Thursday, May 22, 1997
Saving a life: Von Bargen's

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

You would have to be made of stone not to have been moved by the courtroom scene.

Steven Von Bargen's handsome 17-year-old face was twisted in pain. His mother, eyes already swollen, pulled a neatly folded bale of tissues from her purse. Her fragile composure dissolved as she told Judge David Grossmann, "I have so much trouble missing my son Greg. Please don't take this one, too."

Greg, 16, was killed last January along with Kyle Yearion, 15, and Sarah Garibay, 17. Police estimate that Steven was driving 77 mph on Este Avenue in Winton Hills when he skidded sideways into another car.

This was three months after he had been cited for driving 89 mph in a 65 mph zone. Somebody is going to get hurt, he was told by a magistrate. Convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular assault, Steven Von Bargen was in juvenile court Tuesday to hear his sentence.

Beloved son, friend

In the hallway outside, classmates - mostly girls in plaid Roger Bacon uniform skirts and white shirts - recited the Apostles' Creed. Many of them attended a vigil on Fountain Square in February in Steven's support. More than 200 people attended the event, just before a decision on whether his case should be sent to a grand jury.

This boy - with a too-large suit coat and visible comb marks in his blond hair - is loved. And if Steven Von Bargen, who turns 18 on Saturday, had been treated as an adult, he could have spent more than 15 years in prison.

Even those of us who don't know him are chilled by thoughts of people we love, perhaps our own children, who have been reckless yet lucky enough not to have collided with fate. "How would you feel if this were your son?" said a man shielding the family from cameras with his coat.

The father, Ed Von Bargen, spoke before sentencing, thanking various officials - police officers, sheriff's deputies and the judge for their "compassion." Looks, of course, aren't everything - but Mr. Von Bargen sure looks like a nice guy, with strong features and a pale face. What a nightmare.

And how should it be ended?

'I'm sorry'

Defense attorney Timothy Hickey suggested public service for the youth, going around to schools, telling his story.

"I don't remember much about January 14, that morning," Steven said, weeping, "but if I was speeding that day, I'm sorry. If I did anything wrong that day, I'm sorry." What, then, would be his message? Is there any reason to believe this boy is in any condition to rescue someone else? At his trial, a former priest and a founding member of Parents of Murdered Children testified that Steven is consumed by grief.

"Part of him wished that he had died in the accident, that he had been a victim, said Kenneth Czillinger, who met with Steven twice. "He said it would have solved a lot of problems."

Steven Von Bargen is not a thug and should not be treated like one. And he wasn't.

Judge Grossmann ruled that this boy should report June 5 to a county-run juvenile rehabilitation facility. Hillcrest School is not a jail. There are no bars, and the wooded campus is in Springfield Township, minutes from the Von Bargen home.

The mission statement says Hillcrest offers "a wide variety of experiences" to help adolescents "recognize their self-worth" and realize that they are "responsible for their own actions." It is staffed with social workers and psychologists, as well as teachers, there 24 hours a day, seven days a week to watch over this boy who suspects he should have died with his brother.

They might not love him, but they are trained to help him.

The attorney, pleading for Steven Von Bargen to be released on probation to his shocked and grieving parents, asked that instead of incarceration, "maybe allowing Steve to talk to other kids would have an effect on them." He said perhaps this plan could "save just one life."

Maybe the life Judge Grossmann is trying to save is Steven Von Bargen's.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE

Previous stories

VON BARGEN SENTENCED TO REFORM SCHOOL May 21, 1997
DEATH CAR DRIVER OUGHT TO GO TO JAIL Cliff Radel column, May 2, 1997
GUILTY VERDICT BRINGS NO RELIEF May 1, 1997
CULPABILITY IN FATAL CRASH ARGUED April 29, 1997
VON BARGEN TRIAL APRIL 14 April 4, 1997
TEEN WON'T GET ADULT TRIAL March 4, 1997
PARKED VAN CITED IN DRIVER'S DEFENSE Feb. 21, 1997
HUNDREDS SEEK MERCY FOR TEEN DRIVER Feb. 8, 1997
DAD PLEADS FOR SON TO AVOID PRISON Feb. 5, 1997
DRIVER FACES CRIMINAL CHARGES Jan. 31, 1997
'OTHER' DRIVER FILES LAWSUIT Jan. 22, 1997
SCHOOL HOLDS FUNERAL FOR THREE Jan. 19, 1997
THOUSANDS BID TEENS GOODBYE Jan. 18, 1997
POLICE TRY TO RECONSTRUCT CRASH Jan. 17, 1997
PALL CAST OVER ROGER BACON Jan. 16, 1997
3 DEATHS SHATTER SCHOOL Jan. 15, 1997