WDAY: The News Leader

Published July 31, 2011, 12:10 PM

Duluth parents who lost son forgive drunk driver

DULUTH - Tim Stephenson, Samuel Rodman, James Nelson and Jeremy Shea had been hanging out together since they were kids at Wrenshall School.

DULUTH - Tim Stephenson, Samuel Rodman, James Nelson and Jeremy Shea had been hanging out together since they were kids at Wrenshall School.

On the night of June 2, they went to the Wabegon Supper Club to play pool and drink beer, celebrating Shea’s return to Duluth after six years in Florida.

They left the Wabegon about 1 a.m., stopping briefly to let bartender and friend Stephanie Laubach snap a photo of them with her cell phone. Then they piled into Shea’s 2008 Honda Accord, with Shea driving and Stephenson next to him in front. Nelson was the only one to put on his seat belt.

Just a half-mile from the Wabegon on Highway 23 in Fond du Lac and only blocks from their destination, Shea missed a turn going more than 90 mph and rolled the car three times into the trees and back to the road.

Stephenson, 25, died shortly after the crash from a head injury. Rodman, 23, sustained traumatic brain injuries. Nelson, 27, and Shea, 22, both suffered broken bones, cuts and bruises. Police say initial tests put Shea’s blood-alcohol level at .10, slightly over the .08 limit to drive.

Jeff and Selma Stephenson, Tim’s parents, know that Shea had been drinking and speeding before the crash.

They know that he’s facing 10 counts of criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular operation and reckless driving in the crash that killed their son.

But they say they forgive him.

“I told him that I loved him and forgave him for what he did,” said Jeff Stephenson, Tim’s father. “(Shea) still has responsibilities to face.”

Tim Stephenson’s parents helped organize a Saturday fundraiser in Gary billed as “Benefit 4 the Boys,” which drew more than 500 friends and family members of the four men in the crash, as well as Shea and Nelson. Rodman is undergoing treatment at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo. Proceeds from the fundraiser were to help defray medical costs for the victims’ families.

Organizers aimed to do more than raise money, though. They wanted to spread the word about the dangers of drinking and driving, and to emphasize the importance of wearing seat belts. About 100 organizations, including dozens of gas stations and restaurants, donated prizes. Representatives from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Minnesota Teen Challenge were there.

At the event, the Stephensons spoke about their son, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art from UMD in 2009. He worked as part of the kitchen crew at Bulldog Pizza and Grill and was looking for work as a high school art teacher.

Selma Stephenson said Tim was an avid player of disc golf and was close to his 7-year-old niece, Martha Stephenson. After the crash, “Martha said, ‘Timmy went to heaven because God needed another player on his Frisbee team,’ ” Selma Stephenson said.

Selma Stephenson said she forgives Shea because all four friends are responsible.

“All four boys knew what they were doing and (the responsibility) falls on all of them,” Selma Stephenson said. “Tim had recently received a DWI. They knew what could happen (from drinking and driving) and did nothing about it.”

Shea spoke about the response of his friends’ parents two weeks ago at St. Eligius Health Center, where he is recovering from two broken femurs, a broken sternum and a broken wrist.

“The families were just so forgiving and worried about us all,” he said. “I didn’t know if the Stephensons were going to hate me or not, but they came and showed me love.

“They walked in (to my room) and Selma Stephenson gave me a big hug, and I started crying. Then Jeff Stephenson told me in my ear, ‘It’s not your fault.’ ”

But Shea, who is recovering from broken legs, wrist and sternum, said he knows better.

“I’ll probably live with it for the rest of my life,” he said. “I can’t get rid of the guilt. I have no plan to get over it.”

Once Shea makes a full recovery, Jeff Stephenson said he thinks Shea should speak to groups about his experience.

“It would be a very positive thing for him to tell his story of the effects (drinking and driving) had on him and the community,” Stephenson said.

He also said he hopes Shea comes to terms with what happened.

“He should forgive himself for (the crash), because that’s going to help him emotionally and mentally,” Stephenson said. “He didn’t plan to kill his best friend. People make mistakes. He should say, for his own well-being: ‘Tim just beat me to heaven.’ ”