The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

August 24, 2013

Driver convicted in deaths of friends shares story

By Samantha Pidde
Herald Staff Writer

CLINTON — Kelly Sparks remembers getting the call from the hospital at 4:18 a.m. July 23, 2011, telling her that her son, Justin, had been in an accident.

"We were camping in Mount Carroll, Ill. Our life was about to change as we knew it," Kelly said.

A recent graduate of Northeast High School, Justin, of Charlotte, was at a party that night with friends Jed Rogis, 19, of Clinton, and Kristin Hanrahan, 18, of Delmar, where he was drinking. To this day, he still remembers little of what happened.

He remembers waking up in the hospital, being told he had been in an accident. He said that as far as he knew, he was alone in the vehicle and would be all right. Eventually his parents told him the harsh truth.

"I heard the worst news a 19-year-old wants to hear. I was not in the car alone. I was with two of my friends and they had passed away."

According to the accident report by the Iowa State Patrol, Sparks ran a stop sign in the 1400 block of 400th Avenue in Preston and his vehicle left the road and struck a tree. The vehicle overturned, ejecting all three occupants, none of whom were wearing seat belts. Rogis and Hanrahan were pronounced dead at the scene.

"I don't know where we were going, but we did not make it," Justin said Thursday night.

In April 2012, Justin pleaded guilty to two counts of homicide by vehicle and operating while intoxicated, first offense. In May 2012, he was ordered to serve two consecutive terms of as much as 10 years in prison, which was suspended, and 60 days in the Clinton County jail. Judge Gary McKenrick also ordered him to pay $150,000 in victim restitution for each count, a $1,250 fine and complete 400 hours of community service.

Thursday night, Justin and his mother spoke at at the Church of the Open Door during the Gateway ImpACT Coalition's "Underage Drinking = Loss Beyond Measure" program. He warned teens in the audience about the dangers of drinking.

"Before the accident, I didn't have a worry in the world," Justin said.

His mother told the group how her son still suffers from breaking his back and will one day need to have surgery or face possible paralysis. Instead of working for spending money, he has fines and court costs to pay off. He will also be a felon for the rest of his life.

Justin added he is finally going to college and trying to get his life back on track, but will deal with emotional and criminal consequences for years.

"This is not an experience anyone should have to go through before they pursue their dreams," Justin said.

County Attorney Mike Wolf was pleased to see Justin and Kelly sharing this "very heartfelt and deeply tragic event."

Wolf prosecuted the case and said there were no winners in the situation.

"The culprit was alcohol mixed with a car," Wolf said. "If we can get the message of prevention through the telling of what happened, I think it will honor the victims and their memories."

Kelly warned those in the audience Thursday night that what happened to her son could happen to them. She pointed out that when her son, Rogis and Hanrahan left their homes that night, none of them thought two of them would not return.

"Don't let your parents get the phone call we got or the knock on the door that Jed and Kristin's parents got," Kelly said.