Fifteen years after the former Olympic diver killed two teens in a drunken driving accident, he pleads for a second chance behind the wheel.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published July 27, 2003
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
R.J. Kecker was 16 when he and his friends were hit by Kimball's car and his leg was nearly severed. He still wears a brace and battles persistent pain. He and his wife Teri, live in the Brandon house he grew up in, with Mabel, 3, and R.J., 14 months.
[Times photo (March 31, 1989): Maurice Rivenbark]
Two months after being sentenced to 17 years in prison, Bruce Kimball went before Judge Harry Lee coe and pleaded or a reduced sentence. He was denied. Lawyers Frank Quesada, lefft, and Lee Fugate listen with him.
[Times photo: Susan Taylor Martin]
In the summer, Kimball teaches at the Centennial Family Aquatic Center in Wilmette, Ill. During the school year, he teaches at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.
[Updated August 5, 2003 | 11:14]
Last year, a 38-year-old teacher wrote a letter seeking a driver's license from the state of Illinois, even though a Florida judge had said he should never drive again.
"My name is Bruce D. Kimball," the letter began, "and I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict."
Since moving to the Chicago area, Kimball had finished his college degree, coached young divers and gotten a job as a physical education teacher at one of Illinois' top public high schools. He attended regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and often spoke to young people about staying clean and sober.
"I have managed to accomplish a number of things in the past eight years without a driver's license," Kimball wrote. "At times it has been very difficult."
Now, in April 2002, his wife had just given birth. Kimball was finding it harder than ever to get around. He implored the state to grant him a license - although he had done something, in his own words, "so terrible, so horrific and far reaching" he could never fully make up for it.
This Friday, it will be 15 years since Kimball drank a dozen beers, got into his Mazda RX7 and roared down a dark country road in eastern Hillsborough County.
He didn't see them until it was too late - a big group of teenagers in the road. The Mazda sliced through the crowd, instantly killing 19-year-old Robbie Bedell and 16-year-old Kevin Gossic and seriously injuring three others.
One second, R.J. Kerker was talking to friends; the next, his leg was hanging by a shred.
"Blink of an eye," is how Kerker puts it.
The tragedy drew international attention, for Bruce Kimball, then 25, was one of the world's top divers. Four years earlier he had won a silver medal at the Olympics in Los Angeles; now in the summer of 1988, he was training in Brandon for the upcoming games in Seoul, South Korea.
Then everything changed. The Bedells buried their only son, a college student and gifted athlete. The Gossics were so devastated they moved from the area, never to return. Kerker gave up his dream of playing soccer at the University of Tennessee and spent months regaining use of his leg.
And Kimball was bound not for fresh Olympic glory but a Florida prison.
Today, many of those touched by the accident still find it too painful to discuss. Kimball would not be interviewed for this story. But in letters supporting his petition to drive again, friends say he knows he did a terrible thing, accepts responsibility and has done all he could to make amends.
"I cannot imagine the impact of the past tragedy on everyone involved," wrote John Gilchrist, one of his supervisors at New Trier High School. "I do know how Bruce's life has been impacted and I will admit that I admire him for how he has dealt with it. He has truly learned from his past and is steadfast with his goal to remain sober."
But could he? Could someone who got behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of 0.20 - twice the legal limit then - and devastated so many lives be trusted to drive safely again?
"I can give you no guarantee that I will never drink again because that's not how it works," Kimball wrote in his April 6, 2002, letter to the Illinois secretary of state.
"My recovery takes place one day at a time. I do know, however, that I can achieve continued success if I live by this creed. . . . I am very grateful for what I now have, and I will continue to work toward achieving my goals, as I strive toward progress rather than perfection. In closing, I respectfully ask that you give my petition strong consideration.
Sincerely, Bruce D. Kimball"
Among the many points of pride in Wilmette, Ill., an upscale suburb of Chicago, is the dazzling new Centennial Family Aquatic Center. On a recent sunny morning, a compact man in baggy trunks paced along the edge of the dive pool as one young diver after another arced into the water.
"C'mon, Michael!" the man shouted at a boy poised on the edge of the springboard. "Tighten your legs up!"
This is where Bruce Kimball has always felt most at home, at a pool with a diving board.
