POLAND — It was an an ordinary Thursday in late May 1998. Sunny. Warm. Perfect for 16-year-old Ethan Barton to hop on his bike after school and ride a few miles down the road to Range Pond to go swimming.
He’d been making the trip since he was 11 or 12. Ethan’s father, Bob Barton, didn’t think anything of it when he came home from work to find his son heading out. Ethan’s mother, Suzanne Barton, pulled into the driveway just as Ethan was riding off wearing his father’s bathing suit — not a big surprise, she mused, since his room was such a mess that he probably couldn’t find his own.
Bob went back in the house. Suzanne took their daughter, Anna, a high school senior, out to run errands.
It was the last time they would see their son alive.
Minutes after Ethan took off down Empire Road to go swimming, a drunk driver hit him from behind, sending him flying over the hood of her truck and into the windshield with such force that he cracked the glass. As Ethan lay in the road, his neck broken from the impact, the woman drove away.
She would quickly be identified as Gale Chapman, then 37 and living in Poland. She told police she thought she’d hit a deer. About an hour and a half after the crash, Chapman’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.24, three times the legal threshold.
Police found pieces of Ethan’s bathing suit stuck in the grille of her truck.
At home, Bob and Suzanne learned that their son, who’d ridden off to go swimming hundreds of afternoons just like that one, wouldn’t be coming back this time.
“There’s plenty of things I worried about,” Suzanne said, “but it never occurred to me to worry about him riding a bicycle around.”
Two decades later, the couple is living in Westbrook, in a house chosen for the fresh start it could provide. Ethan’s high school friends have long since stopped calling and visiting, though a framed collage of Ethan-centric photos made by his friends and teachers after his death hangs prominently in the hallway.
And in the driveway sits an old bike, a first coat of white paint covering its tires, frame and chain.
On May 21, the Bartons will mark the 20th anniversary of their son’s death by posting the “ghost bike” at the site of the crash on Empire Road. Although ghost bike memorials are found around the world and throughout the United States, the Bartons believe this will be the first of its kind in Maine.
They hope it will prompt people to remember Ethan. But they also hope it reminds drivers how vulnerable cyclists are on the road.
“There was a boy hit just recently on a bike,” Bob said. “I thought this (memorial) is something a little different. Flowers are good, you know, flowers are great. But it’s been 20 years and this is something different.”
‘HE WAS JUST HERE’
Ethan was a big kid, about 6 feet tall at 16 and muscular, a soccer goalie who’d helped his town’s youth team get to more than one championship. He delighted in dyeing his light blond hair bright blue or pink or purple, and he did it so often that his father had taken to jokingly calling him “My Little Pony,” a reference to the candy-colored children’s toys.
Ethan was such a good guitar player that his music teacher praised his talent and an uncle who owned a music store thought he probably could have made a career performing if he wanted. His parents aren’t exactly sure what Ethan dreamed of doing after graduation; he had expressly forbidden them from asking him any questions about his future until his sister — older by 19 months — had graduated and was off to college.
She graduated a month after he died.
At Edward Little High School in Auburn, where Ethan was wrapping up his sophomore year, he was known as a kind kid, the type who’d talk with a classmate everyone else ignored.
He was also smart — he’d won the regional spelling bee in eighth grade — but that afternoon of May 21, 1998, when Suzanne heard thunder rumble in the distance while she was running errands, her mind immediately jumped to Ethan at Range Pond and she thought, “I hope he knows enough to get out of the water.”
“So when I get home and there are state troopers in our driveway … I said, ‘Was it lightning?'” Suzanne remembered.
In the house, his backpack lay on the floor where he’d dropped it after school. His keys were on the counter. He’d polished off the spaghetti casserole left over from his father’s birthday dinner and the empty casserole dish sat on the counter.
“You think, ‘He’s never going to be here again? But he was just here,'” Suzanne said.
In the weeks and months after, the Bartons were enveloped by the community. People dropped off food. Ethan’s classmates gathered at the house. But the support gradually drifted away.
That fall, Ethan’s sister went to college in Boston as planned. Bob and Suzanne found themselves with an empty home. The couple coped “poorly,” Bob said.
“I remember a lot of people saying, ‘I could never go through that.’ You don’t have a choice, you just have to,” he said.
