever since he put pen to paper after the crash, he’s been trying to use the power of his words to make sense of that horrific night.

May 2011

Todd woke up three weeks after the accident in the intensive care unit at Littleton Adventist. He regained a bit of weight and was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Six weeks after the crash, he was relearning how to walk and could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. His parents thought he was finally ready to know.

One morning at Craig, Todd Sr. led his son, still in a wheelchair, into a conference room and closed the door behind them. Maryanne was already there. A social worker and a psychiatrist, both from Craig, were also there.

Todd’s father spoke. Three friends were with you: Tony. Michael. Sean. You hit another man in a car. They’re all dead. Todd, they said you were going 93 miles per hour.

A man in a dark suit—Todd soon learned he was an attorney—came into the room. Todd would be charged, the man said. Don’t worry about that now. Focus on getting better. Later, Todd wrote:

I didn’t cry, not at first. All I could think about was the hours I had spent trying to remember my accident. The harder I tried, the more I found myself imagining it happen [sic] than anything. I crashed into a tree a hundred different times, in daylight and at dusk, in rain and sunshine. I never imagined crashing into another car, another person.

In the 16 months before Todd’s accident, at least nine teenagers died in Colorado vehicle crashes. Most involved reckless driving; some were alcohol-related. In this particular case, four people were dead, but Todd had survived. And now, it appeared, he would pay.

Returning home from Craig Hospital in late August of 2004, Todd felt like he was in a foreign body. His arms were pockmarked from the broken glass; the brace was still screwed into his skull; the tracheotomy scar was bright red and had just begun to heal. Todd drifted between depression and angst. He’d closed himself off to most people—including his parents—and fixated on his guilt and his fear of a potential prison sentence. Prosecutors by now had intimated that Todd could be tried as an adult, and the sentence could exceed 20 years. Vehicular homicide charges were filed in November. Maryanne worried that her son would get raped or killed—or both—in prison. Inside the Stansfields’ once peaceful home, Todd’s father yelled about the unfairness of it all, about how prosecutors seemed to want a fifth victim.

While facing the felony charges against him, Todd had signed a bond that prevented him from getting within two blocks of his old high school. After he left the hospital, he’d been homeschooled. That winter, Todd and his mother met with Ponderosa administrators to discuss Todd’s options. The vice principal suggested Todd attend a private, Christian high school a few miles from home.

Shut out of his school and shut off from most of his friends, Todd enrolled in Lutheran High School Parker. His parents hired a psychologist who encouraged Todd to write about the grief he was facing. He put pen to paper, and a month later he’d written more than 10,000 words. He met regularly with his psychologist and continued to write. He even started a story about his friends. Months later, he couldn’t find the courage to finish it.

His dead friends’ parents, meanwhile, had already begun defending him. Tony’s parents didn’t want to see their son’s friend hurt further. Ivan Majestic and his wife, Mary, had gotten to know Todd over the years, mostly over breakfasts of Cheerios when Todd stayed the night at their home. Ivan called Sherri Budge, Michael’s mother, and asked if she thought two wrongs could make a right. Sherri did not. The day after the crash, she’d visited Todd at the hospital; he was in a medically induced coma. Sherri held Todd’s hand. “I want you to know that Michael loved you,” she said. “We both love you.”

Even before they spoke on the phone, Ivan and Sherri had misgivings about the investigation. During a briefing a few days after the crash, investigators presented their theories about the wreck, including Todd’s speed. Sherri brought her two brothers along; one was an engineer who helped design vehicle air bags, and he questioned the angles of impact, which would have affected the speed calculations. The measurements had been taken at night, when clues could have been missed. The road was opened for morning traffic and cars were rolling over the accident scene. This isn’t conclusive, Sherri’s brother said.

Tony’s and Michael’s parents were prepared to fight, but Sean Student’s family had receded from the spotlight. Sean’s mother, Karen, showed up at court hearings but stayed away from the other families. Sean’s father and younger brother were rarely seen. While the other boys’ parents fought to keep Todd out of prison, the Students wanted to remain neutral, to let things play out in court.

Sherri and Ivan obtained the investigation files and pored over the 400-plus pages. The pair noticed that investigators hired an independent crash-scene reconstruction team—and just as Sherri’s brother had suggested, the initial speed calculations appeared to be incorrect. A new calculation dropped Todd’s speed from around 93 miles per hour to a range: 68 at the low end, 71 at the high end. No one had told the families about the adjustments. Todd was still nearly 30 miles per hour above the speed limit, but it was dramatically lower than what they’d been led to believe.

Then one night, Ivan called Sherri and told her to flip to the coroner reports. “Do you see what I see?” he asked. Marvin Gilchrist’s blood-alcohol level was 0.076, just below the limit of 0.08. If Gilchrist had been pulled over seconds before the crash, or if he’d lived, he could have been charged with driving while ability impaired.