How do you treat a teenaged offender – in this case the driver in a fatal, late night highway escapade? This was the question posed to a random sampling of Norwood community members in connection with the sentencing of 21-year-old Christian Skyler Kelley, who was driving the car that fateful night of Oct. 18, 2008.
All three Norwood young people were drunk and weren’t wearing seat belts. Kelley, the driver, along with a passenger, Natalie Peterson, 19, were seriously injured in the crash, but 19-year-old Aaron “Gabe” Grammer’s injuries were fatal.
One Norwood community member I spoke to – a parent, community activist and popular teen mentor, described Grammer as “a beautiful, amazing kid” with future leadership potential, whose friendships crossed over into every social and age group. “Such a tragedy,” she said, grief still apparent in her voice.
“I don’t want Skyler to go to prison – I think he needs to be around people who can help him heal” and develop into a responsible adult, she added.
In District court last week, Kelley was sentenced to five years in a state prison, but that sentence was suspended to three years in a community corrections facility. Court officials describe a community corrections facility as a restrictive residential program that bridges the gap between probation within the community itself and a state prison sentence. The facilities are designed for people who have serious problems, but through highly structured programs – including a period of work release – can become responsible, law-abiding adults.
Two other Norwood community members I spoke to said they didn’t think the lesser three-year sentence “was appropriate,” or “seems kind of light” given the magnitude of the crime. In sentencing Kelley, District Court Judge James Shum said as the driver, Kelley was responsible for the fatality, no matter if all the passengers agreed to the plan to “jump” Highway 145, at what’s know as the Vet corner, about a half mile east of Norwood.
In contrast, three other people whom I talked to said Judge Shum’s sentence of three years in a correctional facility – with severe stipulations – was the appropriate sentence.
“Hopefully, he (Kelley) will learn a trade and become a productive adult,” one person said. She pointed out that the Grammer family had asked the court to consider a lighter sentence for Kelley, described as a close friend of their son, Gabe. She and several others said the response by Norwood’s young people to this tragedy was both compassionate and “impressive.”
“After all, these are not biblical times – we’re not looking for retribution.”
But there was certainly general agreement about how Norwood was discussing the complex issues involved in this driving fatality. People said they hadn’t talked to others outside their family and close circle of friends or social group. Most people also agreed that while teens might learn from this tragedy, some young people would continue to act recklessly. “Kids feel invincible – and of course, they’re not.”
Two young adults in their mid-20s, who are familiar with both Telluride and Norwood, said no matter what adults try to do to prevent underage drinking and drug use, kids will “find a way to party.” If they’re lucky, though, they’ll have parents “who they can talk to” and learn from. The relationship must involve trust and respect. But, there is no guaranteed route safely through the teen years.
Certainly, longtime Norwood and Telluride resident and retired Juvenile Diversion officer John Mansfield doesn’t see long and harsh prison sentences as a deterrent to wild and reckless (and illegal) teen behavior. “I don’t believe it (is a deterrent) – not for adults or for kids.” In addition to his years working with “at risk” juveniles, Mansfield continues to be active in community affairs, including programs aimed at helping kids. In his judgment, Kelley’s tightly restricted three-year sentence is appropriate. He says, “It’s a question of retribution versus rehabilitation” in the aftermath of this teen fatality. Norwood will likely be looking for better answers to prevent future tragedies like this one.