Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Drunken driver lives in obscurity

15 years ago today, he killed 27 riders on church bus

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer


MOXLEY, Ky. - Larry Mahoney has picked the right place to be left alone.

Ten miles and 15 years from the spot where he took 27 lives in the nation's worst drunken-driving accident, Mahoney lives in self-imposed obscurity on a rural Owen County road.

About 54 miles southwest of Cincinnati, the road is so remote it isn't marked.

It is a life that Mahoney, 49, has tried hard to maintain since being released from a Kentucky prison in 1999.

He served nearly 11 years for causing what's become known as "The Carrollton Bus Crash," a horrific accident that took place May 14, 1988. Twenty-four children and three adults returning to Radcliff, Ky., from a day at Kings Island died on a church bus, consumed by flames and toxic smoke.

Mahoney, his 0.24 blood-alcohol content more than twice the legal limit, drove his pickup the wrong way on Interstate 71 - straight into the bus. The bus gas tank was punctured and exploded.

A nation was moved to action. Drunken driving laws were toughened and school bus safety was improved.

Those who drive the winding stretch of highway midway between Louisville and Cincinnati pass a simple tribute to those who died, a green highway sign that memorializes the crash site just west of Carrollton.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet installed the signs as a sort of memorial to the victims. Cabinet spokesman Mark Pfeiffer said it's the only such tribute sign ever erected by the state.

And some people want it taken down. The most recent requests came a few years ago from some Carrollton residents.

But the victims' loved ones and others from Radcliff convinced officials not to remove the sign, Pfeiffer said.

"Their feeling was," he said, "that the sign needed to stay up so that people never forget what happened."

A quiet life

Mahoney has never spoken publicly about the crash. He repeatedly ignored interview requests made through friends, family and by letters sent to his home not far from Carrollton on Old Moxley Road.

"We ain't talking, so leave us alone," said a woman, presumably his mother, Mary, who answered the phone last week at Mahoney's parents' house, which is next door to his white-sided manufactured home. "You're wasting your time."

According to people who know the Mahoney family, Larry has few close friends and keeps to himself.

Described as shy and quiet before the accident, Mahoney has become even more detached and introverted from the emotional weight and unfathomable guilt of killing 27 people.

"Excluding what happened in the bus crash, Larry Mahoney has been a model citizen," said Owen County Judge-executive Billy O'Banion.

"He and his family are quiet people. They call from time to time, like other citizens in the county, if they need some assistance from the county if a tree falls on their road or something like that.

"But Larry's told me he doesn't want to talk about what happened, and he really just wants to be left alone," O'Banion said. "I respect his right to privacy."

Those who know Mahoney well also guard his privacy. Family and friends did not return phone calls.

Records at the Owen County Courthouse in Owenton provide a glimpse into Mahoney's life since his release from prison.

Mahoney was sentenced to 16 years in prison after a Carroll County jury convicted him of 27 counts of second-degree manslaughter, 16 counts of second-degree assault and 27 counts of wanton endangerment.

Because of good behavior - authorities have described Mahoney as a model prisoner - Mahoney had nearly six years knocked off his sentence. He served 10 years and 11 months before leaving the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange, outside Louisville, on Sept. 1, 1999.

New wife, settled down

Less than three weeks later, on Sept. 18, Mahoney married Kimberly Kay Frederick of Allen Fork Drive in Burlington - the Boone County seat - in an Owen County courthouse ceremony.

The service was performed by a Baptist minister and witnessed by Mahoney's father, John. It was Mahoney's third marriage but the first for Frederick, 40 at the time.

Mahoney has at least one grown son from an earlier marriage. It is not known whether he and Frederick have any children.

People familiar with Mahoney say he and Frederick were dating before the accident. She visited him frequently in prison and waited for his release so they could marry.

According to court records, Mahoney and Frederick lived briefly in Burlington before buying a lot from his parents for $1 and purchasing a single story manufactured home for $76,201 in July of 2000.

The Mahoneys' home is about midway down Old Moxley Road, an asphalt and gravel road near the Kentucky River valley. The road is not listed on maps.

The home is modest and well-kept, with a blue pickup in the drive and a boat, golf cart and small animal coop in the backyard. A garden and small barn are just across the street. No one answered the door at mid-afternoon.

Mahoney worked at an area chemical plant before the bus crash. It is not known where he is employed now, but O'Banion and others said he possibly works in a factory in or near Carrollton.

'A good boy'

Forrest Osborne has known the Mahoney family for years and at one time was close to Larry's father, John. Osborne, 65, a retired carpenter, also used to tend bar at Tubby's Tavern, a now-closed bar in Carrollton where Mahoney used to sip beers and play pool in years before the accident.

"He was a good boy who comes from a good family," said Osborne, who was sitting on his porch in Worthville, a tiny Carroll County city not far from Mahoney's home. "He used to come into the bar every once in awhile and play pool with his buddies. He was quiet, never got drunk or wild. I think eventually he fell into the wrong crowd, and that led to his troubles and to the accident.

"But his daddy told me that he wants to just live his life and not talk much about those people that died," Osborne said. "Can you blame him?"

Janey Fair doesn't.

Fair lost her 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, in the crash.

The state public policy liaison for the Kentucky Chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Fair worked to toughen Kentucky's drunken driving laws.

She and other parents of children killed in the accident are in Washington today to lobby for more anti-drunken-driving programs.

Mother understands silence

But while Fair has turned tragedy into advocacy, Mahoney has not used his infamy to speak out. During his trial, Mahoney discussed lecturing schools and other groups about drinking and driving. But Owen County School District officials said he's never approached them about doing so.

"I think that would be incredibly valuable," Fair said. "But from my understanding, Larry Mahoney will never talk about it. He's too shy and it's probably too painful to talk about."

Fair said she has never spoken to Mahoney and does not resent his unwillingness to tell his story.

"The whole time he was in prison he sought out and received treatment, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when they were available," Fair said.

"I think he's realized that he is better off living a quiet life with his family. And if that keeps him from drinking and driving, then that's what he needs to do."

While many relatives' victims have forgiven Mahoney, some still see his sentence as too light.

Karolyn Nunnallee's 10-year-old daughter, Patty, was the youngest child killed in the crash. When Mahoney was released from prison, Nunnallee - who went on to become national president of MADD - expressed frustration.

"Larry Mahoney," Nunnallee said, "no matter what he is labeled, should be grateful he can go back to some sort of a normal life."


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