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A cautionary tale

When the Mercedes spun out of control, so did four young, promising lives.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004

ST PETERSBURG - John Stang was drunk, dazed and scared when the police cruiser pulled up to the single-car accident near Brightwaters Boulevard in the middle of that sultry summer night. There was blood on the teen's hands.

It wasn't his; it was his friend Eiseley's. She was hovering near death on the pavement nearby. Desperately worried about her, he and his buddies had pulled her limp body from the wreck of the supercharged Mercedes he had been driving.

Police reports indicate the car had been traveling faster than 65 miles an hour, more than twice the speed limit, when it skidded into a wooden pole and snapped it off. Eiseley Tauginas' head had slammed into the pole.

"God, let her be okay," John kept repeating to himself.

In a mere moment, the lives of four accomplished young people had careened off their sure course.

This month, John's parents sat in a sterile courtroom as a judge accepted their son's guilty plea. They watched as a bailiff ushered him through a door en route to the Pinellas County Jail to begin a one-year sentence.

The young woman, an aspiring model, survived the crash but her face was disfigured. She has undergone plastic surgery. Through her attorney, she and her family declined to comment because they have civil suits pending.

The car's other two occupants were little hurt physically, but still bear emotional scars.

John, who will turn 21 behind bars, was of that coterie of kids at St. Petersburg High and Shorecrest Preparatory School who will do well in the world. He was a star pitcher at St. Petersburg High and was heading to Florida State. Until the accident, he had a perfect driving record. Being grounded was the most trouble he had ever seen.

Young people under 21 often drink and drive, no matter what the law says. Sometimes adults know. Sometimes they don't. But the kids themselves often don't see how devastating the consequences can be - a series of bad decisions that can wreck lives - until it's too late.

Look at me, John says. Look at Eiseley. Don't do what I did.

* * *

On the afternoon of Aug. 16, 2003, John worked out at the gym, pitched a few balls in Shorecrest's bullpen, and went for a run. Then he headed to his friend Mike Giroud's house, where a party was in progress for Mike's 21st birthday. His friends Eiseley Tauginas, Jesse Rose and Bill Williams were there.

The four had been friends for years. Their futures looked bright on that August evening as each of them stood poised on the brink of change.

John, who had recently completed studies at Hillsborough Community College, was scheduled to leave in a few days for Florida State, where he planned to try out for the baseball team.

Eiseley, who was 18, had just graduated from Shorecrest. Her modeling career was taking off, boosted by spreads in Marie Claire and Bride's magazines. She had earned a full academic scholarship to Southern Methodist University and was planning to leave for Dallas the next day.

Jesse, 20, a 2001 Shorecrest Prep graduate who was a student at the University of Kentucky, was leaving shortly for Australia, where he would be studying abroad for a semester. Fellow Shorecrest Prep classmate Bill, also 20, was preparing to leave for the University of Miami.

Accounts of what happened at the party differ. Alcohol may or may not have been served. John, Eiseley, Jesse and Bill may or may not have consumed it.

At some point in the evening, the four young people decided to leave the party. Court documents allege that Jesse chauffeured them in his mother's silver 2000 Mercedes Kompressor. Police reports indicate they spent time - and consumed alcohol - at a karaoke bar on 54th Avenue N.

By the time they left the bar shortly before 2 a.m., they agreed that Jesse was too drunk to drive. John climbed behind the wheel. Jesse took the passenger seat. Eiseley sat behind John, and Bill sat behind Jesse.

* * *

Three minutes from Bill's house on Snell Isle, the car fishtailed out of control.

According to police reports, John was traveling more than twice the speed limit as the Mercedes merged on to Rafael Boulevard NE from Brightwaters Boulevard. It spun clockwise as John jammed on the brakes. It skidded over grass and a concrete driveway. The side of the Mercedes slammed a wooden utility pole. The car spun again, plowed into shrubbery and came to a stop.

Eiseley had been thrust through the window. Her face had struck the pole.

The airbags had exploded, but it wasn't until John turned around and saw her, limp as a rag doll and covered with blood, that he realized things had gone terribly wrong. He feared she was dead.

With help from Jesse and Bill, he pulled Eiseley from the car and laid her on the pavement. He turned her on her side so she wouldn't choke on her blood. He tried in vain to clear the blood from her mouth.

When an ambulance sped by, its siren wailing in the night, John ran after it waving his arms frantically.

Officer Michael D. Horrigan arrived on the scene within minutes of the crash. In his report, he stated that he found John staggering back and forth. Jesse was hovering over Eiseley, who was still unconscious. Bill was on his cell phone, calling loved ones.

Backup officers and additional paramedics arrived. Eiseley, Jesse and Bill were taken to Bayfront Medical Center.

DUI investigator Janie Staples gave John sobriety tests on the scene. Illuminated by a police cruiser's headlights, he flunked them. The officer said she needed a blood sample. He held out his arms.

"Take it," he told her. "I had alcohol, less than everyone, that's why I was driving. I was (the) most sober."

