Struggling to live with a night of death
A drunken ride, a tragic aftermath
By Theresa Conroy and Christine M. Johnson (The Inquirer)
When Tyson Baxter awoke from that drunken, tragic night- with
a bloodied head, broken arm, and battered face- he knew that he
killed his friends.
“I knew everyone had died,” Baxter, 18, recalled.
“I knew it before anyone told me. Somehow, I knew.”
Baxter was talking about the night of Friday, Sept. 13, the night
he and seven friends piled into his Chevy Blazer after a beer-drinking
party. On Street Road in Upper Southampton, he lost control, rear-ended
a car, and smashed into two telephone poles. The Blazer’s
cab top shattered and the truck spun several times, ejecting all
but one passenger.
Four young men were killed.
Tests would show that Baxter and the four youths who died were
Baxter says that he thinks about his dead friends on many sleepless
nights at the Abraxas I Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center near
Pittsburgh, where he was sentenced to be held December 20 after
being found delinquent on charges on vehicular homicide.
“I drove them where they wanted to go, and I was responsible
for their lives,” Baxter said recently from the center, where
he is undergoing psychological treatment. “I had the keys
in my hand and I blew it.”
The story of Sept 13 is a story about the kind of horrors that
drinking and driving is spawning among high school students almost
everywhere… about parents who lost their children in a flash
and have filled the emptiness with hatred… about a youth whose
life is burdened with grief and guilt because he happened to be
behind the wheel.
It is a story that the Baxter family and the dead boys’
parents agreed to tell in hope that it would inspire high school
students to remain sober during this week of graduation festivities-
a week that customarily includes a ritual of drunkenness.
It is a story of the times.
The evening of Sept 13 began in high spirits as Baxter, behind
the wheel of his gold Blazer, picked up seven high school chums
for a drinking party for William Tennent High School students and
graduates at the home of a classmate. Using false identification,
according to the police, the boys purchased one six pack of beer
each from Warminster Township bar.
The unchaperoned party, attended by 50 teenagers, ended about
10:30 pm when someone knocked over and broke a glass China cabinet.
Baxter and his friends decided to head for a fast-food restaurant.
As Baxter turned onto Street Road, he was trailed by a line of cars
carrying other partygoers.
Baxter recalled that several passengers were swaying and rocking
the high-suspension vehicle. Police were unable to determine the
vehicle’s exact speed, but, based on the accounts of witnesses,
they estimated it was at 55 mph- 10mph over the limit.
“I thought I was in control,” Baxter said. “I
wasn’t driving like a nut; I was just…driving. There
was a bunch of noise, just a bunch of noise.
The truck was really bouncing.
“I remember passing two cars. That’s the last I remember.
I remember a big flash, and that’s it.”
Killed in that flash were:
Morris “Marty” Freedenberg, 16, who landed near a
telephone pole about 30 feet from the truck, his face ripped from
his skull; Robert Schweiss, 18, a Buck’s County Community
College student, whose internal organs were crushed when he hit
the pavement about 30 feet from the truck; Brian Ball, 17, who landed
near Schweiss, his 6-7 frame stretched 3 inches when his spine was
severed, and Christopher Avram, 17, a pre-med student at Temple
University, who landed near the curb about 10 feet from the truck.
Michael Serratore, 18, was thrown 25 feet from the truck and landed
on the lawn of CHI Institute with his right leg shattered. Baxter,
who sailed about 10 feet after crashing through the windshield of
his Blazer, lost consciousness after hitting the street near the
center lane. About five yards away, Paul Gee Jr., 18, lapsed into
a coma from severe head injuries.
John Gahan, 17, the only passenger left in the Blazer, suffered
a broken ankle.
Brett Walker, 17, one of the several Tennent students who saw
the carnage after the accident, would recall later in a speech to
fellow students: “I ran over to the scene. These were kids
I would go out with every weekend.”
“My one friend Freedenberg, I couldn’t even tell it
was him except for his eyes. He had real big, blue eyes. He was
torn apart so bad…”
Francis Schweiss was waiting up for his son, Robert, when he received
a telephone call from his daughter, Lisa. She was already at Warminster
“She said Robbie and his friends were in a bad accident and
Robbie was not here” at the hospital, Schweiss said. “I
got in my car with my wife; we went to the scene of the accident.”
