Teen May Be Tried As Adult in Fatality

By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007

Kathleen Becker was returning from choir practice, making her usual Thursday night drive from Christ the Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Sterling to her home in Leesburg, where she lived with her husband and disabled teenage son.

Traveling on a two-lane stretch of Route 15 that evening last week, Becker's Chrysler Town & County minivan was struck by a swerving Ford Escape SUV, driven by a 17-year-old girl who had been drinking, Virginia State Police said.

Becker, 59, who was wearing a seat belt, died instantly. The girl, who was not wearing a seat belt, survived with cuts and bruises and was charged with driving under the influence, a misdemeanor.

This week, after conferring with the Loudoun County commonwealth attorney's office, the state police raised the stakes, charging the Fairfax County girl with involuntary manslaughter, a felony.

The Loudoun prosecutor then petitioned the juvenile court to transfer the case to circuit court so the Westfield High School student could be tried as an adult. The felony charge carries the same sentence for adults and juveniles in Virginia -- one to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine -- but circuit court defendants generally receive tougher sentences, said Sgt. Terry Licklider, a Virginia State Police spokesman.

"We keep trying to send the message" about underage drinking, Commonwealth's Attorney James E. Plowman said yesterday. "We just hope one day someone's going to listen."

The Sept. 20 accident came three months after a 20-year-old George Mason University student who had been drinking drove her convertible into the path of a tractor-trailer on a Capital Beltway ramp, killing herself and three teenage friends. Elaine M. Thackston had been convicted of drinking and driving a year earlier, according to court documents.

In last week's accident, at Route 15 and Harmony Church Road, the teen, whom authorities have not identified because she is charged as a juvenile, had a blood alcohol level above .08, the legal limit for adults, Licklider said. She was driving her parents' car.

"The facts in this case certainly warrant her being charged as an adult," Licklider said yesterday. "We continue to have this problem. It's just gotten to the point where we need to send a message out to people that if you do get behind the wheel when you're intoxicated, you're going to have to suffer the consequences. I mean, obviously this girl is going to have to live with this. "

Kathy Becker was a school crossing guard in the 1970s and 1980s at Sterling Elementary School, and in recent years she was a volunteer for Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, monitoring local amphibians -- especially frogs. She spent most of her time, however, as a caregiver to teenage son Russell, who has a genetic disorder.

"Russell is treated at the hospital a lot because of his special condition," said Becker's daughter, Sharon Macielinski of Ashburn. "And now, removing his primary caregiver from the home -- that has really left the family in the lurch. We don't know what to do because my mother was taking care of him full time while my dad worked full time."

Another son of Becker's, Todd, who had a similar genetic disorder, died in 2004.

Macielinski said she welcomed the news that the Fairfax girl could be tried as an adult. A hearing has been scheduled in juvenile court for early November, Plowman said.

"I mean, when you're 16 or 17, you're allowed to be behind the wheel of something that is potentially a lethal weapon," Macielinski said. "And if you're consuming alcohol, which for good reason is something that is reserved for adults, you should face adult consequences because you have chosen to act as an adult. If teenagers realize that they can be tried as adults and that this could effect the rest of their lives, they possibly will take it more seriously."

Growing up in Sterling, Macielinski, 37, said her parents did not allow her to drive until she was 18. "If there was an event, my parents drove me," she said. "They wanted to make sure I was safe."

At Westfield High in Chantilly, Principal Tim Thomas addressed the drinking and driving issue with student and parent groups all week, said Paul Regnier, spokesman for the Fairfax County school system.

"He's been talking about not drinking, about being careful when they are driving, but he wants the student leaders to talk to other kids about this," Regnier said.

"His strategy is that he wants student leaders and student athletes to recognize that they need to be role models. You know, kids are more likely to listen to other kids than they are to adults telling them something."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company