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DETROIT FREE PRESS

Christmas Mourning

By Mitch Albom

You could hear him coming from miles away, the roar of his engine spitting down the gravel road. Noise meant speed, and to a supercharged, grease-under-the-fingernails racer like Chad Schlueter, speed was what life was all about. His family would listen from the kitchen and they'd hear his truck and its eight-cylinder thunder -- rrrrrrRRRRRRMMM! -- and they'd grin and say, "Chad's home." Some nights his sister Nicole, who adored him the way only a younger sister can, would lie awake until she heard his rumble. "Then I knew he was safe," she says, "and I could sleep."

A year ago today, the morning before Christmas, Nicole was waiting again, this time in the living room of the house in Howell, with her mother, Paulette, and her father, Dennis. Chad hadn't come home yet. That was unusual.

Paulette asked her husband about the night before. He and Chad had been at a party. It broke up around 10:30.

"You want me to follow you home?" Dennis had asked.

"Nah, I'm fine," Chad said.

"You sure? Your truck doesn't sound too good."

The old red Bronco was coughing badly, blowing smoke. Chad pulled away, then backed up, smiled at his father and said, "See ya." Chad was like that. Why worry? What could happen? He could fix a car in his sleep. What could happen?

"Maybe he's at his girlfriend's," Dennis said now.

Suddenly, Nicole heard something. An engine, but it was too quiet, not Chad's style. She stepped to the window, looked out and froze. A state trooper was pulling up the driveway. Here, in the lonesome, rolling hillsides between Detroit and Lansing, that can only mean one thing.

"Ma'am, I need to talk to your husband," the officer said when Paulette opened the door.

"Is Chad all right?" she gasped. "Is anyone else hurt?"

"I need to talk to your husband."

"Anything you tell him, you can tell me. Tell me!"

Dennis appeared at the door. The officer looked at him.

"Sir, I have some bad news . . ."

A drink. A drive.

One less soul alive.

This is a story about two men whose only contact came when one's body smashed through the other's windshield and was flung into a ditch along the highway. When police found Chad Schlueter the next morning, his bones were broken and his face looked as if it had been ravaged by an animal. His light brown hair was soaked with blood, and his sweatshirt was pushed up around his chest, leaving his muscled back naked in the cold dirt. This is what you look like when someone plows into you at high speed. It is not pretty. It is hard to understand.

Chad had been walking along M-14 and U.S.-23 for nearly six miles. His coughing Bronco had broken down, and he was most likely heading for a phone. It was a mild winter night, and he carried three things. Two of those things would land inside the car that killed him, and, amazingly, stay on the front seat, framed by shattered glass, even as the driver sped away; one was a racing magazine, with a story about Chad, the other was a videotape of a TV interview Chad had done.

Had the driver looked at either item -- instead of continuing home, going to bed, letting the alcohol disappear from his system, ensuring he could never be proven drunk -- he might have known the soul he'd just snuffed out: a loving son, a rising star, a broad-shouldered, good-looking, 22-year-old driver with a disarming grin and a knack for the spotlight. Chad Schlueter. Rampage Racing. Two-time World Champion of the Short Course Off-Road Drivers Association. He drove racing 4X4's, souped up trucks with big wheels and no windshields that thunder around grass and dirt courses like fuel-injected buffalo.

Chad had talent. Chad had guts. In his very first race, in 1992, he barely made the starting line, forgot his sponsors' stickers and lined up in the worst possible position -- yet he bolted from the gun and was in second place by the first turn.

Anyone watching could see something special. Chad Schlueter was born for the road.

He didn't know he'd die there. An empty room

The house on Gentry Court is large and tidy, with a wood- grained kitchen and a bay window that looks out on the backyard. Dennis, Paulette, Nicole, three of Chad's friends, all of whom were part of his race team, sit around the table and try to forget, even as you ask them to remember. They pass around his old helmet. It is red, white and blue. "A Christmas present," Paulette says, and they all nod quietly.

You can feel Chad Schlueter's absence here almost as much as you once felt his presence. He was the family's brightest light, always teasing and laughing. He had the best stories, the best jokes, he had a line for everything, even for the dog. "He was sarcastic," his friends say, "and hysterical." And loyal -- he only drove Fords, because Dennis works for Ford
-- and protective. He watched his kid sister like a small-town Sir Galahad, checking her boyfriends, giving his approval. When the doorbell rang, Nicole would race for it, because if Chad got there first, the guy might turn and run.

"I actually didn't mind," she says now, smiling. "If they couldn't stand up to Chad, I'm not sure I wanted to date them anyhow."

Upstairs, in Chad's bedroom, the walls still are covered with his posters, and his trademark racing motto, "Stand On It." There are trophies he's won. Plaques he's received. Photos that chronicle his love affair with speed, the bicycle motocross when he was 7, the minibike when he was 9, the Mustang he fixed up as a junior high schooler, working every night in the shed behind the house, the first ride he took in an off-road race truck. It was California, in the desert, on a warm summer night. He was 15. The driver floored it. They zoomed around, bouncing like a turbulent jet, and that was it, the kid was addicted. "He made that truck dance, Dad!" Chad later said.

He'd been chasing that sensation ever since.

Now in his bedroom, on the desk, between the trophies, is one more item, a small charcoal container, which holds the ashes of Chad's once-strong body. He was cremated. That was his wish. And one year from that tragic night, his family still cannot understand why their boy, who survived such a dangerous life behind the wheel, had to die as a pedestrian.

Because someone lost control.

"When I think of the man who did this," Dennis says, his voice flat as steel, "I hate him. I feel rage. I want to reach out and kill him."

