DANGEROUS GAMES - Air Force couple mourns after teenage street racer kills their 6-year-old son, severely injures their other two children

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
Tech. Sgt. James Marshall blinked his eyes open as if stirring from a dream. Little did he know that he was awakening to a nightmare.

Groggily, he took in the scene around him ... doctors, nurses, his boss from the Whitehouse Communications Agency where James worked for the president. He turned his confused gaze to the left. His eyes settled on Sheyna, his bride of eight years, lying unconscious in a small bed next to him with an IV connected to her arm.

As the fog in his brain began to clear, fear settled in, and James started blurting out questions to which there were no easy answers.

A doctor tried to explain, but it would take weeks for the horrible truth to fully surface.

He and his family had been sitting at a stoplight in Waldorf, Md., on Memorial Day (May 29, 2006) after a nice dinner out. They were on their way back home to Bolling Air Force Base, Washington D.C., about 30 minutes away. Without warning, another vehicle, occupied by a teenager who had been street racing with some buddies, slammed into them at nearly 80 mph.

As the back half of their Oldsmobile Alero crushed like an aluminum can and flipped over, James and Sheyna were both knocked unconscious.

Their three children, who were strapped into car seats in the back of the vehicle, fared much worse.

Makenna, their 2-year-old baby girl, had a broken nose and two busted legs -- a fractured femur in her right leg, and tibia and fibula fractures in her left. She'd be in a full body cast from her armpits to her toes for seven weeks. She'd have to learn to sit up, crawl, stand and walk all over again, but at least she'd fully recover.

Her older brothers wouldn't be so lucky.

Justin, less than a week after his 5th birthday, had a broken right leg. Leaking gasoline chemically burned 30 percent of his body. But the nastiest wound had been delivered to his head, where nearly the entire right side of his skull shattered. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that put him in a coma for six weeks, partially paralyzed the left side of his body, and caused permanent physical and mental disabilities.

Then there was Christian, a month shy of his 7th birthday, who died at the scene from blunt force trauma.

Adding to the family's misery, a mix-up in the identification of the two boys had them thinking it was Justin who had died and Christian who was fighting for his life. A week later, Sheyna, who had suffered a severe concussion that caused major memory loss, was well enough to leave her hospital room. She visited her still swollen and bandaged son in intensive care, and surprised nurses when she told them, "That's not Christian; that's Justin."

"The whole ordeal was so surreal," James said, slowly shaking his head. "You already mourn one son's death, only to find out he's alive, and it's actually the other one who's dead."

How were the parents supposed to feel? Happy because the son they thought had perished is alive? Sad because the son they thought had survived is actually dead?

"I was just numb," James said quietly. "You already feel like you don't know what the hell is going on with your children, and you're scared to death. I think I was in shock."

"You don't know what to do, how to feel," said a tearful Sheyna. "You fall apart, get hysterical. Then, you have to be strong because you still have two children who are fighting for their lives. So you focus on their recovery, and maybe that's the only way you keep your sanity."

Two and a half years after the accident, the Marshalls have made a home in Converse, Texas. James works with the Air Education and Training Command Computer Systems Squadron at Randolph AFB, Texas.

Justin, now 7, endured six surgeries and has at least two more on the horizon. The right side of his head has a large C-shaped scar where a polymer resin implant replaced a fist-sized portion of his skull. The first grader should be glowing with all the X-rays and CT scans that he's endured.

Walking with a severe limp and unable to use his left hand, Justin still goes to physical and occupational therapy once a week. Until about two months ago, he suffered four or five seizures a day. He now has to be drugged to control the seizures, but those same meds impede his ability to learn. And he has had to relearn everything ... to walk and talk again. To chew and swallow. Even to breathe on his own again.

"Immediately following the crash, he was basically a 5-year-old infant," Sheyna said.

All this misery and for what?

The answer isn't easy to swallow. Three teenage boys got off work and decided to street race just for the fun of it.

"They weren't malicious, and they didn't set out to kill anyone," James said sternly. "But someone died anyway because they treated their cars and the streets like some sort of video game."

Two of the teens, who were considered minors at ages 16 and 17, did not get punished by the law. But 19-year-old Willie Johnson, who was the one who actually lost control of his vehicle and smashed into the Marshalls, went to trial as an adult. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter by automobile, earning him a decade behind bars.

"If people walked in our shoes for just a few minutes, they'd never treat driving like a game again," James said.

He and Sheyna try not to dwell on the circumstances surrounding the mishap that forever scarred their family.

Instead they celebrate every obstacle that Justin is able to overcome. They cherish every moment with Makenna, now 5, who is flourishing, with nothing to show from the accident but a small scar on her right leg. Not to mention, the couple has added a new addition to their family, 8-month-old daughter Brooklyn.

And every day they think of Christian, a sweet kid with a big heart. Christian, their little stuntman, who against his parents' objections would come blazing down the street on his bike with his feet on the center bar, hollering, "Look, Mom, no feet!" Christian, who felt sooooo big when he helped his dad turn a wrench or two on his '69 Mercury Cougar. Christian, who played video games like he had a bee in his britches, jumping and gyrating, as if his motions would affect the outcome. Christian, who loved to dance to any kind of music ... but did so badly, even by the admission of adoring parents.

"We didn't give him the dancing gene," Sheyna said, chuckling and crying in nearly the same breath.

Then, she opened up the backpack Christian had brought home from school the Friday before the accident. She took out his progress folder, which featured firewall pluses from his teacher for behavior that day. Christian had proudly drawn a smiley face by each plus because he knew how happy they'd make his mom and dad. With a lone tear streaming down her cheek, Sheyna then gently removed his jacket from the backpack, and, ironically, a crossing guard reflector belt that her son wore while helping to protect other children from motorists.

"Christian died," she said as her voice cracked. "Justin is permanently disabled. Our family will never be the same. ... And Willie Johnson, the teenager responsible for it all, was sentenced to prison for 10 years even though he never set out to hurt anyone. There were no winners in all this."