For a while, there was Chapman’s trial to focus on. Early on, she was charged with manslaughter, operating under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident. But by the time she went to trial, manslaughter had been dropped and only operating under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident remained — both misdemeanors at the time.
After two days of testimony, a deal was struck. She would plead guilty and in exchange would serve 18 months in prison. Justice Carl O. Bradford also ordered a year of probation. Her license was suspended for a year, she was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and she was required to complete 200 hours of public service by speaking to high-schoolers about drunk driving.
Because Chapman’s blood-alcohol level hadn’t been tested immediately after the crash — the local hospital had declined to do the test and it took police some time to find someone else to draw her blood, the Bartons said — there was some question about the test’s admissibility in court. The prosecutor agreed to the plea rather than risk losing that evidence and getting a not-guilty verdict, the Bartons said. The couple went along with it unhappily but feeling like they didn’t have much of a choice.
Shortly before the sentencing in the fall of 1999, Chapman wrote a letter to the Bartons. It was not, the couple said, particularly heartfelt.
“The closest she came to apologizing was she said, ‘I used poor judgment that day,'” Suzanne said.
On the day of her sentencing, Chapman was more apologetic.
“I need you all to know how sorry I am,” she said, shaking as she stood in front of the judge to address the court and the Barton family.
The Bartons believe Chapman served nine months at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, then spent time on work release and living in a halfway house.
Meanwhile, after the trial, the Bartons had only their loss to focus on.
“After a couple of years, you realize this isn’t going to turn around. This is like the rest of your life,” Suzanne said.
For a time, the Bartons separated.
They reunited after two and a half years but decided they had to start over somewhere else. They moved from Poland to Westbrook, 30 miles away.
In 2005, Chapman — under her new name, Shannon Ross — was arrested for drinking and driving again, this time in Belfast, where she had moved. She served six months in the Waldo County Jail.
“I sort of felt like — not that I was willing to sacrifice Ethan so that she would learn something — but it was like, ‘You took this life and just wasted it,'” Suzanne said.
In 2015, Chapman killed herself. According to the Medical Examiner’s Office, she was found hanged in her home on April 24. She had moved back to Poland.
Her death came just weeks shy of the 17th anniversary of Ethan’s death. The Bartons wonder whether that was a factor.
“I think that she felt really guilty,” Suzanne said.
But that didn’t lighten their grief.
“I’m amazed at people who say they need the death penalty,” Suzanne said. “It’s not going to make you feel better. Honestly, it’s not. You’re still not going to have what you want. (Chapman’s suicide) didn’t fix anything.”
A NEW MEMORIAL
As the 20th anniversary of Ethan’s death approached, the Bartons looked for a way to honor their son.
For two decades, they’ve maintained a standing memorial at the site of the crash, including a cross made by Ethan’s elementary school principal and a granite marker made by a family friend. Every year, the couple plants flowers at the site, but the soil is poor and salt washed from the road makes it worse; the flowers never grow.
Bob learned about ghost bike memorials online. It struck him as something new for Maine, something poignant and eye-catching. Something that would not only memorialize Ethan’s death but would serve as a stark reminder to drivers to be aware of the riders around them.
“I think people need to pay a lot of attention to people on bicycles,” Bob said.
On Facebook, Bob asked if anyone had an old bike he could use. The father of one of Ethan’s friends offered up a bike that someone had dumped on his property a year ago.
It happened to look a lot like Ethan’s bike.
Bob has started painting the black bike in ghost-like white, the first coat already covering the seat, frame, wheels, chain and pedals. To help ensure the bike isn’t stolen once it’s at the site, it will be placed there with flattened tires and a broken chain.
A heavy metal plaque will hang from its crossbar: “On May 21, 1998, on this site Ethan Barton was killed by a drunk driver. Ethan was riding his bike to the beach when he was struck from behind. Ethan was 16 years old.”
The Bartons will place the white bike at the site in about a week, on the 20th anniversary of Ethan’s death. They hope it will stay there permanently.
At the same time, they will replace the weather-beaten cross Ethan’s former principal had placed there 20 years ago. And they will try — again — to plant flowers. This time they’ll bring in their own soil and plant them in a box.
When he was a little boy, Ethan referred to forget-me-nots as “don’t-forget-me.” That seems appropriate now.
“I would like to get those growing there,” Suzanne said. “They’re pretty hardy, I think.”