Deerfield parents convicted of allowing a homecoming night drinking party that was blamed for a crash that killed two teens were sentenced Wednesday to jail time, fines and community service.
The trial of Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell has shone a harsh glare on teen drinking and left families on edge as they prepared for this weekend's Deerfield High School homecoming.
"Parents are scared," said Vicki Ettelson, the mother of a Deerfield junior.
She said the Hutsell case changed the way some parents looked at teen drinking, from being a rite of passage to being something that could have grave consequences for them, as well as their kids.
"I think that parents are going to be more alert and more vigilant in monitoring what their children are doing," she said.
The issue came into dramatic focus at Wednesday's sentencing hearing.
"Two teens lost their lives because of the environment the Hutsells created in their home," said Assistant State's Atty. Christen Bishop.
Bishop argued for jail time, saying the deaths of the two teens could have been prevented.
But the Hutsells' friends told of the parents' contributions to church and the community.
"No one is asking that they not pay a penalty. They have paid a huge penalty since this all came to light," said Michael Kiss, a longtime friend of the couple. "I would hope that the court would consider a lifetime as opposed to one moment."
In the end, Judge Christopher Stride called the Hutsells' actions "a mistake ... that will resonate for a lifetime."
He ordered Sara Hutsell to serve 18 months of probation, 250 hours of public service, pay a $500 fine and donate $1,000 each to Students Against Drunk Driving and the Lake County Children's Advocacy Center. He ordered her to serve 30 days in a work-release program but stayed that part of the sentence.
Jeffrey Hutsell also got 30 days of work-release, but the judge stayed all but 14 days. He will be allowed to travel for work while serving his sentence. He also was sentenced to 18 months of probation, 100 hours of service and similar fines as his wife. Both were ordered not to have alcohol in their home when minors are present and must attend victim-impact panels.
The Oct. 13 crash that killed Ross Trace and Danny Bell, both 18, occurred a short distance from the Hutsells' home and triggered efforts by police, school officials and parent groups to prevent another tragedy. They've held parent coffees, assemblies and classroom discussions and promised to crack down on parent scofflaws.
But uncertainty lingers about how to fix the problem.
"I have no idea," said Taylor Lustig, 17, a senior. "A lot of times, the teachers come to us, trying to pry solutions from us as though we're just not telling them. ... I understand why they're trying, but I just don't know if it's working."
Still, she conceded, "You can't not try either."
The deaths of Trace and Bell caused a lot of grief. Trace, a senior from Riverwoods, was a popular pole vaulter and soccer player, while Bell, a 2006 Deerfield graduate, had a passion for fixing cars and planned to attend an automotive school. Toxicological tests showed that Bell, the driver, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.132, well above the 0.08 driving limit for adults. Trace had smoked marijuana before he died.
Within a day of the accident, authorities said they intended to hold accountable any adults who played a role.
The Hutsells were convicted of misdemeanor counts of allowing underage drinking at their home, endangering a child and obstruction of justice.
Neither the Bell nor Trace families were in court, though parts of letters from Bell's mother and sister were read by Bishop. Scott Gibson, a lawyer for Trace's family, was in court and said afterward that his clients intend to file a civil suit against the Hutsells.
According to testimony in a six-day trial in July, about 30 teens showed up at the Hutsells' home in the 700 block of Summit Drive the night of Oct. 13 at the invitation of their son, Tyler.
One teen said she recalled cans of beer in plain sight. Another teen testified he played "beer pong," a drinking game in the basement, and more than one teen testified to seeing Jeffrey Hutsell in the basement when drinking was occurring.
A teen who survived the crash testified that he and four other teens left the party to smoke marijuana in Bell's car, but drove off when they saw adults. Minutes later, about 11:30 p.m., the car crashed into a tree near the end of the Hutsells' driveway.
Inspired in part by the high-profile case, Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August signed into law a measure that stiffens penalties for parents who let teens drink in their homes. It provides for felony charges if parents knowingly allow underage drinking and someone is hurt or killed.
As this year's homecoming drew closer, school administrators tried to send strong messages to students about the consequences of drugs and alcohol.
At a Tuesday morning assembly, Elisa McElmeel of Streamwood held up torn clothing that once belonged to her son Anthony, who was killed in a December 2000 auto accident in which the driver of the other car was drunk.
"Yes, that's his blood," she said, referring to the brownish stains on the shirts.
Afterward, guidance counselor Jenni Casale wasn't sure if kids got the message. "They certainly look like they're paying attention, but is it filtering through all their filters? It's so hard to know," she said.
Nicole Harris, 17, a senior from Bannockburn, said she was touched by McElmeel's words. As for whether the stories would compel some teens to stop drinking, she had doubts.
"This weekend it might help, but with time, it'll wear off again," Harris said. "Last homecoming was really hard for so many people, but the amount of people who drank the next night was still a lot."
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