After loss of son in crash, mom starts foundation to combat teen drinking

  • Nancy Davis' son, 17-year-old Steven Dankos, was killed in November 2009 when he was ejected from an overturned pickup truck because its driver was drunk.
Nancy Davis' son, 17-year-old Steven Dankos, was killed… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 26, 2010|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Nancy Davis sobbed in the courtroom the day that David Erdman was sentenced to 18 months in the Howard County Detention Center. Those tears were not for her son, Steven Dankos, who was killed last Nov. 29 after being thrown from Erdman's pickup truck when it crashed and overturned.

The tears were for Erdman, who in April had pleaded guilty to negligent homicide while driving under the influence of alcohol. "That day … was for David. I didn't want him to go to jail," she recalled this week, as the one-year anniversary of her son's death neared.

Though Erdman was responsible for her son's death, the two have found a common mission: trying to change the culture of drinking and driving, particularly among high school and college students.

Davis is creating a nonprofit foundation in her son's name and will host a fundraiser Saturday with a 5K race at Centennial Park in Howard County. Erdman, meanwhile, is contemplating how he will make an impact once released from jail.

"I can't say that it will work out the way that I want, but I think it might be easier for a guy in my position to deliver a message to kids who are younger," Erdman, 23, said recently by phone from the jail. "I think they might be able to relate to something that I say than somebody who's older."

Davis hopes that this weekend's fundraising event will make kids think twice about attending parties where drinking occurs — as her son did the night of the deadly crash. "[H]opefully, if [kids] all get together and can realize why they're together, they'll think about what they're doing that night."

Erdman, a former All-American lineman at Wesley College in Dover, Del., was driving his younger brother, Thomas — who was Dankos' best friend and football teammate at River Hill High School — and Dankos back from a party where they and other high school and college students had been drinking. Police said that David Erdman's blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit.

Two days after the 17-year-old Dankos died, Erdman went to Davis' house to offer his apology.

"There's no doubt, it was the single hardest thing I ever had to do in my life," he recalled. "The only thing I could say was, 'Sorry,' I couldn't take anything back. I can't redo any of it."

That visit was the first step in allowing Davis to forgive Erdman for what happened.

She had met him only a couple of times before the accident, but she says her son spoke highly of him. And though she has not talked to Erdman since he visited to apologize, she hopes "to do something together" for the foundation after he is released next year.

What anger she's had over her son's death has been directed at the family who hosted the party where Dankos and the Erdman brothers had been drinking. Linda Stapf of Ellicott City was cited by county police this year for allowing a minor who is not a family member to possess or consume alcohol in her residence. Stapf is scheduled to stand trial in December and could be fined up to $2,500.

Davis doesn't know Stapf, but believes it's common for adults in the River Hill community to let minors drink in their homes, something she didn't permit her son and his friends to do. Parents "have the idea that if the kids are in their home, everyone's safe," Davis said.

Erdman said, "I don't want to put anything that I did" on Stapf. But he added, "A parent should be a parent; a parent should not let that happen."

Davis and Erdman know that the battle against teen drinking and driving is almost unwinnable. Her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren, a River Hill sophomore, told Davis last spring that "nothing has changed" among high school students.

Erdman, who came to understand his own problem with alcohol after undergoing an intensive outpatient rehabilitation program as a result of the accident, said that among college students and young adults, "drinking and driving goes on, it's kind of inevitable."

Erdman particularly wants to talk with his younger brother, Thomas, who attends Howard Community College. "I talk with my brother, but we really haven't had a specific conversation about anything that happened that night," David Erdman said. "I don't know if we're just putting it off, but … I never really felt it was the right time to do it.

"He lost his best friend, and I ended up in here."

Some have taken Dankos' death to heart.

Nick Bonhag, who was Dankos' teammate at River Hill and now plays football as a freshman at Shepherd University in West Virginia, said that many of Dankos' close friends stopped or significantly curtailed their drinking after he was killed.

"People ask me up here, 'Why don't you drink?' " Bonhag said. "I explain the story of what happened. They respect my decision … but they don't change their ways because it hasn't hit them like it hit me."

Davis worries about her daughter when she's out with friends. "I've threatened her," said Davis, who also has a son, Zachary, 10. "I told her, 'I'm not losing two.' "

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