WARREN, Ohio – Investigators Monday tried to piece together what eight teenagers crammed into a stolen SUV were up to before the vehicle flipped over into a pond, killing six of them.
Authorities gave few details on where the group of friends had been and why they were out around daybreak Sunday, speeding down a two-lane road. On Monday, the SUV’s owner met with police and filed a stolen-car report; police said none of the teens was related to the owner or had asked to use the vehicle.
Whether all the teens knew the SUV was stolen wasn’t clear. Neither was their whereabouts before the crash.
While the father of one of the dead said the teenagers were coming home from a sleepover at a friend’s house, the mother of another boy killed said that her son and his best friend had lied about staying over at each other’s homes that evening. She said she thinks they went to a party.
“If only he had listened,” said Lisa Williamson, mother of 14-year-old Brandon Murray. “I told him, ‘Don’t you go nowhere.’ But they’re kids.”
The SUV hit a guardrail in an industrial section of town and landed upside down in about 5 feet of water, filling up within minutes, State Highway Patrol Lt. Brian Holt said. Five boys and a young woman, ages 14 to 19, were killed.
Two boys smashed a rear window, wriggled out of the wreckage and swam away, then ran a quarter-mile to a home to call 911, authorities said. Brian Henry, 18, and Asher Lewis, 15, suffered only minor injuries.
Investigators said they believe excessive speed was a key factor in the crash, which took place in a 35 mph zone alongside a steel mill near what’s known in the neighborhood as “Dead Man’s Curve.” Authorities did not say how fast the SUV was going. They were also awaiting the results of drug and alcohol tests.
All eight teenagers were from Warren, a mostly blue-collar city of 41,000 near the Pennsylvania line, about 60 miles east of Cleveland.
Friends and family members described the teens as good kids who weren’t troublemakers. Williamson said many of them would hang out and stay overnight in her basement to play video games, listen to music and watch movies.
She said her son called late Saturday night and said he was staying at the home of his best friend Ramone White. She said it wasn’t until after the accident that she found out that wasn’t true.
“It’s what we did when we were growing up, too,” said Williamson, who was wearing a rubber “Jesus Loves You” bracelet that she took off her dead son’s wrist.
Andre Bennett Sr., whose son Andrique was among those killed, said that his son and the others had all stayed over at a friend’s house and that a girl offered them a ride home.
Chris Jones, 16, said he used to see most of the victims every day at school and in their neighborhood. He knew all but two in the crash.
“They’re not always the best kids. They’re not out there looking for straight A’s,” he said. “But none of these kids should be where they are today. This should have never had happened.”
At a prayer service Monday night, Mayor Doug Franklin told about 200 people that lessons can be learned from the crash. He spoke about the young people who died and their grieving relatives.
“They’re not unlike any other families and young people throughout our country,” he said. “Some bad decisions were made that led to this tragic event.”
Five of the dead were trapped inside the sunken SUV. A sixth was thrown from the vehicle and was found underneath it when it was taken out of the water.
State police identified them as the 19-year-old driver, Alexis Cayson; Andrique Bennett, 14; Brandon Murray, 14; and Kirklan Behner, Ramone White and Daylan Ray, all 15. Cayson, Murray and Ray drowned, the coroner said. Autopsies on the others were incomplete.
“All I know is my baby is gone,” said Derrick Ray, who came to the crash site after viewing Daylan’s body at the morgue. He said he knew that his son, a football player who was looking forward to playing in high school, was out with friends, but didn’t know their plans.
None of the teens in the five-seat 1998 Honda Passport was wearing a seat belt, state police said.