By LIZ QUIRIN
A deadly connection: We all know someone affected by drunk driving as a victim or a perpetrator. What if the perpetrator, the driver looked like the boy next door, not the stereotypical wild teen or the middle-aged or older adult who has multiple DUIs and just hasn’t killed anyone yet?
That’s the case with the Timko family. Debbie and Steve Timko, upstanding citizens, parishioners at St. Mary’s in Belleville for many years, involved in Marriage Encounter, raised their children with the values of Catholic faith. Their oldest child, Andrew Stephen Timko — most people call him Stephen — was, and is now, the boy next door. He lives at home and in good weather he rides his bicycle to the Metrolink station to catch a ride to his job at a catering company.
He can’t apply for a driver’s license for two more years.
At 35, he’s starting life over as a felon. He can’t escape it. He was paroled Dec. 18, 2005 after serving five of seven years of his sentence. He plead guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter after three of the four passengers in his car died because they decided in February 2000 to ride with him. The sentences were served concurrently.
“If I could give my life for my friends, I would,” Stephen has said on many occasions. But he can’t.
And while Stephen can start his life again, three other young people will never have that chance. “Many, many people have reached out to us,” Stephen said. “I do want to be clear about something, though. In their attempts to be supportive, people are not condoning what happened. They are not looking the ‘other way.’ They are not forgetting those who died. They are lifting us up so that we can be strong in our efforts to use this incident to make a difference.”
Neither he nor his family has denied culpability in the one-car crash, and everyone wishes it had ended differently. He lives daily with the knowledge that he was driving a car with four of his friends, and three died because of the crash.
Stephen visited the fourth rider who spent a good deal of time recovering from her injuries and now teaches in St. Louis.
What makes a terrible situation worse is Stephen’s connection to the victims: They were all friends who worked at an Applebee’s in Creve Coeur, Mo.
A group had decided to go out for drinks, and Stephen wasn’t supposed to be driving that night. Too much junk in the backseat of a friend’s car made him the driver. Others piled in at the bar where they were unwinding from the usual hectic shift at work.
“It’s go, go, go, and rush, rush, rush,” Debbie said. “They needed time to unwind,” so they went to a bar for drinks and then decided to go to a casino.
When the group in Stephen’s car decided they just wanted to go home, they tried to catch up with another car they believed was ahead of them.
An accident reconstruction team clocked Stephen’s Honda Accord at 50 m.p.h. in a 35-m.p.h. zone.
Stephen wore his seat belt. The others did not.
Debbie remembers the hospital scene and the smell of alcohol. Friends — those who had been part of the group — heard about the accident and went to the hospital. The smell of alcohol was “overwhelming,” Debbie said.
Debbie began speaking against drinking and driving and riding with drinkers before the trial was over. She had written a paper about what was happening in her life at the time for a college class she was taking. She was asked to present her paper at an open forum, and she decided to do it.
Debbie has been bringing her message — the choices you make can change the story of your life — to as many schools and groups as she can.
In April 2001 — 18 months after the crash — Stephen was sentenced to prison in Cameron, Mo. where he had time, he said, to think about many things.
“I had a lot of guilt; I had a lot of time on my hands” to think about what happened.
The lives of so many people changed that night — forever. Three families lost children. They continue to live and cope with their losses.
The Timkos’ lives changed too. In an instant, their son, who graduated from St. Mary’s Grade School, Althoff Catholic High School and St. Louis University, was a convicted felon. “Being a felon will impact the rest of my life,” he said.
No one denied he should spend time in prison. After the sentencing, he said he received a letter from a girl who said he deserved what he got. “I don’t deny the sentence,” he said.
Debbie doesn’t deny his guilt or culpability either. She speaks about it publicly, taking every opportunity to talk to young people about their choices — deciding to drink, deciding to drive after drinking, deciding to ride in a car with someone who has been drinking.
Stephen’s blood alcohol was measured at .12 percent, two one-hundredths of a percent over the legal limit in Missouri, then .10 percent.
“Stephen is a good person who made a bad choice.”
Even in the hospital, Stephen wondered why he was still alive, Debbie said.
“Maybe God has a plan for you,” Debbie told him. “I asked the chaplain to pray for us. We never had trouble before. I was on auto pilot looking for divine intervention.”
Prison also provided Stephen with the opportunity to tell his story, and perhaps make a difference in the lives of the people he met.
“I questioned (God about) why this happened,” Stephen said. “I have to believe it was for a reason — maybe to help somebody else.”
The lessons, like the connections between and among the families affected by this tragedy intersect at many levels.
“You don’t think anything bad is going to happen,” Stephen said. “This could happen to anybody.”