His father is Dick Kimball, the legendary former diving coach of the University of Michigan. Over 43 years, the elder Kimball coached nine divers to Olympic medals and five to NCAA national championships. When he retired at age 65, Kimball could still do a 41/2-revolution somersault off a 10-meter platform.
There seemed little doubt Bruce would follow in his father's wake. As a youngster he was national champion for his age group a record 14 times. He won an athletic scholarship to Michigan.
But in 1981, when he was 18, Kimball's career nearly ended. He and friends were driving home when they were hit by a drunken driver. The wreck broke every bone in Kimball's face; he called himself Frankenstein.
Still, Kimball resumed diving nine months later. "The Comeback Kid" was one of the great stories of the 1984 Olympics.
Yet another, darker chapter, was about to begin.
"I achieved my ultimate goal in diving, and once I had done that I didn't really know where to go," he said years later, under questioning by a lawyer for the secretary of state.
"I mean, I'd spent my whole life working toward that one thing and when I got to that point I just didn't know what I wanted to do with myself."
Within a year or so of the Olympics, Kimball dropped out of college. He helped his father coach and delivered pizza. He didn't need to work: He had gotten a $300,000 settlement as a result of the car accident.
The money, he said, helped him continue "the type of behaviors I was involved in."
By 1986, Kimball was using cocaine as often as five times a week. He also smoked marijuana and drank up to 15 beers at a time.
In 1988, Kimball accompanied his father to Florida. The elder Kimball had long taught summer diving camps at the Brandon Swim and Tennis Club, and Bruce could train there for the U.S. Olympic trials, to be held in Indianapolis that August.
On the evening of Aug. 1, Kimball left the club and went to a bar in Brandon with his friend Chuck Wade. Kimball estimated that, in two hours, he drank 12 beers.
Then they headed for Wade's house, stopping first to pick up another friend.
"You would think that someone of my size and stature (5 feet 7, 140 pounds) would be stumbling drunk after consuming as many beers as I had that night, but this wasn't the case," Kimball later wrote. "I know now that this had to do with the fact I had built up quite a tolerance to alcohol."
Wade lived in a rural part of Hillsborough County, on a dead-end stretch called Culbreath Road. It continued for about a quarter mile past the Wade home, curving slightly to the left and ending in a dirt turnaround.
When they reached Wade's driveway, Kimball was going too fast to make the turn. He glanced at the house as they flew by, then looked at the road ahead.
He was horrified by what he saw.
To teenagers from miles around, it was known as The Spot.
Years ago the property at the end of Culbreath Road had been a farm, but now it was thick with magnificent oaks and dense underbrush that nearly obscured the NO TRESPASSING sign. Dark and isolated, it was a popular party spot.
That Monday, 16-year-old R.J. Kerker arrived around 10 p.m., and parked along the road. About 50 kids were there, perched on car hoods or milling about.
Kerker, going into his senior year at Brandon High, was a good athlete who surfed and played soccer. He also was a talented pianist, who shared a love of music with his friend Kevin Gossic, a free-spirited sort who played the guitar.
Kerker and Gossic were joined by 18-year-old April Bruffy, who graduated that spring and was teaching aerobics. Bruffy had just seen Die Hard. The three were talking about the movie when Bruce Kimball missed his turn.
He was going 70 to 90 miles per hour.
Kimball realized that the seemingly deserted road was crammed with cars. Worse, a large group of teenagers loomed on his path.
He tried to swerve; instead the Mazda plowed through bodies and vehicles until it came to a halt hundreds of feet away.
Kerker heard Bruffy screaming in pain. As headlights pierced the darkness, he could see pieces of bodies scattered on the grass. His own leg had been nearly severed.
Danny Patterson, then a paramedic supervisor with Hillsborough County Fire and Rescue, got there 10 minutes later.
"The thing that stands out in my mind is the carnage of one of the victims hit by the car. The rest had bad extremity injuries, like partial amputations."
Kimball's two passengers had only minor injuries and Kimball himself appeared unhurt. By now he was out of his car and "just standing there," Patterson noticed. "For the severity of the accident he seemed very relaxed . . . his demeanor was just kind of calm and spooky."
The Mazda's hood was covered with blood, glass and metal. One of Kerker's high-top sneakers wound up in the wheel well; Kerker's mother often fussed at him for not tying his shoes, but this time it likely saved his leg from being completely cut off.
