The 18-year-old driver of a pickup truck that crashed into a tree last month killing nine of its 11 teen-age passengers was charged with nine counts of automobile manslaughter yesterday.
Anne Arundel County prosecutors also charged Alan Cole with nine counts of homicide with a motor vehicle while intoxicated, a lesser charge, and one count each of driving while intoxicated, speeding and reckless or negligent driving-for a total of 21 counts.
Preliminary tests by investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board indicated that the Baltimore youth was driving between 50 and 60 miles per hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone when his truck left the winding road, glanced off two trees and ran head-on into a third.
Cole had been driving the 12 teenagers along Patuxent Road near Fort Meade the night of April 23 when the accident occured.
Seven of the passengers died within moments of the crash, and two more died within a week. Cole escaped with minor injuries.
Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Warren B. Duckett Jr. Said yesterday that he decided to file the charges because he believed Cole had been drinking, was under the influence of drugs, and was speeding when the truck hit the tree and overturned.
"You look for more than one act of simple negligence to constitute gross negligence, which is wanton and reckless disregard for human life," Duckett said.
In an interview shortly after the accident, Cole denied that he was intoxicated or that he had been speeding, although he said he had had "a couple of beers" at a bowling alley where the group had gathered before the crash.
Duckett said the decision to press charges was difficult because "the man is contrite. He's killed nine of his best friends. But we just can't ignore the evidence.
"I'm sure if you ask Mr. Cole, he'll say there's nothing the courts can do to punish him any greater than he's punished himself. As a human being, I recognize that.
"But as a prosecutor I have a recognize the evidence presented to me and the fact that nine people are dead I would have been irresponsible not to charge him."
Because all counts are misdemeanors, the prosecutor filed charges in a criminal information without presenting the case to a grand jury. If convicted, Cole could receive a maximum sentence of 27 years, prosecutors said.
Duckett said his decision to act on the case was triggered by the death of the ninth victim last week.
"I have personal feelings," Duckett said. "I have three teen-age children. This was not an intentional act. I have symphathy for Mr. Cole. But the issue infortunately leads to gross negligence. I would have preferred it would not."
Many of the families of the dead teen-agers, while expressing sympathy for Cole, said yesterday that they agreed with Duckett's decision to charge the youth.
"All I can tell you is I expected (the charges)," said Bruce Kusaj, father of Clark Kusaj who died in the crash. "He was the driver and the driver is responsible for his vehicle. I feel he has to accept that responsibility."
"I'm glad they're charging him because there were nine kids killed unnecessarily," said Jeniffer Morenz, whose 16-year-old son Paul died in the accident.
When informed of the charges Gary Neal, father of Tina Neal, who is in fair condition in the shock trauma unit of the University of Maryland hospital in Baltimore, said "I'm sorry that it took (the police) so long to do it."
He said it is still "touch and go" for his daughter.
But Chief Warrant Officer Andrew Cook, stepfather of Cynthia Bray, who was also killed, said "I think the charges are a bit harsh. I hold no personal malice at all against Alan Cole. It was one of those things that could happen to any driver. It was just one of those unfortunate things."
Cook said Cynthia's brother and sister sat with Cole at a memorial service for the dead students at Meade Senior high School, which most of them had attended.
Cole's mother, contacted by phone, at her Baltimore home, said her son's lawyer had advised him not to talk about the case.
The father of the Kusaj youth said he was "pretty upset" when he read a newspaper interview in which Cole said that the parents of the dead youths forgiven him. "I never gave any indication of supporting him. I'm sympathetic with his family for what they're going through. But I never said I supported him because I think he's wrong," Kusaj continued.
"But . . . he took my son's life and he has to count for it."