It has, and it does. Annually, the stories of people killed by a drunk driver make headlines locally and nationally.
Making sense of these losses doesn’t usually make the headlines. It’s not a one incident or event story. It’s a daily struggle to live with loss, to find meaning in the new lives that have been carved from these choices.
The families of the three who lost their lives continue to mark time and miss milestones along the way. No weddings, no grandchildren, no time to talk to their 30-something children.
These deadly connections continue to be made, and sometimes life-giving outcomes remain possible — not to forget the losses or lessen the consequences but to find hope.
At the time, Debbie remembers thinking that night was “so bizarre,” and maybe “this is some kind of opportunity to bring honor and glory to God, but I don’t know what.”
Stephen told his story in prison and was asked to tell it recently to people in programs who have been identified with “risky behaviors.”
Debbie also talks of her faith, and its teachings about reconciliation. Stephen hopes “someday they (families of the victims) can forgive me, but I will understand if they won’t. I would give up my life for my friends. I would.”
The Timkos take each day at a time, and some days the choices and the losses weigh more heavily. “It is hard, scary really, to talk to people about making bad choices and the resulting consequences,” Stephen said. “The encouragement of others gives me strength. If telling my story saves even one life, it’s worth it.”
The future: “We’ll see what God has in mind, where it leads. I hope we can make a difference,” Debbie said.
If you would like to contact Debbie or Stephen Timko about speaking to your group, please call 235-0119.
Adoption Brings a Dozen Bundles of Joy
By SHANNON PHILPOTT
The telephone rings, and the front door slams as a teenager enters from school. An 8-year-old runs through the kitchen with a superhero costume, complete with a cape. Mom opens her planner to discuss this week’s upcoming schedule. A cell phone rings, and dad asks one of the 12 children to remove a bookbag from the table. It may sound like chaos, but Ken and Mary Besse says it’s more like “organized chaos.”
Though recent movies like “Cheaper By the Dozen” and “Yours, Mine, and Ours” portray fictional families acting out everyday chaos with 12 or more children, the action within this Millstadt family’s household is very real.
Children run from one end of their renovated farmhouse to the other. With six bedrooms and only two bathrooms, the daily schedule has to be organized.
“Ken and I had always talked about having a large family,” Mary Besse said. “It was what we were meant to do — our calling.”
Disagreements about who gets to use one of the four cell phones and who gets to drive one of the five vehicles are typical. However, conversations about birth parents are typical, too. Each one of the Besse children, ranging in age from 8 to 31, was adopted through Catholic Social Services, a diocesan agency.
When Ken and Mary Besse learned that a natural pregnancy was out of the question, they decided that it didn’t matter how they got their large family and they chose to adopt.
When the couple, both teachers at Belleville West High School (Ken, 64, is retired, and Mary, 59, will retire at the end of this school year), began the adoption process in 1973, they were told the wait would be pretty long. “We decided to refinish the kitchen in September 1975, and we got Brad the second week of November,” Ken Besse said. “We thought it would be much longer, so we always joke that we got Brad on the installment plan because we had spent most of our money on the kitchen.”
Brad, now 31, ran the household until Leah, now 28, arrived. Then Anna, now 24, came along, followed by Rachel, now 18. All four were adopted as infants through CSS.
The couple was thrilled to continue building the foundation of a large family, a tradition established within earlier generations of Besses.
However, after the first four children arrived, Ken and Mary Besse began to discuss the possibility of foster children. “After we adopted the first four, they (CSS) started calling us,” Mary Besse said with a smile.
Already established siblings, Brad, Leah, Anna and Rachel met Nick, Tabby and Kate for the first time in 1990. Tabby, now 19, Kate, now 18, and Nick, now 16, were siblings in need of a stable home environment.
The first night a new child enters the Besse home, and every night from then on, the entire family sits together for a meal. “I always try to make a special dinner the first night they are home,” Mary Besse said. “It’s usually something I hope they like, such as macaroni and hot dogs.”
Sharing a chair in the family kitchen, giggling, Tabby and Kate chime in that they remember digging into the meal with their fingers. A home cooked meal was something they had rarely experienced before joining the Besse family.
Mary Besse said she remembers how each child adjusted differently to the stability they provided. When Robby, now 19, joined the Besse clan, he was amazed that all of the children in the home had the same last name and that they ate meals together as a family, Mary Besse said. “Once they have the stability of being home, it becomes home,” Mary Besse said.
The family continued to grow as each foster child was available for adoption, and as more foster children needed homes through CSS. Jeffrey, now 13, joined the family as a foster child, followed by natural siblings Chris, now 12,
Please see ‘Adoption,’ p. 9