(A three-part series)
Click for Part Two: After losing a son, Nelson Albano leads a quest to reform drunken driving law
Click for Part Three: Fight for ignition interlock law gives Ricci Branca Jr.'s parents a reason to live
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — John Elliott never gets older in his smiling portrait above the family fireplace.
No wrinkles form around his bright blue eyes. In this shiny oil painting, as in his family’s minds forever, the U.S. Naval Academy graduate has his future in front of him.
On July 22, it will have been 10 years since John Elliott’s death on a rural Salem County road. A man drunk on tequila and beer smashed his car into Elliott’s — an hour after State Police had arrested and released the same man for drunken driving.
John Elliott’s story, however, didn’t end on Route 40 at age 22.
By now he would have been a naval flight officer, his family said. He might have been getting out of the Navy to start a career in finance.
He probably would be married by now, they said. He would be starting a family.
Now, Ensign John R. Elliott’s name is on a statewide HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers, started by his family.
“This will be his living legacy. That’s much stronger than anger,” said his father, Bill Elliott, 60, the executive director of the Shore Memorial Health Foundation. “Anger’s fairly short-lived and it’s very destructive in the long run. You can feel anger in the short run, but after 20 or 30 years, I think it destroys you. We have seen families destroyed by a lost life because they don’t know how to channel those negative emotions into something positive. It’s what we had to do, but I think other families that have watched us have responded in similar ways and found it has helped them.”
In fact, other families who have lost loved ones have cited the Elliotts as an inspiration for how they dealt with their loss.
Now-state Assemblyman Nelson Albano credited the Elliotts as inspiration as he pushed for “Michael’s Law,” named after his son who was killed in a drunken driving crash in 2001. Sherri Branca, whose son Ricci was killed when a drunken driver plowed into his bicycle in 2006, also cited support from the Elliotts, who attended Ricci’s funeral.
In the Elliotts’ living room, 9-month-old Anna plays with the same wooden letter blocks John did when he was an infant. Anna Adamchak is the daughter of John’s sister, Jennifer Adamchak, now 29 and a third-grade teacher.
Anna giggles when John’s face appears on the television for a commercial for the HERO Campaign. He is wearing his uniform, as in the portrait. The home on Rosemarie Drive smells like warm oatmeal/pecan/chocolate chunk cookies, which were John’s favorites at the Naval Academy. His mother Muriel, 60, still bakes batches at a time.
July 22, 2000
Michael Pangle stumbled over his feet and his words in the video footage taken from a trooper’s in-car camera. The 37-year-old painter had just a few teeth in his mouth. His wife had died the year before in a one-car drunken driving accident. Pangle had a blood-alcohol content of .21 — more than twice the legal limit, which at the time was .10.
Pangle had been arrested earlier that night for drunken driving. The arresting trooper asked him, what if he had gotten into an accident?
“What the hell are you worried about? I didn’t hurt nobody,” Pangle replied.
Later, Pangle was released to his buddy, John Powell.
Instead of taking Pangle home, Powell took Pangle back to his car. Pangle got back behind the wheel and was on Route 40 in Upper Pittsgrove Township in Salem County.
This time, Pangle drove into a car driven by John Elliott; his girlfriend, Kristen Hohenwarter, was in the passenger seat. Hohenwarter heard the recent U.S. Naval Academy graduate curse for the first time in their relationship moments before the crash that took his life, and the life of Pangle.
Police knocked on the Elliotts’ door in Egg Harbor Township at 4 a.m.
John, they said, didn’t make it.
The disbelief was like a cloud over the family. They drove to the Salem County hospital later that morning to see John for the last time.
They passed peaceful corn and soybean fields, the beauty of which were strikingly different from everything else that morning, Bill Elliott said.
They saw his body; gave him one last kiss.
The Gift of Life donor program went through a checklist of organs, bones, retinas, skin.
“It was the most horrible conversation you can imagine,” Bill Elliott said. “Your son should have been getting out and going to the beach with his girlfriend. Instead you’re talking about which organs.”
“I made a promise we would do everything we could to make sure this didn’t happen to other people,” he said.
The family pushed for and got passed “John’s Law,” which allows for a drunken driver’s car to be impounded for as long as 12 hours.
They turned to the HERO Campaign, a statewide initiative trying to gain national traction to promote designated driving.
The Elliotts never got a chance to talk to Pangle, the man who killed their son. Their images of him were gathered from police footage, court testimony, and the picture of a man in and out of rehab.
If Pangle had survived, had appeared in court asking for forgiveness, the Elliotts said they would probably offer it. But he would have had to ask.
Muriel Elliott said she never felt anger.
Bill Elliott said he was never consumed by it.
“It was the shock of how this could ever happen and then when it sinks in, he’s never coming back, you will never see him in this life again, it is the most profound, life-changing thing that can ever happen to you,” he said. “When you looked into his face, when you said goodbye, you were looking into the face of eternity.”
“We knew laws would not change everything. People had to change their behavior,” Muriel said.
The family’s goal is to have designated drivers as commonplace as wearing seat belts.
Their backgrounds helped their mission. Bill Elliott has a marketing and public-relations background. Muriel was a first-grade teacher. They are a prominent Egg Harbor Township family, and they had an approach to market their goal. They don’t preach about drinking. They wanted a positive message that reflected John’s personality.
“I think positive was a key part, it wasn’t that we were lecturing people in what to do, it was more that we were encouraging people,” sister Jennifer said.
But the HERO Campaign and John’s Law allowed for more than the legislation and drunken driving prevention.
“It allows us to be able to talk about John like how other people talk about their kids,” Muriel said. “People don’t feel funny about mentioning his name and wondering how will they feel because it’s just such a positive message. It lets us bring him along with us. And it’s been good for Jenny.”
It gave a family a purpose. It gave a family a son.
John’s Law and the HERO Campaign
John’s Law lets police impound an alleged drunken driver’s car for as long as 12 hours. Former acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco signed the law on April 12, 2001. In 2005, former President George W. Bush signed a federal version of John’s Law that offered federal highway safety funds as an incentive to states that enact similar legislation.
In 2008, New Jersey had 28,705 arrests for driving under the influence, a 6 percent decrease from 2007, the State Police Uniform Crime Report shows. State Police could not provide details on how many cars were impounded under John’s Law. But Bill Elliott said the law itself means ‘a large percentage’ of those arrests result in car impoundments. Vehicles would not be impounded if the car’s owner was present and not inebriated or if the car itself was wrecked in an accident.
The Ensign John R. Elliott HERO Campaign for Designated Drivers was first proposed in 2000 by the Elliott family to encourage designated-driving initiatives, including encouraging bars to provide free soft drinks to designated drivers.
These are the number of 2009 motor vehicle accident fatalities in which the driver tested above the legal limit of 0.08, State Police spokesman Stephen Jones said.
Atlantic County: 10
Cape May County: 2
Cumberland County: 6
Ocean County: 11
If you want to help
The 10th annual Ensign John R. Elliott Memorial Dinner takes place 6:30 p.m. July 22 at the Trump Taj Mahal Grand Ballroom in Atlantic City. For tickets or sponsor information, call 609-233-4787 or 609-272-0100.
Contact Brian Ianieri: