Prom season raises specter of teen drinking’s toll

Tragedy, loss persist long after accidents

By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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On a warm spring morning earlier this month, Charlotte Marean took a day off from work and went to the state Parole Board to argue that the young man who killed her mother nearly a year ago, and almost killed her, should spend more time in jail. She was escorted into a small hearing room with Jonathan Caruso, 19, who had told police that he had been drinking after his Saugus High School prom and fell asleep, crashing his car into the Mareans early the next morning as they were walking their dog.

“I’m not seeking vengeance but a basic element of fair justice,’’ read a handwritten statement that Marean labored over the night before. She wept often as she stared at the back of Caruso’s head when he answered questions from the state Parole Board. She heard nothing that convinced her Caruso was sorry for the deadly crash a year ago. “It was just so heart-wrenching,’’ she said later. “I lost it.’’

After Caruso drove his Chevy Cavalier off the road, slamming into Marean and her mother last May, their tragedy led the news. Reporters thrust microphones toward Marean’s family, neighbors expressed shock at the tragedy on their streets. But a year later, a year during which Charlotte Marean struggled to heal as she grieved her mother’s death, the accident still looms large.

As a new season of high school proms and graduations begins, Marean awaits another doctor’s appointment to see if she needs more surgery. She is frantic about the $400,000 in medical costs she has already racked up, and fears she may need to declare bankruptcy. And she decided to get a gun permit, fearful that vandalism to her car outside the Saugus house she owns was payback for her outspokenness about Caruso.

For the families who lose loved ones from the often lethal combination of teens and drinking, the pain and loss endures, shaping their lives in sometimes unexpected ways.

The parents of Elizabeth Mun, the Wellesley teen who committed suicide in the early morning hours after an Andover all-night drinking party in February 2009, are in the midst of a bitter divorce, and her father, a surgeon, left Boston for a practice in Torrance, Calif., near his family. Although the couple’s marriage was troubled before their daughter died, according to court records, they had been trying to reconcile.

The parents of Rachel Juliano, brain- damaged from a car crash after a 2007 Wrentham drinking party, drive her daily to a Rhode Island rehabilitation school and mourn the absence of visits from her old friends. The family of Paul Leone, a popular Arlington basketball player killed when his drunk friend crashed his car, asked for donations in their son’s name to the Arlington Boys & Girls Club, hoping the club where their son spent many hours could divert young people from drinking parties.

The families of Juliano, Julia Gauthier of Salem, Alexis Garcia of Easthampton, and Taylor Meyer of Plainville — all teenagers who died in alleged alcohol-related accidents — have looked for answers in the legal system, filing civil lawsuits against the people who illegally gave alcohol to their children or the drunk drivers who killed them.

When John Leone, the father of Paul, reads news briefs about drunken driving accidents that turn lethal, he chokes up. Before Paul died, he said, “you’d read it and say, ‘Oh, those poor people,’ and turn the page. When it’s you, you can’t turn the page.’’

During April school vacation week in 2007, John Leone had expected to be touring colleges with Paul, who had been accepted at four schools and was still deciding which one would be the best fit. He was leaning toward La Salle University in Philadelphia, and hoped to study English or journalism. Instead, early one morning that week, John Leone was awakened by a police officer bearing terrible news: His son had been in a crash and was in the hospital. Leone later learned it took 45 minutes to extract the car, driven by his son’s friend Matthew Clarke, from the house where it crashed. He hopes his son did not suffer and died instantly.

Leone, a lawyer, had just been elected town moderator and needed to defer the job for a year to recover from the loss of his son. He had known well his son’s circle of friends, had often seen them at his house, but now no one knows what to say when they see one another in town. “It’s an awkward reminder for all of us,’’ he said.

The Leones are using the money they received from Clarke’s insurance company to pay for their daughter’s college education. “I don’t want the money,’’ Leone said, choking up. His daughter, a sophomore at Arlington High School when her brother died, has struggled with the notion that there is no longer a big brother to lead the way. Although John Leone and his ex-wife are both lawyers, they didn’t sue Clarke’s family.

“Yeah, I could have filed suit, I could have tried to take these people’s home away, but that’s not going to bring my son back,’’ Leone said.

The father knows that his son’s friend is also suffering. “Instead of my son going on to college and a promising career and raising a family, two lives are gone,’’ Leone said. “Paul’s dead and [Clarke’s] got to deal with going to prison for a year and living with the fact that he’s killed one of his good friends.’’

At Clarke’s sentencing, the Leones requested that he be required to speak to young people about the accident. Lawyers and prosecutors say they are seeing more judges ordering teenagers whose drinking leads to tragedy to tell their stories, hoping the power of their message will do what laws and adult warnings cannot.

In Saugus, Charlotte Marean remembers nothing of the accident and little of the four months she spent recovering last year, when her father moved cross-country to stay with her. Carol Marean, 67, was killed instantly when Caruso’s car crashed into the mother and daughter walking their dog.

Though Charlotte Marean survived, she was left with jagged scars on her legs and scalp and a titanium plate in her head. Her mother had lived with her, and Marean can’t bring herself to finish the front porch they had planned together. She can no longer walk along the stretch of road, just around the corner from her house, where Caruso hit her.

Caruso’s lawyer, James E. McCall, said his client speaks regularly to high school students, warning them about the dangers of underage drinking.

”Jonathan has accepted responsibility for his actions,” McCall said. ”He is deeply regretful.”

Caruso pleaded guilty to homicide by reckless operation of a motor vehicle, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and transporting alcohol as a minor, and was sentenced to six months in prison. A charge of driving under the influence of alcohol was dropped, although he told police he drank 10 beers that prom night and failed three field sobriety tests after the accident.

Caruso’s blood-alcohol level, which was not tested until about an hour and a half after the accident, was .02. According to state law, anyone with a blood alcohol level below .05 is presumed not to be under the influence of alcohol.

He requested parole for good behavior after serving three months. Charlotte Marean arrived at state Parole Board headquarters in a Natick office park, driven by two neighbors, to argue that Caruso should serve his full sentence.

“It was intense,’’ Marean said after the hearing, eager to leave the building.

A few days later, she learned that the Parole Board denied Caruso’s request, saying he needed more time to reflect on what he had done. It was the first good news she had heard in a long time.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at

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