On Sept. 2, Victoria Schafer was shooting photographs of six high school seniors at a popular waterfall near a cliff called Old Man’s Cave in Hocking Hills State Park outside Logan, Ohio. Suddenly, a 74-pound log fell from above, striking Schafer and killing her instantly. She left behind a husband of 21 years and four teenage children.
An examination of the site after the accident made it clear the log had been thrown intentionally. Nearly a month later, investigators received a tip that led them to two 16-year-old boys. The boys have now been charged with reckless homicide.
That story, which appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Washington Post, brought up a wave of emotions for me. Twelve years ago my husband, Peter Absolon, was climbing in the Wind River Range, when a rock came tumbling down from above. The rock struck and killed him. Later it came out that the rock had been thrown — “trundled” — by a hiker, a 23-year-old man named Luke Rodolph.
Less than a week after Pete’s death the Fremont County attorney decided not to press charges against the rock thrower. When Ed Newell told me his decision he said he’d come to the conclusion that it would serve no purpose to send Rodolph to prison. Part of his job was determining what was best for society, and he said he wasn’t sure how society would benefit from Rodolph’s incarceration. Furthermore, he said, he wasn’t confident that he’d be able to convince a jury to convict Rodolph, since, and I quote here, “everybody throws rocks.”
Newell’s decision devastated me. I felt as if Rodolph was walking away — that his life mattered and Pete’s did not. I felt like Newell had condoned trundling, belittling its potential destruction and dismissing Rodolph’s responsibility for the death of my husband, my daughter’s father and a beloved member of the Lander community. I felt like Newell was letting Rodolph off because boys will be boys. I was shocked and surprised by how the intensity of those feelings came back when I read about Victoria Schafer’s death and the decision the county made to press charges against the two individuals responsible.
Some people felt Newell made the right call. They believed Rodolph had suffered enough. In fact, I still hear that Rodolph must feel terrible and that it must be hard for him to live with the knowledge that he’d killed a man. But in my mind Rodolph walked away. I’ve never heard from him, never had an in-person or written apology and never seen anything in his behavior that indicates his remorse besides his statements to the press at the time. Those statements do little to appease me. After all, I can’t imagine he could say anything to a reporter besides how sorry he was without looking like a monster. Nor does it seem as if society learned anything positive from Pete’s death. People still throw rocks and logs off cliffs, and chunks of concrete off highway bridges. People still do things that endanger others.
Over the past few winters there have been an increasing number of skier-triggered avalanches that have either hit or come close to Highway 22 over Teton Pass. No charges have been filed in any of the incidents, nor has anyone died, but public outcry has been loud. People believe that skiers’ reckless behavior is endangering innocent commuters and that it’s just a matter of time before there is a fatality. Their anger is fueled by a kind of us-versus-them mentality. People in cars are going to work. People out skiing are just having fun.
Luke Rodolph was just having fun. The two teenagers in Ohio were just having fun. How do we as a society respond when someone’s fun goes terribly wrong?
Victoria Schafer’s son does not want the lives of the teenagers who killed his mother to be ruined by whatever punishment the legal system doles out. He is quoted in the Post story saying, “If there’s anybody that understands teenagers making mistakes, it’s my mom and me. If it was truly just some kids that didn’t know any better or were just being stupid kids, and not anything more than that, I think my mom would understand.”
His attitude is incredibly magnanimous. I don’t have that same grace. Instead, the article about his mother’s death reminded me of the helpless rage I felt at my husband’s death, and the rage felt by commuters who feel their lives are threatened by careless skiers. Not knowing better or being stupid kids does not excuse reckless behavior that results or could result in the loss of life.
So, what does society do when this kind of thing happens, when people fooling around or out having fun do something stupid that results in the death of an innocent bystander? I don’t know if the answer is criminal charges. I don’t even know if legal action is the best action. I do know that there is an attitude of carelessness in our society that prevents people from considering the effect of their actions on others, and if we want to change that we need to do something that helps encourage people to pause and think before they act.
Why does that seem so hard? Is it a lack of imagination that allows people to ignore the potential consequences of their actions? Is it the excitement and adrenaline of the moment that blinds us to the risk?
I think our vision is limited by the things that have an immediate effect on us: the things that make us happy, and the things that touch the people or places we love and the activities we enjoy. It’s hard to get out of our little bubble.
We are also blinded by subtle human factors we often ignore — ego, pride, peer pressure, competition, fun, etc. Those things make it hard to make smart decisions in the heat of the moment, although I do think we are getting better about considering them. Avalanche education, in particular, is focusing on decision making and trying to get people to think before they act in the hope that we prevent tragic, preventable accidents. But getting better doesn’t seem good enough.
It’s still too easy to think we are immune and invincible — to think we’ll never do something that hurts someone else. Until we make that turn on the untracked powder that triggers a slide onto the highway. Until we throw a rock off a cliff for the thrill of watching it explode and kill someone climbing down below. Until our dreams destroy someone else’s.
I wanted something from Luke Rodolph. I wanted him to go to jail. I wanted him to suffer for having made me suffer. I wanted him to pay in some way that felt commensurate with killing Pete. It wasn’t a pretty emotion, but it was a raw, unfiltered one that I could not control.
As time passed my anger shifted. That evolution took a long time and is a long story, but it was more about my healing than any sense of forgiveness. Victoria Schafer’s death rekindled that fire. I found myself feeling grateful that the state of Ohio was taking her death seriously and not falling for the notion that boys will be boys — that everyone throws stuff and that makes it OK. It seems like pressing charges forces society to examine what happened closely and to learn from the events. It’s a chance for all of us — not just family and friends — to heal and learn. It’s an opportunity for those boys to publicly accept responsibility for their actions.
Ed Newell said he did not think society would gain from Luke Rodolph going to jail. He may have been right, but I do think society lost an opportunity by there being no consequences for his actions. Until we come up with a way to hold people accountable for reckless, dangerous behavior, I don’t see it stopping. Our memories are too short and our egos too big.