Gossic was dead. Killed along with him was Robbie Bedell, a former Brandon High baseball star who would have been a sophomore in engineering at the University of Florida. His parents were at the beach in Pinellas County, and it was not until 7 the next morning that a friend drove over and told them about their only child.
"We were totally devastated," Robert Bedell said in The Aftermath, a 1990 film about the accident that is still shown in schools and traffic safety classes.
"When you lose one of your children, you lose your future. . . . My wife and I came to the realization all this had occurred because somebody had chosen to drink and drink irresponsibly and go out and kill our son, just as if they had taken a gun and shot him."
Bruce Kimball was arrested that night and charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. His father posted the $10,000 bail and Kimball was released the next day.
The story immediately became major news. And it grew more dramatic when Kimball announced he would try to qualify for the U.S. diving team.
At a press conference, he expressed "deepest sympathy" to his victims and their families. But he said he had come too far to quit:
"I've made incredible sacrifices to achieve the level of excellence which I pursue. I cannot disappoint my family, friends and teammates by giving up on myself."
Many were appalled. Friends of Gossic and Bedell said they would go to Indianapolis to watch the Olympic trials and show their outrage.
Diving officials warned they would tolerate no disruptions, and the group from Brandon sat silently in the stands. The pressure apparently got to Kimball anyway; he failed to qualify.
That fall, he returned to classes at Michigan. He also continued to drink, as he acknowledged in his petition to get an Illinois driver's license.
"I had reached my absolute bottom. I had destroyed everything I had ever worked for, and I found myself without respect, dignity, purpose or hope. . . . I'm sad to say that despite what had happened, I was unable to quit using during this time period."
Test results showed Kimball had a blood alcohol level of 0.20, twice what was then the legal limit. He was charged with DUI manslaughter in the deaths of Gossic and Bedell, and DUI causing serious bodily injury to Kerker, Bruffy and 19-year-old Jamie Cable.
On Jan. 11, 1989, his trial began. And quickly ended. Faced with graphic testimony from the first witness, a sheriff's deputy, and the prospect of dozens of gory photos being introduced as evidence, Kimball decided to plead guilty.
"I cannot put the families of these kids through it," he told one of his lawyers.
At his sentencing three weeks later, Kimball changed his plea to "no contest" to safeguard $1.3-million in insurance money. It would eventually be used to settle the civil suits that had been filed against him by the Bedells, Gossics, Kerkers and Bruffy.
Judge Harry Lee Coe - known as "Hanging Harry" for his tough sentences - said he was prepared to give Kimball the maximum until he learned new facts at the hearing.
Coe thought Kimball had intended to speed down Culbreath Road as a "lark." But witnesses said he might have missed the Wades' driveway because a reflective barricade marking the spot had been knocked down earlier that year.
Kimball's family and friends also told the judge that Kimball was hysterical for days after the accident, though he reportedly had shown little emotion at the time.
Kimball could have gotten 22 years in prison. Instead, Coe sentenced him to 17 years, followed by 15 years of probation.
And, the judge said, Kimball should never drive again.
For Kimball's two most seriously injured victims, life proceeded in a series of slow, agonizing steps.
The speeding Mazda crushed Bruffy's right leg. It was so badly damaged doctors had to put a metal bracket in her calf to hold the top and bottom sections of bone together.
Over the next 19 months, Bruffy underwent 11 operations. She eventually was able to resume aerobics and walk without a limp, but she told Judge Coe her leg would be deformed for life.
"I want to see him get the maximum for what he's done to me and all the families," she said, sobbing and on crutches, at Kimball's sentencing.
Bruffy later married and had a daughter. Now 33 and living in Miami, she did not respond to requests for an interview. The last time she publicly discussed the accident was in 1996, after a hauntingly similar experience.
That summer, Bruffy was the first to help when another drunken driver slammed into another innocent victim. The driver was already dead; the woman in the other car was bleeding profusely.
"It all came back to me," Bruffy told a reporter. "I had to talk to her. When you are scared, it helps to have someone just to talk, to hear someone."
Bruffy held the woman's hand as she was cut out of the car and visited her in the hospital.
"It made me realize how short life is," Bruffy said. "I could never look away."
Like Bruffy, Kerker feared he might never walk again. At first, doctors thought he would lose his left leg. But with bone grafts, they saved the mangled limb and Kerker left the hospital two weeks later to begin months of recuperation at home. He couldn't return to Brandon High until the second half of his senior year: Only by going to double sessions was he able to graduate on time.
