Death on a quiet road

GETTING THERE

August 11, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Death came for Chuck Stoecker in a beautiful place.

Stoecker died Nov. 15 amid the rolling farm fields of northern Baltimore County in a manner far too common in Maryland and the United States.

The 61-year-old White Hall man was killed in a car crash. The instrument of his death was a speeding Dodge Caravan driven by a 17-year-old ice hockey star who failed to stay in his lane and hit Stoecker almost head-on. The teen survived without serious injuries.

Stoecker's death wasn't big news. It rated three paragraphs on the inside pages of this section. How much attention can you give to one fatal crash when more than 600 people die every year on Maryland roads?

He did get a fine write-up in an obituary a few days later. The article told the story of a man who was a small farmer, a tax professional, an ardent Republican, a University of Maryland alumnus. It said he left a wife of 33 years and four children.

Were it not for his wife, Weida, Chuck Stoecker's death would be a closed chapter. He would be fading into the same obscurity as all the other highway homicide victims we forget each year.

But Weida Stoecker isn't letting go easily. She's speaking out about the devastation the loss has brought on her family. She's talking about coming upon an accident scene near her home and recognizing the Ford Taurus that Chuck drove. She's talking about the moment she was told by a paramedic, "Your husband has passed."

"There's an empty place next to me wherever I go," she said.

Stoecker told her story at a recent news conference at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium at which police announced a crackdown on aggressive driving. At one point, she addressed her remarks to the teenage driver, who was not there.

"I died on Nov. 15, 2007, when you killed my husband, Charles George Stoecker," she said.

Based on what she's heard about the crash, Weida Stoecker considers her husband and her family to be victims of an aggressive driver. But a Baltimore County police investigation report paints a more mundane picture: An inexperienced driver, going too fast on wet pavement, lost control on a curve, crossed the double yellow line and ended a man's life.

The road itself was posted at 45 mph but the curve has a warning sign advising drivers to hold their speed to 40. The young man later told investigators he thought he was going about 50 mph.

The result: Brandon Michael Boehmer of Fallston was issued tickets worth six points for failure to drive right of center and negligent driving.

Weida Stoecker was prepared to go to court to tell the story of her loss, but she never got the chance. Boehmer paid his fine of $410 without going to trial.

"I get asked all the time, 'Have you heard from him?' No, I haven't heard from him, and I don't expect to hear from him," she said.

In a brief phone interview, Boehmer, now 18, declined an offer to pass along any message to Stoecker through this column. He said the charges he pleaded to were accurate and that he was not driving aggressively. He said he is still a licensed driver.

As far as the law is concerned, except for possible civil action, the case is closed. But let's reopen it to see what we can learn.

Old York Road is a country road that winds past well-manicured fields and historic farmhouses near the Mason-Dixon line. The curves are many, but just east of Sampson Road is one that is especially nasty - particularly when you're heading in the direction Boehmer was driving. A small rise blocks one's view of oncoming traffic just where the road takes a sharp right bend.

If Boehmer's attempt to take the curve at 50 makes him an aggressive driver, he has a lot of company. One recent afternoon, about half of the motorists observed taking that curve were easily going 50 or more. Luckily for them, the road was dry.

Based on the report, I can't see where harsher charges were justified. Thousands of drivers in Maryland get away with the same mistake every day. Still, $410 and a higher insurance premium seem like a paltry price to pay for a man's life. A death cries out for a more meaningful sanction.

Stoecker said she liked the idea, floated in this space a few weeks ago, of a Dangerous Drivers Registry - similar to that for sex offenders - for serial traffic violators and those whose negligence costs others their lives.

It would also be an appropriate tribute to Chuck Stoecker if county driving instructors were to use the police report of the accident that killed him as a tool to teach kids that curves demand respect - especially when wet.

According to local residents, the curve where Stoecker died has been the scene of other fatalities in recent years. Just yards from the point of impact is a stone marker commemorating two of those deaths.

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