Family ties

not torn asunder

A former Hopkins player's parents and team pull together after a fatal crash for which his best friend was responsible

March 24, 2006|By JULIE BYKOWICZ | JULIE BYKOWICZ,SUN REPORTER

They're all wearing 21s on their blue-and-white jerseys, the players on the defending national champion Johns Hopkins University men's lacrosse team.

Matthew Stoffel was No. 21 until he graduated two years ago. "Stoff," an affable young man who practiced hard even though he was never a star, died in December in a crash on the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore.

His best friend, No. 33, was driving.

Gregory Raymond will be sentenced in May to up to a year in jail. He pleaded guilty last month to driving while intoxicated. He admitted to police that he'd had five beers and two shots of alcohol that icy December night. His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

The two friends - close as brothers - played lacrosse during some of the Blue Jays' best seasons, and Raymond, co-captain for three years, was the top longstick midfielder when the team went undefeated and won the NCAA national championship last season. Stoffel played as a reserve defenseman from 2001 through 2004.

Both were part of an elite lacrosse organization, a tight-knit community that has the insular feel of a fraternity. The Blue Jays' motto: "It's family."

Having lost one member of that family, the team has dedicated its season to Stoffel. Players are wearing his initials on their helmets and a black patch with his number on their jerseys, and their mission is to honor his memory by never giving less than their best.

Largely at the request of Stoffel's parents, Baltimore prosecutors did not pursue more serious charges, such as vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol, which carries a possible five-year prison sentence, or vehicular manslaughter, with its maximum 10-year term.

"The victim's family was passionate about the desire not to see further charges against the defendant in this case," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney's office. "They consider him a son."

A native of New York - another major lacrosse state - Raymond played a key role on last year's championship team, when he was a fifth-year senior and a third-year co-captain. Months after graduating as a sociology major, he was hired as an assistant coach for the Princeton University men's lacrosse team.

Meanwhile, Matt Stoffel, a Glen Burnie native who'd graduated in 2004 with an economics major, remained near his parents. He had recently received a promotion at his job as a recruiter for Harbor Point Resources. Many days, Stoffel was able join his dad for lunch.

The two friends kept in touch, and they visited when Raymond came to Baltimore in December for a coaches conference, said his lawyer, Daniel L. Sussman.

Snow had fallen that day, but most roads had been cleared by nighttime, when the temperature dipped to about 20 degrees.

After a night of drinking at Mother's, a sports bar in Federal Hill, the pair decided to make their way to the Hopkins campus, according to a police report. Raymond told police that he took the keys to Stoffel's black 1999 Jeep Wrangler because Stoffel was more intoxicated than he was.

Police reports and court documents give the following account of what happened next:

The Jeep headed north on the JFX. Raymond was driving about 50 miles an hour in a 40 mph zone when, he said, he hit a patch of ice near the Charles Street bridge. The passenger's side scraped a Jersey wall, tilted partly on its side and slid along a fence. Raymond used his cell phone to call 911.

When police arrived about 2:50 a.m., they found Raymond in the driver's seat, cradling his best friend. A 3-foot pole from the fence had impaled Stoffel's face and throat and through the windshield. He was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he died that morning.

Raymond, uninjured, was arrested. He initially told police that Stoffel had been driving, but he changed his story and gave police a statement.

Sussman, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney for 28 years, called the case the saddest he's ever seen.

"It's a heartbreaking story," he said. "Both were wonderful young men with their whole lives ahead of them. Both have been totally destroyed by this."

Sussman said he has a son about their age who also played college lacrosse, though not for Hopkins.

"The lacrosse world is very, very tight," he said. "It's a great bunch of people."

Coach Dave Pietramala, who is in the Blue Jays Hall of Fame for his undergraduate playing days at Hopkins, was in his first year as head coach during Stoffel's freshman year.

Pietramala keeps his players on the move at practice by barking commands in a gravelly voice that sounds like a professional wrestler's.

Off the field, the coach's voice is tender as he talks about Stoffel. He recalled feeling overwhelmed when asked to speak at Stoffel's funeral Dec. 16 at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Linthicum.

"What do you say?" he wondered. The pews were filled with lacrosse players and their families. Teammates from Mount St. Joseph high school, and years' worth of Hopkins lacrosse players.

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