Cops track teens and drinking dangers

Cops track teens and drinking dangers

With graduation from Rogue River High School fast approaching, Michael "Mikey" Barnick Jr. spent every moment he could with his friends, said his aunt Angel Heinze.

"They just wanted to hang out," she said. "The end of the year was coming."

Mikey and four friends went camping May 11 on the Illinois River. They'd had a few beers when Mikey, 17, took off in a car shortly after midnight with his black Lab, Max.

Friends found the car the next morning over an embankment about a quarter of a mile north of Miami bar on Illinois River Road, Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said.

Mikey had been tossed from the rolling vehicle and was dead.

"The car went off the road, hit a tree, rolled several times and landed at the water's edge," he said. There were no skid marks, but excessive speed is suspected, he added.

"In law enforcement, we are always cognizant that this time of year can be especially dangerous for young people," Gilbertson said.

"People are getting out of school and feel free, then tragedy seems to strike."

Police agencies across Southern Oregon are gearing up to try to keep additional tragedies at bay this year.

Although Josephine County must eliminate sheriff's patrols by Memorial Day after a public safety levy was defeated May 15, Gilbertson and commissioners have agreed to put some deputies back on the road for the week between graduation and the last day of school for all students.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said he'll send extra patrols into rural areas where teens are likely to gather for parties, and his department might use helicopters to search for bonfires this summer.

"The outside parties pick up when the weather turns good," Winters said.

MADD and other advocates against teen drinking note that April, May and June — the season for proms, year-end parties and graduations — can be especially dangerous.

Four Jackson County teens have died from alcohol-related crashes close to graduation in the last two years.

On graduation night 2005, Ashland High School graduate Leah Castillo was killed by an intoxicated driver on her way to an all-night party planned to keep teens safe.

Just 10 days after graduation last year, three South Medford High School graduates — Kyle Ross, David Bergin and Jonathan Thibeault — died when their speeding car crashed into the Applegate River. They had been on a camping trip where alcohol was consumed.

The most recent statistics available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that from April 16 through June 15, 2005, there were nine fatal crashes in Oregon involving drivers ages 15 through 18. In all of 2005, there were 46 fatal crashes in the state involving drivers in that age group, the Oregon Department of Transportation reports.

In Oregon, just 22 percent of those spring crashes involving teens also involved alcohol. ODOT statistics indicate 34 percent of all fatal crashes among all age groups in the state in 2005 involved alcohol.

Last spring, Southern Oregon Drug Awareness launched a tipline for people to report teen parties. People can call 973-7756 or 1-800-608-7632 anonymously.

The grant that paid for the tipline also provided money to Jackson County Sheriff's and Eagle Point Police departments for training in how to disperse parties safely and for overtime for officers to break up parties, said Sarah Heath, prevention coordinator for the Jackson County Commission on Children and Families.

A second, two-year grant will extend the tipline and involve police in Central Point, Talent and Phoenix, as well as pay for community outreach and education programs, she said. In all the two grants, from the state Department of Human Services and Oregon Research Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Eugene, will provide $128,500 for efforts to reduce underage drinking.

"There's no one magic answer to this, but many are working on it," Heath said.

Heinze wants to do her part by telling Mikey's story so other families might avoid the pain that has stricken hers.

"We've all been there and made choices that were dangerous," Heinze said.

"Everybody should do what it takes to not drink and drive," she said. "Parents should make sure their kids aren't afraid to call and ask for a ride if they have been drinking.

"It's better than getting a call from the cops afterward."

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail

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