Kerker had been "the guy who loved recess," but now he became more serious and focused. Before the accident, "I wasn't sure what direction I was headed in."
Since then, "I feel like I have an awareness, a gift, I don't take things for granted as much as I used to."
Using money from his lawsuit against Kimball, Kerker enrolled in the University of South Florida and got a degree in speech communication. He sold Levi's for a while, then went to work for Verizon. Several months ago, he became a manager for new commercial orders, supervising a staff of 23.
Now 31, the dark-haired Kerker retains the personable air that made him well-liked in high school. He dotes on his wife and two kids, Mabel, 3, and 14-month-old R.J.
But the accident is never far from his mind. He doesn't limp, but he still wears a leg brace. Troubled by persistent pain, he underwent surgery last year that was only partially successful. He got a handicapped sticker although he "feels kind of bad about using it."
Kerker has struggled, too, with depression and flashbacks.
"I don't like to drink and drive, although I can't say I've never done it. But I think about (the accident) every time I go out at night. You could be completely sober and somebody could hit you."
Kerker doesn't think much about Kimball himself: "If I have a bad attitude, it's going to affect my life. You try to think positive. I play golf and piano and I had my kids. I get to watch them do it all. I can't complain, I've had it pretty good."
Kerker still lives in the same house in which he grew up in Brandon, just a few miles from where Kimball hit him. But Culbreath Road and The Spot would be unrecognizable to anyone who last saw them 15 years ago.
Although Kimball was at fault that night, the accident underscored what a dangerous place The Spot had become. Hundreds of kids from Pinellas and other counties routinely drove there to quaff beer and wine coolers: Any of them could have been in Kimball's shoes.
"It brought to our attention the severity of the situation down there," says Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Pete Maurer. "This was a party spot - it got so bad we actually had hot dog vendors with carts."
Maurer tracked down the owner of the property, which turned out to be a major insurance company. The area was fenced and proper signs put up.
Today, this part of Hillsborough is known as Bloomingdale, and Culbreath Road is lined with one walled subdivision after another. There's a new elementary school and a YMCA.
Partly as a result of the accident, the Sheriff's Office opened a Community Resource Center a short distance away. Residents let deputies know when kids start to congregate in certain spots, even though there are fewer isolated places. Authorities have also cracked down on fake IDs and stores selling alcohol to minors.
But no one thinks the problem of drunken driving has disappeared.
"You try to get the message out and get people to listen but nobody does," Kerker says. "For a lot of people, it's going to take something like this before they stop."
Judge Coe scoffed at the idea of rehabilitating prisoners. "It's not a question of rehabilitation," he liked to say. "It's a question of punishment and deterrence."
But Prisoner No. 114915 decided to take whatever help he could get.
"The adjustment to prison was terrifying and painful," Kimball later wrote. "On the one hand, I was scared for my life. On the other hand, as the fog of my addiction began to clear up, I was forced to begin to take a look at what had brought me to the point I was at. It wasn't very pretty."
During his first months in prison in Daytona Beach, Kimball began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He had the chance to drink and smoke marijuana, but resisted because "I liked the feeling of being clean."
Within 19 months Kimball transferred to a work camp in Marion County, where he enrolled in a more intensive program that included daily therapy sessions.
"For the very first time in my life," he wrote, "I began to dig into some of the issues that had led me in the direction of alcohol and drugs."
Kimball had declined to participate in The Aftermath. But he agreed to take part in the film Decisions, as one of three famous athletes whose decision to use drugs had tragic results.
"He was extremely remorseful," says filmmaker Bernie DeCastro. "You could tell the weight of what happened and the lives of those kids killed and hurt was crushing him. I seem to recall he broke down."
From Marion, Kimball went to an even more intensive treatment program in Miami. After nine months he was granted work release. During the day he coached youngsters at a swimming pool; at night he returned to the treatment center.
On Nov. 24, 1993, a day before Thanksgiving, 30-year-old Kimball walked out of the center forever. Because of early release rules and time off for good behavior, he had served less than five years of his 17-year sentence.
Robbie Bedell's parents were furious. "Our justice system is just a shambles," Theresa Bedell told a reporter then.