There, police officers told Francis and Frances Schweiss that several
boys had been killed and that the bodies, as well as survivors,
had been taken to Warminster General Hospital.
“My head was frying by then,” Francis Schweiss said.
“I can’t even describe it. I almost knew the worst was
to be. I felt like I was living a nightmare. I thought, ‘I’ll
wake up. This just can’t be.”
In the ER, Francis Schweiss recalled, nurses and doctors were scrambling
to aid the injured and identify the dead- a difficult task because
some bodies were disfigured and because the boys had been carrying
fake driver’s licenses.
A police officer from Upper Southampton was trying to question
friends of the dead and injured- many of whom were sober and screaming-
in an attempt to match clothing with identities.
When the phone rang in the Freedenberg home, Robert Sr. and his
wife, Bobbi, had just gone upstairs to bed; their son Robert Jr.
was downstairs watching a movie on TV.
Bobbi Freedenberg and her son picked up the receiver at the same
time. It was from Warminster General… there had been a bad
accident… the family should get to the hospital quickly.
Outside the morgue about 20 minutes later, a deputy coroner told
Rob Jr., 22, that his brother was dead and severely disfigured;
Rob decided to spare his parents additional grief by identifying
the body himself.
Freedenberg was led into a cinderblock room containing large drawers
resembling filing cabinets. In one of the drawers was his brother,
Marty, identifiable only by his new high-top sneakers.
“It was kind of like being taken through a nightmare,”
Rob Jr. said. “That’s something I think about every
night before I go to sleep. That’s hell… that whole
night is what hell is all about for me.”
As was his custom, Morris Ball started calling the parents of his
son’s friends after Brian missed his 11 pm curfew. The first
call was to the Baxter’s house, where the Baxter’s 16-
year- old daughter Amber told him about the accident.
At the hospital, Morris Ball demanded that doctors and nurses
take him to his son. The hospital staff had been unable to identify
Brian- until Ball told them that his son wore size 14 shoes.
Brian Ball was in the morgue. Lower left drawer.
“He was 6-7, but after the accident he measured 6-10, because
of what happened to him,” Ball said. “He had a severed
spinal cord at the neck. His buttocks were practically ripped off,
but he was lying down and we couldn’t see that. He was peaceful
“He was my son and my baby. I just can’t believe it
sometimes. I still can’t believe it. I still wait for him
to come home.”
Lynn Pancoast had just finished watching the 11 pm news and was
curled up in her bed dozing with a book on her lap when the doorbell
rang. She assumed that one of her sons had forgotten his key, and
went downstairs to let them in.
A police light was flashing through the window and reflecting
against her living room wall; Pancoast thought there must be a fire
in the neighborhood and that the police were evacuating homes.
Instead, police officers told her there had been an accident involving
her son, Christopher Avram, and that she should go to the emergency
room at Warminster General.
At the hospital she was taken to an empty room and told that her
son was dead.
Patricia Baxter was asleep when a Warminster police officer came
to the house and informed her that her son had been in an accident.
At the hospital, she could not immediately recognize her own son
lying on a bed in the emergency room. His brown eyes were swollen
shut, and his straight hair was matted with blood that poured from
a deep gash in his forehead.
While she was staring at his battered face, a police officer rushed
into the room and pushed her onto the floor- protection against
the hysterical father of a dead youth who was racing through the
halls, proclaiming that he had a gun and shouting, “Where
is she? I’m going to kill her. I’m going to kill him.
I’m going to kill his mother.”
The man, who did not have a gun, was subdued by a Warminster police
officer and was not charged.
Amid the commotion, Robert Baxter, a Lower Southampton highway
patrol officer, arrived at the hospital and found his wife and son.
“When he came into the room, he kept going like this,”
Patricia Baxter said, holding up four fingers. At first, she said,
she did not understand that her husband was signaling that four
boys had been killed in the accident.
After Tyson regained consciousness, his father told him about
“All I can remember is just tensing up and just saying something,”
Tyson Baxter said. “I can just remember me saying, ‘I
know.’ “I can remember going nuts.”
