Trial of grief: Parents of teens killed in crash struggle to cope

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Sorrow stalks Jerrold Mason’s memories of his daughter.

It leaps from the picture frames he’s gathered around the thick, wood table inside his log cabin. It treads across the hardwood floor and crawls up a wall to settle on the first deer she shot, mounted next to his own trophies.  

Coping with the loss of Rebecca Mason is a daily struggle that wipes him out. 

“I know people are trying to do the right thing, (asking me), ‘How’re you doing?’ But going to Hannaford, to Wal-Mart and hearing the same thing … I’d like to hear about a hunting trip you’re going on. I have a hard time listening to stories about kids, especially her age.” 

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Mason’s public profile is a creature partly of his own making, rising with the notorious court case that has gripped the Oxford Hills community for nearly three years. In his grief, he pushed for passage of legislation to toughen driving laws, granted media interviews and spoke about his family’s experience at community awareness events.

Mason wanted Kristina Lowe — who lost control of her car, killing 16-year-old Rebecca Mason and 19-year-old Logan Dam in January 2012 — to spend years in jail, perhaps even the maximum sentence on each of five counts. That would have been more than 65 years in prison.

But when Active-Retired Justice Robert Clifford sentenced her to 18 months in prison on two counts of manslaughter last month, it seemed to Mason that the lives of his daughter and Dam were worth nothing.

The decision eats at him. 

“If (Clifford) had said, ‘Eight years, you’re going to stay in your house with a bracelet around your ankle,’ I could have dealt with that a little better,” Mason said. “I was baffled with what he came down with.”

Mason added, “It seemed to me, ‘Wow, I go out of state, I get pregnant, I get 18 months.'”

Lowe left the state after the accident and had a baby with a man she met in Virginia. Their daughter is a year old.

For Mason, each court decision rekindles the old hurt, compounding his outrage.

While out on bail pending the appeal process, Lowe is allowed to leave the state. She has family in North Carolina.

Mason doubts authorities there will enforce the no-alcohol stipulations tied to her bail. 

“She’s going to walk away from this scot-free,” he said.

The details of the night of his daughter’s death still stir him. He cannot understand how someone could leave an accident and not immediately seek emergency help.

At a minimum, he said Lowe deserves to serve five years in jail — the maximum sentence for leaving the scene of an accident.

Youthful mistakes are understandable, he said, but he consider this callous. Heinous. 

“One of the big things I want to change is personal responsibility,” he said. “Who in their right mind would leave two people behind, not call 911, and then try to hide it all?

After the crash, Lowe, who suffered a broken back, and her front-seat passenger, Jacob Skaff, left the scene and walked past at least 24 houses without stopping to ask for help, according to prosecutors.

For a while, Mason considered forgiving Lowe. After all, he thought, she was young and made a young person’s mistake.

That sentiment died in court.

During the sentencing hearing, his wife, Tracie Mason, read an impact statement.

Standing there, sobbing, as she described how her grief had turned her into a “monster,” Tracie said she could not understand how Lowe did not check on her child in the back seat, and she asked Kristina to look her in the eye. Lowe would not. 

“She’s not getting punished,” Jerrold Mason said. “She’s still going to have Thanksgiving with her daughter. I’m going to get to sit here with my wife, my son and the empty spot right there.”

He said he’ll have a run of good days, but they’re always followed by a stretch of bad days. And they don’t always line up with his wife’s.

“You never get finality,” he said. “I don’t believe anyone who’s lost a child gets finality.”

At one point in the conversation, Mason rose and crossed the kitchen, picking up his cellphone to read a text message his wife had sent him earlier in the day.

Tracie was away, working for a railroad company at a job site in Nova Scotia. He looked down at the message. “OK,” he said, bracing himself.

And he read:

“I’m at the airport crying. My whole life, I’d be rushing around. I’d pay three times what something was worth to bring it home for Rebecca.”

His voice broke. A moment passed, and he apologized.

“My wife says this to me a lot. The first couple of times it didn’t really sink in to me. She says, ‘My daughter was full-tilt from the day she was born. She says it’s like (Becca) knew that her life was going to be short.’”

