Shortly before the first bell rings, Jena Sandberg slips in a back door at Elkridge Middle School.
The walk from the school's front entrance to her classroom at the back of the building is too full of distractions for the blonde ninth-grader. If she entered there, who knows where she might end up. There are so many hallways, too many people, too many other doors.It's better to be safe and sure, a concept that Jena and her family adopted as their mantra after a drunken driver changed their lives so permanently the night of Jan. 6, 1995.
The night was cold, clear and still. Jay Leno had just finished his monologue and was introducing his guests. Lights blazed from a handful of homes along the intersection of Willow Creek Drive and Robidoux Road.
There was little traffic along the streets. That may explain why the sound of crushing metal and breaking glass and squealing tires reverberated so clearly in nearby houses.
The sound was horrific. Residents who dashed outside to see what happened dialed 911 as they ran.
Across the street a young girl ran in circles, screaming. One vehicle, badly damaged, faced the wrong way in the northbound lane of Willow Creek Drive.
The gray Acura was still running. The driver put the vehicle in motion - pulled it forward, tried to turn off Willow Creek but scraped into a light post planted in a grassy median. The woman driver backed up and tried again, once more hitting the pole.
The vehicle was hard to drive; some tires were flat, knocked off their rims.
"Stop your car, stop your driving, stop," someone yelled. And then: "Get the license plate number."
Only by edging around the vehicle could you see something in the middle of the street.
A blanket? A pile of clothes? Flat. Motionless.
Eyes adjusting in the darkness, terror dawning, the shape took form. It was a person. Lifting the plaid flannel shirt that oddly covered her head you could see Jena's blonde ponytail, hear Jena's labored breathing.
This time it was a plea: "Call 911, get a doctor."
That's when someone saw a second body, tossed behind a decorative boulder. It was missing a shoe, and in the circle of light cast by the lamp post, you could see a hole in the toe of the white sock.
* * *
The events of Jan. 6 foreshadowed what was to come later that summer. In August the scenario would be recast, with new victims and a tragic outcome.
Three teenage girls would walk along a quiet neighborhood street, a drunken driver would swerve out of control and when his car stopped, Elizabeth Phillips and Jennifer Neddo would be dead. Their friend Jaimie Cogswell would be injured, but she'd survive.
Leann Taft would feel thankful then for her own daughter, even as she relived her own night of horror - when three 14-year-old girls, tight friends, decided to have a slumber party.
Jena Sandberg and Kimberly Bohn were staying at Taryn Johnson's home that Friday night. They played Ping-Pong in the basement and then decided to walk to the entrance of the Willow Creek subdivision to meet a friend. The girls traveled along the planted median that runs down the middle of Willow Creek Drive.
Taryn apparently was the first to hear the car on the road behind them. It sounded too loud, too close, too much like danger. She ran west, away from the sound.
But Jena and Kim weren't as quick. They turned toward the noise. When the vehicle jumped the slight curb and bounded onto the grassy median, they were in its path.
The sheriff's office estimates the girls flew about 60 feet before landing - Jena on pavement, Kim on the softer, grassy median on the far side of the intersection.
"I thought they had moved out of the way or to the other side of the road, but I looked there and I didn't see them," Taryn said. "Then I saw Jena face down on the road. I didn't see Kim."
In small neighborhoods, word of trouble and tragedy spreads fast. Parents came.
Jena's mom, Leann, cradled her daughter's torn face.
Friends gathered on the edges of the streets, watching as helicopters swooped down and whisked the girls to the best hospitals in the valley.
When Leann drove home, where another daughter would meet her and drive her to LDS Hospital, her hands were still bloody.
* * *
The accident that injured Jena Sandberg has triggered two trials, each running on separate tracks. There is a criminal case in the 3rd Circuit Court in Sandy, and a civil case, filed last Valentine's Day, pending in 3rd District Court.
A trial that involves drunken driving charges can take a long time to reach a conclusion. There are so many things to decide, including whether the blood alcohol content of the driver involved can be used as evidence.
A sheriff's deputy ordered a vial of Helen Maurer's blood drawn the night of the accident, right there at the scene - after she had been arrested and against her wishes, according to court records.
The accident report by sheriff's deputy Michael S. Leary states Maurer smelled strongly of alcohol and that she was obviously impaired. She did "poorly" on three field sobriety tests that night - on one exhibiting four of the six clues used to gauge impairment, the court records state.
More important, Leary believed the two young girls being flown to trauma rooms across the valley were 10-85 echoes.
