By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 9, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Ryan Kenty, 20, and his brother Brandon, still a sophomore in high school, plan to drive their mother to jail Monday morning before heading back to her rented apartment to move the rest of her belongings into storage.
Their mom, Elisa Kelly, and her ex-husband, George Robinson, are paying the price for hosting Ryan's 16th birthday party -- more than two years in jail each. Ryan had asked his mother to buy his friends some beer and wine, as long as they all spent the night.
"No one left the party," said Kelly, 42, who collected car keys that night almost five years ago to prevent anyone from leaving. "No one was hurt. No one drove anywhere. I really don't think I deserve to go to jail for this long."
But Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney James L. Camblos III, who prosecuted the parents, said it was the worst case of underage drinking he has had to deal with in 15 years. "Not only were they serving alcohol to 15- and 16-year-olds, they misled parents who called to ask about alcohol, and they tried to get the kids to cover it up after police got there," Camblos said.
In this season of senior proms and graduation parties, the story of the couple is a cautionary tale for parents if they plan to serve alcohol -- or look the other way. It comes at a time of increased concern about the effects of drinking and driving and underage binge drinking, which is on the rise. Although 27-month sentences are rare, parents are increasingly being held criminally responsible for underage drinking under their roofs, even if they are not aware that it is going on.
"In a lot of cases, the parents are the problem," said Diane Eckert, a prevention specialist in the Safe and Drug-Free Youth section of Fairfax County schools. "The majority of our youth say they obtain their alcohol in their parents' homes."
Eckert recently helped launch an awareness campaign in the county called Parents Who Host Lose the Most. She said parents have to realize that it is illegal for those under 21 to drink and against the law for adults to provide them with alcohol.
"A lot of our parents were able to drink when they were 18, and we're in a culture that endorses drinking as a rite of passage," Eckert said.
Kelly and Robinson -- the boys' stepfather -- were charged with nine misdemeanor counts each of contributing to the delinquency of a minor resulting from the August 2002 backyard birthday bash. Both were originally sentenced to eight years, but the sentences were reduced to 27 months. The case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court and then the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently declined to hear it.
Robinson's attorney, Jonathan Wren, called the jail time the "harshest sentence of its kind by a long shot." Wren said his client declined to comment.
About 30 kids were at the Robinson property on remote Bleak House Road in Earlysville, Va., when police arrived about 11 p.m. after receiving a call about underage drinking. Many of the kids scattered into the nearby woods after one of them yelled, "Cops!"
The couple initially were charged with 16 misdemeanor counts, but seven of the partygoers had no alcohol in their systems. Of the nine who did, all were below the legal limit for intoxication, according to Wren.
"I made a big mistake. I know that," Kelly, a stay-at-home mother, said this week. "I am so sorry." Her son Ryan was so distraught that he dropped out of school and wants to serve her sentence for her.
Kelly said she believed the kids were going to drink regardless. She reasoned that supplying the alcohol and keeping them home would be safer than having them out drinking and driving. Court records show she spent $340 on beer and wine for the party that night. She said she made a deal with her son that no one could leave.
Kelly called the punishment harsh, excessive and politically motivated. "I'm not a hardened criminal," said the woman, who does not have a criminal record, not even a parking infraction. "I'm just a mom."
Camblos, who has made curbing underage drinking part of this year's reelection campaign, denied any political motivation. "Politics had nothing to do with it. I've seen too many photographs of teenagers being killed in car wrecks because of drinking and driving."
Camblos said there was "some suggestion by Mrs. Robinson that several kids could gargle with vinegar to hide the alcohol." Kelly, who changed her name after her divorce, denies it.
The couple pleaded guilty in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and Camblos recommended a 90-day sentence at the time. But the judge, angry about the recent death of one of Ryan's classmates at Albemarle High School in an alcohol-related crash, sentenced them to eight years.
The couple appealed to Circuit Court, which reduced the sentence to 27 months. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld that decision in January, rejecting defense claims of an illegal search of the couple's property. The defense tried to have the case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as a violation of the couple's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
"All their appeals are done now, and it's time they start serving their sentences," Camblos said.
Kelly said the almost five-year "nightmare mess" has been very hard on her elder son. She said Ryan is shouldering deep guilt about his sports-coaching mother, whom he calls the "best mom in the world," having to serve time for something he's still convinced was his fault.
"He's bawled his eyes out over it," she said. "I keep telling him, 'I was the adult. I made the mistake, and it's not your fault.' "
"I wish I could go to jail for her," he said this week, his eyes welling up. If he could, he'd swap places with his mom, who has a "heart of gold," in a minute.
Kelly said she's "scared" to go to the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail, where each of her sons will be able to visit her only once a month for 15 minutes at a time, and worried about how her sons will fare without her. "I'm going to miss the end of Brandon's high school," she said of her 16-year-old son, choking back tears.
After the incident, Ryan dropped out of high school, where he was an athlete and a member of the school's basketball team, saying he couldn't take the constant attention. He shelved plans to attend college and now works full time at UPS. The brothers will live nearby with their father, Marc Kenty, until their mother is released.
"You'll see, Mom, I'm going to have a house for us by the time you get out," he said last week after helping her move some of her stuff to storage. "And I'm going to take good care of Brandon."
"Not one minute of guilt, though, right?" Kelly asked her son, her arm draped affectionately on his big shoulder. "Like we've talked about."
He answered, looking down, "Okay, Mom, okay."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.