In the days after the accident, as the dead were buried in services
that Tyson Baxter was barred by the parents of the victims from
attending, Baxter’s parents waited for him to react to the
tragedy and release his grief.
“In the hospital he was non-responsive,” Patricia
Baxter, said. “He was home for a month, and he was non-responsive.”
“We never used to do this, but we would be upstairs and
listen to see it Ty responded” when his friends came to visit,
she said. “But the boy would be silent. That’s the grief
that I felt. The other kids showed a reaction. My son didn’t.”
Baxter said, however, that he felt grief from the first, that
he would cry in a quiet darkness of his hospital room and later
alone in the darkness of his bedroom. During the day, he said, he
blocked his emotions.
“It was just at night. I thought about it all the time.
Its still like that.”
At his parents’ urging, Baxter returned to school Sept 30.
“I don’t remember a thing,” he said of his return.
“I just remember walking around. I didn’t say anything
to anybody. It didn’t really sink in.”
Lynn Pancoast, the mother of Chris Avram, thought it was wrong
for Baxter to be in school, and wrong of her other son, Joel, a
junior at Tennent, had to walk through the school halls and pass
the boy who “killed his brother.”
Morris Ball said was appalled that Baxter “went to a football
game while my son laid buried in a grave.”
Some Tennent students said they were uncertain about how they
would treat Baxter. Several said they went out of their way to treat
him normally, others said they tried to avoid him, and other declined
to be interviewed on the subject.
The tragedy unified the senior class, according to school principal
Kenneth Kastle. He said that after the accident, many students who
were friends of the victims joined the school’s Students Against
Drunk Driving chapter.
Matthew Weintraub, 17, a basketball player who witnessed the bloody
accident scene, wrote to President Regan and detailed the grief
among the student body. He said, however, that he experienced a
catharsis after reading the letter at a student assembly, and, as
a result, did not mail it.
“And after we got the initial shock of the news, we felt
as though we owed somebody something,” Weintraub wrote. “it
could have been us and maybe we could have stopped it, and now its
“We took these impressions with us as we visited our friends
who have been lucky enough to live. One of them was responsible
for the accident; he was the driver. He would forever hold the deaths
of four young men on his conscience. Compared to our own feelings
of guilt, we could not begin to fathom this boy’s emotion.
He looked as if he had a heavy weight upon his head and it would
remain there forever.”
About three weeks after the accident, Sen. H. Craig Lewis (D.
Bucks) launched a series of public forums to formulate bills targeting
underage drinking. Proposals developed through the meetings include
outlawing alcohol ads on TV and radio, requiring police to notify
parents of underage drinkers, and creating a tamper-proof driver’s
The parents of players on Tennent’s 1985-86 boys’
basketball team, which lost Ball and Baxter because of the accident,
formed the Caring Parents of William Tennent High School Students
to help dissuade students from drinking.
Several William Tennent students, interviewed on the condition
that their names not be published, said that because of the accident,
they would not drive after drinking during senior week, which will
be held in Wildwood NJ after graduation June 13.
But they scoffed at the suggestion that they curtail their drinking
“We just walk after driving to Wildwood,” said one
youth. “Stagger is more like it.”
“What else are we going to do, go out roller skating?”
an 18-year-old student said.
“You’re telling us we’re not going to drink?”
one boy asked. “We’re going to drink very heavily. I
want to come home retarded. That’s senior week. I’m
going to drink everyday. Everybody’s going to drink everyday.”
Tyson Baxter sat at the front table of the Bucks County courtroom
Dec. 20, his arm in a sling, his head lowered, and his eyes dry.
He faced 20 counts of vehicular homicide, hour counts of involuntary
manslaughter, and two counts of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Patricia Ball said she told the closed hearing “ it was
Tyson Baxter who killed our sons. They used the car as a weapon.
We know they killed our children as if it was a gun. They killed
“I really could have felt justice was served if Tyson Baxter
was the only one who died in that car,” said in an interview,
“because he didn’t take care of our boys.”