In police lingo, the code means a victim's condition is an obvious fatality.
Maurer went to a bingo game at a church in Kearns earlier that January evening. Months later in court, she took the Fifth Amendment and declined to answer when asked if or where she'd been drinking.
Larry Keller, Maurer's attorney, tried to have the blood alcohol results tossed out of the criminal case. He argued deputies violated Maurer's constitutional rights and acted unreasonably when they took her blood at the scene and despite her objection.
Judge Roger A. Livingston ruled against Maurer, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of driving under the influence, a class A misdemeanor.
The test shows Maurer's blood alcohol level was .25 - more than three times the legal limit - the night of Jan. 6, according to court records.
* * *
Jena Sandberg remained in a coma for five days after arriving at LDS Hospital.
Her parents videotaped the silent, bruised child as she floated in a sea of medical equipment. The only sound on the tape filmed Jan. 9, 1995, is the whoosh and tick of the respirator that breathed air into Jena's lungs.
Jena arrived at the hospital with a broken collar bone; broken jaws; a shattered chin, forehead and eye sockets; damaged knee ligaments; three pelvis fractures; and skin abrasions along her left side. There was a dime-sized puncture wound to the left of her nose; the skin above her lips was torn; teeth were knocked out and her tongue was nearly severed.
But the most troubling injury was the damage to the front lobe of Jena's brain. The extent of the damage wouldn't be known for another six months.
Jena's face hit the Acura's windshield and then slammed into the road when she landed. On the videotape taken six days after the accident the imprint of the road is still visible on her left check.
Doctors used metal plates to rebuild her forehead, chin and eye sockets. Stitches ran from ear to ear and across Jena's forehead like seams on a baseball.
On Jan. 13 Jena opened her eyes, only for a few seconds at a time before blinking them shut again. The next day, unable to speak, the home film captures Jena giving her stepdad, Rick, sign language for "I Love You" and then silently mouthing the same words.
She left the hospital Jan. 28, three weeks after the accident, and required intensive in-home therapy until May.
A short distance away at University Hospital, Kimberly Bohn made a more rapid recovery from her injuries.
* * *
Jena is one of the walking casualties of drunken driving.
The cuts on her face have healed quite well - a thin coat of makeup makes them almost invisible. The broken bones are mended, though twice-weekly chiropractic visits are necessary.
Sometimes Jena will wear the retainer with the fake front tooth, sometimes she won't. More dental work lies ahead, as does more plastic surgery.
But Jena is not whole.
In June an extensive brain scan showed permanent damage to the frontal lobe of her brain, the part that governs olfactory senses, judgment and social skills. That's when the magnitude of what they face hit the Tafts.
"This isn't going to be over in five years," Leann said, a tinge of disbelief still traceable in her tone.
Jena no longer has a sense of smell, and her sense of taste is diminished. Jena's learning abilities are minimal. At Elkridge Middle School she attends three resource classes, where she works one-on-one with an aide, and one regular class.
"We're just trying to retain what she had," Leann said. "We just figure Jena is at her growth of where she's going to be."
The lose of judgment and social skills is a bigger worry for now. There is no such thing as a bad suggestion to someone who's lost the reasoning faculties housed in the frontal lobe of the brain. Want to go joy riding? Let's go! Jump off a cliff? Sure! "Jena will have to be watched always," Leann said. "She has no safety valve."
If Jena had an arm that didn't work right, that she and others could see, it might be easier, her mom said. But traumatic brain injuries are on the inside, hidden even to those who bear them.
"Jena didn't die, but they took her life," Leann said.
The stresses of Jena's accident have strained her family in every possible way. On Monday the Tafts, overburdened by medical debts, filed for bankruptcy.
And once again in her life, Leann is trying to come to grips with the damage a drunken driver can weave. In 1985 her father, Reid Nielsen of Centerville, was struck and killed by a drunken driver.
The 61-year-old truck driver was on his way home from work when the male driver swerved into his lane and hit him head-on at 72 mph. Nielsen, who was four months from retirement, died instantly.
"It's a daily thing," Leann said. "They say time heals. Time changes things. It doesn't heal."
Helen Maurer, who faces a misdemeanor charge in the criminal case, has been in two treatment programs since the accident, according to court records. Most recently, she spent time this winter at an in-patient treatment center in California. The trial proceedings resume in March.
"I am more angry at drinking than I ever thought I could be," Leann said. "I look at this woman and see a very destroyed person. I feel bad for her but I think she may have done more damage if she wasn't stopped."