Painful, poignant memories 

The view from the Masons’ log cabin is filled with the valleys and foothills of Western Maine, now cloaked in fall plumage. It’s the same view generations of Masons have shared, since his father helped carve swaths of farmland out of surrounding woods. 

From this view it’s easy to see his relatives’ homes close at hand; his father’s house is just across the street, his sister is just beyond a short ridge. At night, the lights from his brother’s house wink through the trees.

Deep roots and close proximity have fostered a strong family connection. Mason recalls kids sitting around a campfire or eating milk and cookies from the stash only “Gramps” had.

In its heyday, kids ran back and forth on trails between the houses, paths they’d later stalk hunting deer. 

“This is family land. This is where we grew up.”

Rebecca helped whelp the family’s hunting dogs, a bloodline groomed to sniff out the deer and moose antler drops needed to supply Jerrold’s side business making customized dog chews.

Since her death, the memories are a constant reminder of loss. An all-terrain vehicle with the 1,200 miles Rebecca put on it in a season. An imagined ring of trampled grass around a pond in front of the house where she used to hunt bull frogs or play with her dogs. 

Mason guessed he gets five minutes a day before the memories flood back — and with that he’s off again, thinking about the early-morning battles for the bathroom or Becca cooking herself eggs and turkey bacon for breakfast. 

When she was 11 years old, he remembers her crying with delight after shooting her first deer, which weighed 195 pounds. And years later, he remembers, her pet goat was running amok inside the house. 

Mason said his daughter was as comfortable rising before dawn and donning camo for a deer-hunting trip as she was wearing a fancy dress for a dance.

Her bedroom remains unchanged from how she left it. The walls are pink. Tidy bottles of nail polish are lined along a vanity. Messages from girlfriends are scrawled in bright colors on a mirror.

Rebecca was tall. As a sophomore she looked eye to eye with her father, a height she used to her advantage playing sports: She was a high goal-scorer in field hockey.

“She was a great kid, a fast player on the forward line with a ton of potential,” Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School field hockey coach Cindy Goddard recalled. 

“She was a free spirit, always laughing,” Goddard said. 

Years ago, Mason changed his job hours so he could pick up the kids from school and attend his daughter’s games. 

Then there are the memories of the night Rebecca died.

The teen sneaked out that night, rolling up blankets beneath her bedcovers to fool her parents into thinking she was sleeping. She’d gone to a party on Yeaton Lane and decided to return her father’s truck. She got into Lowe’s car, leaving footprints in the snow from the house to the end of the driveway.

Mason woke at 4 a.m. to the phone ringing. The caller asked if he knew where his daughter was, that there had been an accident.

“I rolled back the blankets, and I’m freaking out. I’m a mess. She’s gone.”

He said there were rumors that Rebecca had a close friendship with Logan Dam, the young man she sat next to in the back seat of the car. 

“I don’t know where their friendship was going,” her father said. “I hadn’t met him, and Rebecca knows that’s a very important thing. I’m old-school.”

He turned then, one foot already out of the room.

“I don’t have the heart to change it,” he said. “Everything stopped. It’s like a clock that’s moving and the battery dies.”

A different kind of grief  

Deborah and Doug Sande live at the end of a long dirt road in Norway. A knock on the front door set off a chorus of barking dogs.

Deb negotiated her way to the door and opened it, stepping onto a landing.

Since her son’s death, words have not come easily for Sande. In contrast to the Masons, she’s avoided the spotlight, declining to speak publicly about how the events have affected her life, grieving in isolation in her rural home.

Sande’s friend Wendy Williams said this mother-son relationship was special. “There was honesty and clarity in their relationship that you don’t usually see. I think it’s because they had to rely on each other. I think it’s why it’s so difficult for her to step forward.”

Dam was his mother’s best friend, Williams said. 

The teen quit school his senior year to help support the family, his mother said.

Now, she said, she’s left with “the empty space in my house. The empty chair. No Christmas. No birthdays. No wedding. No children.”

Dam’s Facebook profile remains online, showing a young man with his friends, partying, driving an ATV. Comments from friends say they miss “Peaches,” a nickname for her son that Sande now sports in a tattoo on her arm.