In the past 15 years, Florida has toughened the penalties for drunken driving that kills or injures. Today someone sentenced - as Kimball was - on two counts of DUI manslaughter and three counts of DUI causing serious bodily injury would get at least 32 years in prison.
And because Florida now requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, that would mean a minimum of 27 years behind bars.
Had the same been true in 1989, Kimball would not be eligible for release until 2016 - when he 53.
When he got out, Kimball still faced 15 years of probation. He couldn't drive and he needed a judge's permission to go anywhere alcohol was served. But at least he was free.
He moved to Chicago, home of his girlfriend Val Lupa, a diver he had met in Michigan. Lupa's father, a lawyer, gave Kimball a clerk's job. He resumed his studies, this time at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Soon after Kimball arrived in the area, the dive coach at New Trier High School retired. The athletic director spent months hunting for a replacement. According to a 1994 Chicago Tribune story, he finally asked the coach at nearby Northwestern University if he knew someone.
"The best guy you could get is Bruce Kimball," came the reply.
New Trier, in Chicago's affluent North Shore suburbs, ranks among America's best public schools. Most graduates go on to college; its many famous alumni include Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Ann-Margret and lawyer/novelist Scott Turow.
School officials said Kimball convinced them he had turned his life around. Parents didn't object to his hiring as long as he was qualified. And many students already knew of Kimball from Decisions, shown in driver's ed classes.
"I felt he deserved a chance," then-athletic director Bob Naughton told the Tribune. "I just got the opinion that here's a kid who made a mistake, a terrible mistake, regretted it and wanted to get going again."
In 1994, Kimball was hired as a part-time dive coach. Four years later, after getting his bachelor's degree, he went full time as a "pool aide."
But Kimball's hopes of becoming a physical education teacher seemed doomed by an Illinois law that banned most felons from teaching positions. As expected, the state turned down his application for a teaching certificate. He appealed and a judge ruled in his favor. In 2000, Kimball became a full-time teacher at New Trier.
By 2001, he and Lupa had been married five years. She was toiling as a pediatric resident at Loyola University Hospital and was expecting their first child. Although they lived in Evanston, two blocks from an "L" train station, Kimball still relied heavily on his wife for transportation. He decided to challenge state law again - this time to get a driver's license.
"I believe there is a very real need for Bruce to be able to drive again," Edward Lupa, his father-in-law, wrote in support of his petition.
"I also believe that Bruce has a very strong sense of the fact that driving is a privilege that hinges on responsibility and trust. While he clearly failed to live up to that responsibility and trust nearly 14 years ago, I believe he has demonstrated that he deserves another chance."
Kimball's petition includes testimonials from Lupa, his AA sponsor and others saying they had never seen him drink or use drugs since he got out of prison. A treatment center in Des Plaines, Ill., where he went for counseling and evaluation in 2002, gave him a "good prognosis" for remaining sober.
In his own letter, Kimball said he had done more than 600 hours of community service warning about substance abuse. Among other things, he had counseled students at New Trier and had given talks to scores of pro athletes.
"Each time I share my story I am better able to come to grips with the terrible things I have done in the past."
When it came to the legal case for getting a license, Kimball's attorney argued that his driving privileges had never been revoked in Illinois because he never had a license there. Thus he legally could be issued one, the lawyer said. But didn't Coe intend that Kimball should never drive again?
Coe died in 2000, a suicide. John Skye, who prosecuted the case, is not surprised Kimball wants a license given the "huge handicap" non-drivers have in a mobile society.
"He was a relatively young man when this happened, he didn't have a prior record for any similar stuff so it wouldn't outrage me that he was trying to move on with his life," says Skye, now with the public defender's office.
But Kerker was dismayed to learn Kimball seeks to get behind the wheel.
"Hopefully, the late Judge Coe's decision will continue to prevent that from being granted," he says. "That was part of his sentence and part of the price he paid for his decision."
In May 2002, an Illinois hearing officer rejected Kimball's request. Although Kimball said he had been sober since 1989, his history of blackouts, binge drinking and other behaviors put him in the "high risk" category, an evaluation had shown.
Kimball's lawyer is appealing. Oral arguments in the case are set for Aug. 5 - 15 years and four days after the accident at The Spot.
- Times researchers Kitty Bennett, Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this story. Susan Martin can be contacted at email@example.com