The teenage driver in what authorities say was an alcohol-
related crash that claimed the lives of two recent graduates of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Montgomery County has been charged with vehicular homicide and other counts, officials announced Monday.
The charges come as the Maryland suburb, just north of Washington, continues to struggle with underage drinking parties and what parents can do to police them.
The driver, Samuel Ellis, 19, had been at an underage party with alcohol in North Potomac on the night of the June crash, police said. An adult homeowner, Kenneth Saltzman, also has been issued two criminal citations in the case for allowing two guests under age 21 to possess or consume alcohol in his home, according to court records. He faces a fine of up to $2,500 for each citation, authorities said.
“I know parents struggle with this issue in homes across the county. This is the real world,” said the county’s top prosecutor, John McCarthy. “But you’ve got to resist the temptation to be the cool parent.”
The crash claimed the lives of graduates in Wootton’s Class of 2015 — back-seat passengers Alexander Murk and Calvin Li, both 18. Another teen, who was a front-seat passenger, was injured.
A police report on the case revealed details about the party at Saltzman’s house June 25.
Witnesses told police that Saltzman, the father of the girl hosting the party, was home and, though he did not provide the alcohol or serve it, he allegedly joked with a boy carrying two 30-packs of beer into the house, asking whether “one of the 30 packs was for him,” according to the report.
Another witness told police that Saltzman was under the impression that only about 10 people were at the party and that he was upstairs, away from the gathering. The police report states that as many as 30 people were at the party.
McCarthy said that, in the end, his office concluded that fewer than five teens were willing to say that Saltzman saw them at the home with alcohol in their possession. “Without that linkage, you can’t make the charges,” McCarthy said.
Saltzman couldn’t be reached for comment. His attorney, David Moyse, declined to comment.
According to police reports, Ellis left Saltzman’s home as a passenger in a car driven by a reportedly sober designated driver. Ellis then got behind the wheel of his own car, with the three others inside. Ellis was speeding along Dufief Mill Road in North Potomac when the car went out of control on a curve, running off the road and striking a fence and two trees, police said.
The parents of one of the teens who died in the crash, Murk, issued a statement Monday describing the “eternal pain” of losing their son. They said their son’s death has “devastated us to our very core, almost to the point of just breaking us both emotionally and physically.”
They said they hope for a “just but severe sentence — a sentence that not only punishes our son’s killer, but one that sends a loud and clear message to all others in our society, to think long and hard before committing similar atrocious acts. As a community, we need to do everything in our power to quell this type of behavior by our teenaged youths.”
The Murks also expressed dismay that the parent who was home during the party “faces nothing more than a $5,000 fine” and said they would like to see Maryland laws changed “so that they have real teeth and act as a real deterrent.”
Li’s parents could not be reached for comment Monday.
Under Maryland laws, an adult can be issued a citation for “furnishing” if he or she purchases alcohol for someone under 21 or if an adult permits them to drink in his house.
McCarthy said he thinks the legislature needs to add possible jail time as a punishment.
“We have been urging the legislature to put greater teeth into the criminal sanctions,” he said. “We will continue.”
The indictment of Ellis — a onetime star quarterback at Wootton, who was 18 at the time of the crash — contains five charges: Two counts of vehicular manslaughter; two counts of alcohol-related vehicular homicide and one count of causing a life-threatening injury while driving under the influence of alcohol.
Ellis’s attorney, Michael McAuliffe, declined to comment Monday.
The Wootton case has highlighted a broader culture of underage drinking and teen parties that has led to tragedy in Montgomery County and in communities across the country.
Late last week, Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, sent an e-mail to the school’s parents, asking that they stop hosting parties for teenagers where alcohol is served. Goodwin had heard of two parties the previous weekend that involved alcohol and allegedly were held while a parent was home.
“This must stop,” he wrote.
Trina Leonard, a longtime advocate who worked to pass a state law that made parents more accountable for underage drinking in their homes, said that the problem continues and that parents who host parties “do a great disservice” by conveying a message that teen drinking is acceptable.
“I think there are parents who very foolishly think it’s much better if kids drink in their house because they can supervise them,” she said.
But Leonard said that there are many dangers that don’t have to do with driving — including alcohol poisoning and unintended sex — and that many parents can’t control the driving as much as they think.
“Often they believe that they can trust inebriated kids not to drive or to use a designated driver, but those things don’t often turn out as intended,” Leonard said.
“The only correct behavior is for teens to abstain from alcohol and for parents to help them with that,” she said. “Facilitating their drinking can be the worst mistake a parent ever makes. It can cost a life.”