Pimlico infield party, man's troubled past lead to near-tragedy

History of despair surfaces on track before Preakness

May 20, 1999|By DAN FESPERMAN AND PETER HERMANN | DAN FESPERMAN AND PETER HERMANN,SUN STAFF

By midafternoon Saturday, the infield of Pimlico Race Course was an island of anarchy -- 68,000 people queasily afloat on a sunny sea of bawdiness and booze.

Shirtless men wrestled in the grass. Whooping women removed their tops and climbed onto men's shoulders, cheered on by groping mobs. Wandering drunks vomited and passed out. Somewhere on the periphery, well out of harm's way, horses thundered by every half-hour or so, supposedly the day's main attraction.

But for all the chaos apparent in this zoo of activity, the track's security forces decided to leave the cage door open, by not guarding long sections of the perimeter until the day's 10th and featured race, the Preakness Stakes, second jewel in the Triple Crown. And it was through this opening that 22-year-old Lee Ferrell easily slipped shortly before 3 p.m. as the horses in the seventh race thundered around the curve.

Smelling of alcohol and staggering slowly past one barrier after another, Ferrell was a young man apparently in flight from his troubled past. Ferrell, who was abandoned by his biological father in South Korea at age 4, told police Saturday that he was intent on suicide, that he was taking two prescription drugs -- an anti-depressant and a medication for seizures -- and that he had tried to kill himself at least once before.

Although Ferrell has said nothing publicly about his harrowing moment on the track, a man who tried much the same thing in California described what it felt like as the horses approached.

"It was like I was in a dream," Russell Howard Caputo told the San Diego Union-Tribune of his run onto the Del Mar racetrack in August 1995. "First, [the horses] were 50 yards away, and then all of a sudden these huge animals were almost on top of me. I could feel the horses' energy, their hoofs pounding the dirt around me. I could literally feel heat coming off them."

In the wake of Ferrell's near-miss, which endangered not only himself but the horses and jockeys that swerved to avoid him, Pimlico is re-evaluating its infield security arrangements for the Preakness. Ferrell, meanwhile, is staying out of the spotlight as much as possible while his family deals with the aftermath of the event, the frightening culmination of what his lawyer described as post-traumatic stress syndrome.

"He is being portrayed as a prankster who runs out into the middle of the racetrack," said the lawyer, Frederic Heyman. "That's just not him."

But it was not his first brush with trouble.

Last New Year's he was arrested for driving while intoxicated by Officer Rene Kelly of the Bel Air Police Department. Kelly had clocked him speeding, then noticed while walking up to his car that "Ferrell was very emotional," according to Kelly's report.

Kelly detected a strong odor of alcohol on Ferrell's breath and noticed that the rear of his car was damaged. When Kelly asked Ferrell how much alcohol he had drank, he replied, "I lost count."

Asked what had happened to his car, he said, "I was at my apartment and things got bad. When I left I backed into my friend's car."

Asked if he was on medication, he said, "No, I just don't care, I don't want to live." He then started to cry. Asked if he was OK, he said, "Yea, there's just a lot going on."

The report says Ferrell failed sobriety tests, but refused to take a Breathalyzer, and that at the station house he became "very emotional and stated that he did not want to live." Ferrell told officers then that a month earlier he had locked himself in a closet with a knife and had to be removed by social workers. He identified his doctor as June Bond; police tried to reach her but couldn't. They got his brother, Kevin Ferrell, who came and told them Lee was in treatment, "and that he has not been serious about harming himself."

In March, Ferrell received probation before judgment for driving while intoxicated, a $1,000 fine, and three years of probation, with the conditions that he not drink alcohol and that he attend two weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.

His lawyer said Ferrell had been upset that night after arguing with his girlfriend, and he said his client has complied with all aspects of his probation.

Heyman said Ferrell's troubles began when he was abandoned by his father and older sister in South Korea at age 4. He apparently remembers being driven a long way down dirt roads to a remote police kiosk in the capital city of Seoul, where he was abandoned. He was placed in an orphanage and brought to the United States by an adoption agency.

At age 6, he was adopted by James and Nancy Ferrell of Bel Air. Heyman said the boy's psychological troubles quickly became evident, which the lawyer attributes to post-traumatic stress resulting from abandonment.

"Certain events in his life cause him to lose touch with reality," Heyman said. But he said he does not believe Ferrell was trying to kill himself Saturday, no matter what he may have said to police afterward, and even though he has often threatened suicide.

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