A drink. A drive. A fatal meeting

The man who hit Chad Schlueter is a 41-year-old salesman named Daniel Moskal. He works for Melody Farms, the dairy business. He has a wife, two kids, and, until last year, a clean reputation. He had gone from his Livonia office that day to the Derby Bar, where many of his coworkers were gathered. As often happens on the last day before a holiday, work stopped early. And the drinking began.

Moskal opened with a vodka. In the next eight hours, by his own admission, he had at least six to eight beers. When he left the place, according to several witnesses interviewed by police and lawyers, he seemed noticeably affected by the alcohol. But so were others. In one of many ironies too sad to believe, someone actually offered him a ride, but Moskal felt the guy was too drunk. "He's gonna drive me?" Moskal said to himself. "Come on."

So he got in his 1993 Grand Prix, and started the long trip back to his home in Hartland. And this is the moment that this whole sad story is about, the moment you say, "What the heck? I can make it."

It is never about what you can do; it is always about what you cannot.

Moskal could not handle his condition. Sometime around 1 a.m., in the cold and dark near Joy Road and U.S.-23, his car plowed into an innocent man, and one life was ended and a dozen more were changed forever.

A drink. A drive.

"I fell asleep at the wheel," Moskal says now. "I woke up when my windshield blew out. I was going underneath a bridge, and all I could think of was that someone threw something off. I was scared for my life. I cried for three or four hours. I was hysterical. I thought someone was trying to kill me
. . .

"The next morning, I looked in the car, saw the videotape and the magazine and some hair and some blood, and there was a feeling I can't explain. I woke up my wife, and asked her to take me to the state police."

Were you intoxicated that night, he is asked?

"Not as intoxicated as the family thinks."

Of course, the Schlueters see it differently. They see a man who was too drunk to even spot their son in his headlights. They see a man who was too cowardly to face up to what he'd done once he'd done it. They see police photos of a windshield with a hole the size of a suitcase. "How could he not know?" Dennis Schlueter asks. "With Chad's tape and magazine on the seat? He drove all the way home, 30 or 40 miles, and his wife was waiting for him, and they both went to sleep, knowing what he'd done. I can never forgive that."

This much is certain. By leaving the scene, the alcohol question could never be answered. It is a tragic loophole in the current law, one that almost encourages drunken drivers to flee an accident. With no Breathalyzer proof -- Moskal went to the police around 9 the next morning, and by then he tested clean -- the Washtenaw County prosecutors did not press for a drunken driving homicide felony. That, under a new statute, carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

"We felt we could show he had been drinking," says chief assistant prosecutor Joseph Burke, whose colleague, Julia Owdziej, actually handled the case, "but we didn't think we could prove he was above the legal limit. It's very difficult, using toxicologists and witnesses."

Instead, despite the Schlueter's pleas, the prosecutors went for negligent homicide and leaving the scene of an accident. Lesser charges. No mention of alcohol. And because this was Moskal's first offense, even a conviction on those charges would have not brought much prison time. "Maybe 60 days," Dennis

says they told him.

"All these prosecutors want is high percentage wins. They want convictions. That's their report card. . . . Sixty days? For killing our son? Sixty days?"

In the end, it wasn't even that much. A plea bargain was arranged. Moskal got five years probation and two weekends in the Washtenaw County Jail.

Two weekends.

For a gruesome, senseless death.

Is that fair, Moskal is asked?

"Nobody wants to go to prison," he says.

Is that fair, Burke is asked?

"Sometimes people get away with things they shouldn't," he says.

Is that fair, the Schlueters are asked?

There is no need to print their answer. The story is not over

The third thing Chad Schlueter carried that night was a Christmas present for his girlfriend. A gold necklace. He had never bought such a gift before, certainly not for a woman. The family wondered, happily, if Chad were getting serious.

The necklace was found, alongside the highway, the morning of his death. Nicole kept it until just before the funeral. Then she put it around his girlfriend's neck, the way Chad had hoped to do. "You must have meant a lot to him," Nicole said.

They both cried.

There is enough irony in Chad Schlueter's story to fill a dozen Greek plays. There is Dennis offering to drive Chad home that night. There is Moskal who says "if someone sober had offered me a ride, I would have taken it." There is the family race team, Rampage Racing, that carried on Chad's tradition and won the SODA circuit this summer, his dream, after he was gone.

There is the fact that Chad, when he was killed, was within a mile of a gas station where he could have called home, where his family waited and where the Christmas tree was surrounded by gifts, including one box marked "To Chad, from Mom and Dad."

A car phone.

Instead today, the family has a most heartbreaking anniversary. They weep for the life they lost, and Moskal -- who says he hasn't had a drink since that night -- weeps for his own. "I'm a good person. I feel such remorse. It hurts when people relate to me as a murderer. I am so sorry. I have no words."

The legal story is not over. A civil suit is still pending. But the important chapter can never be changed. Chad is gone. As part of the plea bargain, the Schlueters insisted that Moskal be constantly reminded of the horror he did, so he must write a check for $10, every month, to Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- in Chad's memory. And he must speak to 20 groups about the crime. And he must sit and review materials chosen by the family -- pictures, videos, letters -- to show what kind of person their son really was, and what he will never be again.

"It's not enough," says his father.

How could it be? A drink. A drive. One less soul alive. All this from a stupid bottle, a stupid beverage, a stupid decision? Every year there are stories like this. And here we are, another holiday season, when more than half the highway deaths will be alcohol-related.

How much more can you warn? How much more sadder can you get? Tonight is Christmas Eve, and in the small town of Howell a family waits, as they always will wait, for the roar of a distance truck kicking up gravel, the sweet sound of thunder, bringing their baby back home.