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Report: Teens said parent allowed parties ‘on a regular basis’

A makeshift memorial at the scene of a June crash in Montgomery County that left two Wootton High School graduates dead. (Donna St. George /The Washington Post)

Teenagers who gathered for a party that preceded a fatal crash in Maryland thought of their host’s house as a “safe place” to drink without getting in trouble, and some said parties were held there “on a regular basis,” according to a newly released police report.

The report follows a high-speed crash in June that claimed the lives of two members of Thomas S. Wootton High School’s Class of 2015 — Alex Murk and Calvin Li, both 18. Police say the wreck, which left two teenagers injured, was alcohol-related.

The Wootton community has reeled from the loss. The driver of the car, Sam Ellis, once the school’s star quarterback, was indicted on charges that include vehicular homicide. He is expected to face trial in April.

But the party that preceded the crash has also been a focus. Parent Kenneth Saltzman, 49, was issued two criminal citations for allowing underage drinking at his North Potomac home — violations to which he pleaded guilty at a recent court hearing. A judge ordered that he pay a fine of $5,000, the maximum.

“It’s led to a spiral of very terrible events,” prosecutor Mark Anderson told a judge.

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Saltzman's attorneys described the father of two, who works in commercial real estate, as a devoted parent active in the community; he coached soccer and basketball for about eight years. "He has taken this matter incredibly seriously," attorney Andrew Jezic told the court.

Both the police report and the recent hearing come amid a long-running debate about how parental decision-making affects the broader culture of underage drinking.

Some parents allow teenagers to have parties where alcohol is allowed, saying that teens are going to drink anyway and they believe it’s safer at home. Others say underage drinking is illegal and harmful, and that parents who host parties can’t control the fallout, no matter how much they try to monitor what happens.

“Parents mistakenly believe that they can sponsor a safe underage drinking party,” said Capt. Tom Didone of the Montgomery County police. “It’s a mistake. You can’t. You can’t control kids who are drinking.”

In Saltzman’s case, he did not buy or provide alcohol for the party the night of the June crash, but he knew of the underage drinking, police and prosecutors said. Most of those attending — 25 to 30 people — were rising seniors at Wootton or recent graduates. When one teenager arrived for the party carrying two 30-packs of beer, the report says, Saltzman allegedly joked, “Is one of those for me?”

Teenagers told police that, in general, the Saltzmans allowed drinking in their house but would check to make sure that people were able to drive safely before leaving, according to the report, which included a summary of 18 interviews with those at the gathering. The teenagers, who did not at first cooperate, agreed to interviews in lieu of testifying before a grand jury, the report said.

Some teens said the Saltzmans would sit just outside the room where partygoers were drinking and monitor who was coming and going. “On occasion, some kids were allowed to stay over at the house instead of driving,” the report said.

Kenneth Saltzman’s wife, Tracie, was out of town the night of the crash, according to the report.

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At the court hearing, Saltzman’s attorney said his client admitted to knowing that two 17-year-old girls had alcohol in their possession between 7 and 7:30 p.m. He was not pleading guilty to buying or furnishing alcohol: “It is knowledge of alcohol,” Jezic said.

Jezic said Wednesday that Saltzman did not speak at the hearing and would continue to have no comment on the case based on the advice of attorneys.

Prosecutors have said fewer than five teens were willing to say that Saltzman saw them with alcohol in their possession. Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy has said “without that linkage,” his office was limited in the case.

Saltzman's teenage daughter invited friends to the June 25 party, as she prepared to head to Costa Rica to do community service. A 21-year-old bought vodka for the girls, and a 17-year-old used a fake Ohio driver's license to buy beer, police have said. According to an earlier police report, teens played beer pong and did shots.

Teenagers were drinking in the basement of the house while Saltzman was on another level, said Anderson, the prosecutor. "He did open the door for some of the individuals that came in and out of the house," Anderson saidat the hearing. "He did greet some of them.He knew them by name. Knew they were all underage."

Anderson told the court that although few teenagers were forthcoming about what took place the night of the crash, they spoke openly about other gatherings.

"Mr. Saltzman did allow them to drink at the house, but went out of his way — as most of the kids said — to make sure that no one left and was driving," he said."But that was a safe place that the kids thought they could go and drink."

Earlier police reports said Ellis, now 19, left Saltzman’s home as a passenger in a car driven by a reportedly sober designated driver and was driven to his own car. Elllis got behind the wheel and was speeding on Dufief Mill Road in North Potomac with three passengers when he lost control.

Police have said that Ellis had a blood alcohol level between 0.07 and 0.09 and tested positive for drugs.

An attorney for Ellis, Michael McAuliffe, declined to comment this week. The family of Calvin Li could not be reached.

David and Pamela Murk, parents of Alex, previously previously voiced outrage about Saltzman's alleged actions, saying in a statement that they find it "nothing short of appalling" that he permitted underage drinking and "made light of it" by joking about the 30-packs. The Murkssaid in a statement that they believed the facts of the case should "shock the conscience" of parents and called it "even more shocking" that Maryland law does not carry jail time for such adult behavior. State law needs to change, they said, "if we want to have any chance of changing the way our society thinks and acts. Hold the adults responsible."

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The Murks’ attorney, Peter Grenier, said Wednesday the couple views the $5,000 fine Saltzman was ordered to pay “as the equivalent of nothing more than going to court, paying a parking fine and being done with it.”