She’s polite and she’s sad. After the trial, she left to be with friends in Boston. She had to leave the town where people recognized her and asked about the trial.

“Every time I go into town people ask, ‘What a (crappy) sentence, huh?’ If they’re saying that, how do they think I feel? I’ve lost faith in the justice system.” 

Slumping against the door frame, she stared at the leaves strewn across her yard. After a moment, the dogs barked behind her. One of them, a beagle mix, belonged to her son.

Sande shook her head. 

“I can’t keep doing this,” she said. “I can’t keep dragging it out.”

Finding meaning in the future

Three months after the crash in which Lowe was distracted by an incoming text on her cellphone, according to witnesses at trial, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee debated and passed LD 1912, strengthening distracted driving laws and encouraging responsible driving among young adults. 

Mason was the driving force behind the bill. In the immediate wake of the car crash, Mason was determined to make something of the tragedy. It helped to focus the pain.

He became an outspoken supporter of reforming Maine’s driving laws and stiffening penalties. The new rules extended the period new drivers have to wait before they can have passengers, stiffened penalties and fines for violations, including doubling the fine for driving while texting.

“If I can help a father, help a brother, help someone from being thrust into the situation I have been, then we’re moving in the right direction,” Mason said. 

During the trial he said he was determined to continue that work, but that determination was skewered by the sentence Lowe received.

He had hoped a long sentence would deter teens, but he now fears the light sentence has set a precedent that threatens to continue the cycle of dangerous driving.

“Judges need to start making examples of these incidents. Kids are dying from it.” 

For Mason, it’s not just the sentence he’s fighting for but the very meaning he’s carved for his life in the wake of Rebecca’s death. 

Cathy Ring, a victim/witness advocate for Oxford County, said Mason had gone “above and beyond” to find a solution to such tragedies.

Victims, however, rarely find closure from the court, she said. 

“No matter what they do, what the court does, it’s not going to bring back their loved one,” Ring said.  

Mason said he’s lost faith with the justice system. And, he said, he disagrees with a statement Clifford made just prior to the sentence being handed down when he encouraged the media to stop calling this a “texting case” since Lowe only glanced briefly at her phone.

Mason says Maine law, and the state’s Supreme Court, are clear: glancing at a phone is texting and that this is a case as much about texting as anything else.

“The biggest message I want to get across to people is that there has to be accountability from somewhere,” he said. “It didn’t come from our justice system. The precedent that’s been set lets kids think nothing wrong has happened.” 

Most of all, he wants to make sure something good comes of his family’s story.

Editor’s note: Lewiston attorney James Howaniec represents Kristina Lowe. He declined the Sun Journal’s request to interview her for this story.

The crash and the conviction

The Jan. 7, 2012, high-speed car crash that killed Logan Dam, 19, and Rebecca Mason, 16, tore apart lives as a community was plunged into a painful, protracted court case.

The investigation and prosecution pointed to texting, alcohol and speed as the primary factors in the crash.

Kristina Lowe, 21, was sentenced last month to 18 months in prison. A jury in May found her guilty of two counts of manslaughter and a single count of leaving the scene of the accident.

Lowe, Dam, Mason and Jacob Skaff were all attending a party at 12 Yeaton Lane in West Paris the night of the accident. Mason left early to return her father’s truck, worried she’d get in trouble if he knew she had it. Lowe picked Mason up at her house, and the four young people stopped at the Big Apple in West Paris on their way back to the party. Gas, alcohol and cigarettes were purchased.

Moments later, on Route 219, the borrowed 2002 Subaru Lowe was driving left the roadway, landing in a cluster of trees. It was folded nearly in half.

Lowe and Skaff, seriously injured, returned to the party, walking more than a mile in the cold and snow, passing 24 houses without stopping to seek help. They both had broken backs, and Skaff had a large gash in his forehead.

Lowe later told her friends that she had glanced at an incoming text when she lost control of the car, and that Dam had reached from the back seat to correct their path just before the crash.

Skaff avoided prosecution in the case in exchange for providing testimony putting Lowe in the driver’s seat.

Lowe remains free on bail pending an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to vacate the conviction.

The appeal could take a year.

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