Police officers testified before Bucks County President Judge
Isaac S. Garb that tests revealed that the blood alcohol levels
of Baxter and the four dead boys were above the 0.10 percent limit
used in Pennsylvania to establish intoxication.
Baxter’s blood alcohol level was 0.14 percent; Ball’s
0.19 percent; Schweiss’ 0.11 percent; Avram’s 0.12 percent;
and Freedenberg’s 0.38. Baxter’s level indicated that
he had had 8 or 9 drinks- enough to cause abnormal bodily functions
such as exaggerated gestures and to impair his mental faculties,
according to the police report.
After the case was presented, Garb invited the family members of
the dead teens to speak.
In a nine page statement, Bobbi Freedenberg urged Garb to render
a decision that would “punish, rehabilitate, and to incarcerate
him before Christmas Day. (Although he will not be attending formal
ceremonies, Baxter will receive his diploma from William Tennent
After hearing from the parents, Garb called Baxter to the stand.
“I just said that all I could say was ‘I’m sorry;
I know I’m totally responsible for what happened,” Baxter
recalled. “It wasn’t long, but it was to the point.”
Garb found Baxter delinquent and sentenced him to stay at Abraxas
Rehabilitation Center for an unspecified period beginning Dec 23-
and a community service upon his return. The judge suspended Baxter’s
driver’s license for an unspecified period, and he was placed
under Garb’s jurisdiction until age 21.
Baxter is one of 52 Pennsylvania youths found responsible for
fatal drunken- driving accidents in the sate in 1985.
Reflecting on the hearing, Morris Ball said there was no legal
punishment that would have satisfied his longings.
“They can’t bring my son back,” he said, “and
they can’t kill Tyson Baxter.”
Grief has forged friendships among the dead boy’s parents,
each of whom blame Tyson Baxter for their son’s death. Every
month they meet at each others’ homes, but they seldom talk
about the accident.
Several have joined support groups to help them deal with their
losses. Some said they feel comfortable only with parents whose
children are dead.
Bobbi Freedenberg said her attitude worsened with the passing
time. “It seems like it just gets harder,” she said.
“It seems to get worse.”
Freedenberg, Schweiss, and Pancoast said talk publicly about their
sons’ deaths in hopes that the experience will help deter
other teenagers from drunken driving.
Schweiss speaks each month to the Warminster Youth Aid Panel-
a group of teenagers who through drug use, alcohol, and or minor
offenses, have run afoul of the system.
“When I talk to teens, I bring a picture of Robbie and pass
it to everyone,” Schweiss said, wiping tears from his cheeks.
“I say, ‘He was with us last year,’ and get emotional
and I cry."
“But I know that my son helps me. I believe that every time
I speak, he’s right by my shoulder.”
When Pancoast speaks to a group of high school students, she drapes
her son’s football jersey over the podium, and displays his
“Every time I speak to a group, I let them go through the
whole thing vicariously,” Pancoast said. “It’s
helpful to get out and talk to kids. It sort of helps keep Chris
alive… when you talk, you don’t think.”
At Abraxas, Baxter attended high school classes until Friday. He
is one of the youths who supervise fellow residents who keep track
of residents’ whereabouts and attendance at programs and adherence
to the center’s rules and regulations.
Established in Pittsburgh in 1973, the Abraxas Foundation provides
an alternative to imprisonment for offenders between 16 and 25 years
old whose drug and alcohol use has led them to commit crimes.
Licensed and partially subsidized by the Pennsylvania Department
of Health, the program includes work experience, high school education,
and pre-vocational training. Counselors conduct individual therapy
sessions and the residents engage in group confrontational therapy
Baxter said that his personality had changed from an “egotistical,
arrogant” teenager to someone who is “mellow”
“I don’t have quite the chip on my shoulder. I don't
really have a right to be arrogant anymore,” he said.
Baxter said not a day went by that he didn’t remember his
“I don’t get sad. I just get thinking about them,”
he said. “Pictures pop into my mind. A tree or something reminds
me of them… sometimes I laugh… then I go in my room
and re-evaluate it like a nut,” he said.
Baxter said his deepest longing was to stand beside the graves
of his four friends.
“I just feel it’s something I have to do… just
to talk,” Baxter said, averting his face.