Staples read John his Miranda rights and arrested him.

Two days later, the medical examiner released the results of his toxicology report: a blood alcohol level of 0.165, more than twice the level at which Florida law presumes that someone is unable to safely drive a motor vehicle.

* * *

John posted bond and was released from jail. Shortly after the accident, his friends had resumed their studies, Jesse in Australia and Bill in Miami.

The next few months were a blur. For John, a grueling round of attorney conferences and court appearances consumed his time and sapped his energy. Perhaps most difficult of all was his estrangement from Eiseley. At the suggestion of his attorney, who was concerned about protecting his legal interests, John severed communication with his friend.

He didn't feel much like celebrating his 20th birthday in September, or Thanksgiving or Christmas. He swore off alcohol.

Members of First United Methodist comforted the family, holding prayer meetings at the Stang home as well as the church. About 40 congregants showed up when John returned to court early this month to plead guilty to driving under the influence with serious bodily injury.

For several months, Eiseley fought a battle of her own, enduring painful reconstructive surgery.

Late last month, she sued several people, including John, claiming negligence; Jesse, alleging that he surrendered his car keys to John; and Jesse and his mother, Elizabeth Diana Hoover-Gabay, for vicarious liability.

* * *

John slept fitfully the night before the Feb. 19 sentencing. Earlier in the evening, he had declined his parents' offer to go out to dinner, preferring a quiet meal at home. Afterward, a few friends came over to say goodbye. He had asked them not to attend the sentencing because he didn't want them to see him being taken away.

He asked God to give him strength for the challenge ahead before he got into bed that night. He tried to convince himself that the year he would spend in jail - the result of a plea bargain he had made - was only a small portion of his life, and that it would do him no good to think negatively.

He arose early on the morning of the sentencing, too anxious to eat breakfast. He stood in front of his closet thinking, "I'm not going to get to wear any of these clothes for a while." Before leaving the house, he mentally reviewed the instructions others had given him: Don't wear a belt, don't wear good shoes, be sure to hug your parents a lot.

As he stood before the judge, he couldn't help hoping all of it would just go away.

* * *

It took Circuit Judge Brandt Downey less than 15 minutes to seal John's fate that morning.

"I will at this time adjudicate that Mr. Stang is guilty of the charge of driving under the influence," Downey said. "He is sentenced to one year in the Pinellas County Jail beginning today with credit for one day served, followed by two years of community control, followed by two years' probation."

Downey revoked John's driving privileges for three years. He required him to enter and complete DUI school as well as alcohol evaluation and treatment. He forbade him from consuming alcohol during his probation. Then he imposed a $5,000 fine and $450 in court costs.

There was no time for a goodbye hug between mother and son or a last handshake between father and son before the bailiff led John through the side door.

* * *

Ann Stang's voice breaks when she talks about her son. Ever since that horrible night, when a friend came to her door and woke her with the news, she has felt nothing but relief that John is alive.

"There was no anger," said Mrs. Stang, who teaches first grade at Lakeview Fundamental School. "The situation happened. We were grateful he was okay."

The most difficult thing for her and her husband, Rick, a financial adviser, has been the separation. When they visit John at the jail, they must communicate through a video monitor. When he calls them collect from the community telephone, he has a 10-minute limit before the phone automatically shuts off.

"Not being able to hug your son or go to him when he really needs you, that's tough," Rick Stang said.

The situation also has been rough on Kyle, John's younger brother. The St. Petersburg High School senior keenly feels the loss of John's presence. It has helped to know that John's friends are concerned about him, and that in some cases, his misfortune has served as a warning.

"A few of my good friends have come up to me and told me it's made them think twice," he said.

When John first arrived at the jail after the sentencing, he was put in a cell with three bunk mates. He has since been moved to a pod with other inmates. He is bored. He is always hungry. He hopes to get a job as chaplain's assistant.

On Wednesday, the Stangs allowed a Neighborhood Times reporter to speak to John via telephone in his attorney's office. He spoke of the futility of the situation in which he finds himself.

"It feels like a huge waste of time," he said. "I'm not able to get on with the things that I want to do. But I think the hardest part is being away from my family, my friends."

He expressed regret for hurting them.

The extent to which John will be able to return to a normal life remains to be seen, according to his attorney, Lucas Fleming. As a felon, he has lost his civil rights, including his right to vote and hold public office. He cannot carry a firearm. He must register as a felon whenever he moves to a new location. Once he has completed his probation, he can petition to have his rights reinstated, but the felony conviction will remain on his record for the rest of his life.

He could face subtler consequences. Felons are sometimes prohibited from coaching Little League baseball, Fleming said. They are sometimes unable to drive on field trips.

"I know there is a reason this is happening, and I know there will be some good coming out of it eventually," John said.

"Right now, all I can come up with is that my friends and the people who know my friends all have seen what has happened to me. Hopefully, it will be a huge life lesson for them."

[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]

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