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A Sign From Above
Brett Garamella

There was a full moon that cold night in the small Colorado town where she nearly died. Sitting on the front porch at her friend’s house she could see the horses’ breath as their hooves crunched in the frozen grass. As Jennifer Shook gazed toward the pasture, she was in a somber mood and it was quiet outside. Earlier her boyfriend, Courtland, had sat next to her and they were discussing personal problems they hadn’t resolved while everyone else at the party was drinking inside Tracy ’s home.

Tracy ’s mom had bought alcohol for Tracy and her friends and then had gone out. Everyone was underage by law, between 17 and 19, and had grown up together in the town of Craig . The house was new, but had no electricity. For light they used candles and battery-powered lanterns that were all around the house. Jennifer was not drinking because she planned on driving home.

By the time another friend, Travis, had arrived at Tracy ’s around midnight , the party had died down and most people had left. As a supervisor at Pizza Hut, Travis had worked late that night. When Courtland left the porch, he smoked marijuana with Travis, according to Jennifer. Travis said he never smoked weed that night. He did, however, drink some beers, but still felt he was sober enough to drive. When Courtland returned somebody suggested they go watch the steam from the cooling towers next to the nearby power plant. It seemed like a good idea, they thought. Tina, the owner of a 1979 four-door Ford Tempo, was very drunk. So Travis offered to drive.

“Are you Ok?” asked Jennifer.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Travis said.

Jennifer hadn’t seen him drinking and knew he had arrived late so she never questioned him again. By 2:30 Sunday morning, they got in the tiny Ford, Travis driving and Tina in the passenger seat. In the back, Courtland sat in the middle, Luke to his left and Jennifer to his right. Of the five friends who had known each other since elementary school, Jennifer was the only one sober....

For a believer in fate, the full moon was an omen that early Sunday morning on November 12, 1989 . There were other signs. Jennifer was a 19-year-old freshman at Mesa State College. She had driven home to Craig that Friday to visit some high school friends and her parents. More importantly, it was her best friend Heidi’s birthday and Jennifer’s parents, Drenda and Randy Forrest, had bought her a used station wagon. But why had Jennifer packed three pairs of clothes, her bible and address book for a short visit home? Why had Randy taken 300 dollars out of the bank that day and said he felt like he needed it, which upset Drenda? And just weeks earlier, Marvin, who was a friend of Jennifer’s uncle, had been severely injured in a motorcycle accident.

There were other signs for predestination or perhaps preparation for what lay ahead. Before she left for college, Jennifer volunteered much of her free time at a local old age home for two years. At that time, during her first week, an old lady had grabbed Jennifer’s hand and told her she needed somebody to talk to. And feeling that she had made a difference, Jennifer knew she would stay. Even though many of the elderly seemed helpless or stubborn, she learned that she had to make them take their medication and bathe. And no matter how many times they bit her and spit on her and punched her, she knew she was helping them, something she always liked doing.

Jennifer was the one who was stubborn and upset that day she came home and saw the station wagon her parents had bought her. She didn’t care if it would get more gas mileage than her pickup truck. The wood paneling is so ugly, she thought, and told Randy she’d never drive it. Little did she know she never would.

The next day, Saturday, Jennifer was arguing with Courtland on the phone. When she hung up, she was still upset and in tears. She asked Drenda if she could use her Trail Blazer to drive over to Heidi’s house.

“You’re too upset,” Drenda said. “You’re not going to drive anywhere.”

A while later, after she had calmed down, she again asked her parents if she could drive the Blazer. They said it was Ok. So Jennifer drove to Heidi’s house, where she ate birthday cake and played games with Courtland, Heidi and another friend. Then they decided to go to Tracy ’s house party. Heidi didn’t want to go and stayed home with her parents....

They were low on gas and wanted some snacks. So they drove on U.S. Highway 40 into town and stopped at Gopher Foods. Jennifer saw Travis struggling to open the gas cap and she unscrewed it and pumped the gas for him. After buying some chips they got back in the car, in the same seating arrangement. In the distance beyond the four-lane road and railroad tracks and Yampa River , steam billowed out of the giant cooling towers. With the full moon it was brighter than other nights.

Travis drove less than a mile on U.S. Highway 40 East when he saw a police car with its lights turned off and parked in the National Guard Armory parking lot. As he passed the Armory, the police car pulled out behind the Ford. Travis said he wasn’t speeding after the cop pulled out. Moffat County Undersheriff Dennis Craig told the Northwest Colorado Daily Press that Travis accelerated as he passed the police car. Jennifer said the same thing as Undersheriff Craig.

Travis knew he and the others had been drinking so he wanted to create as much distance between himself and the police car as possible. That’s why he turned right onto East First Street and sped up. They passed the drive-in theater they had been to many weekend nights in high school. Travis’s adrenaline was rushing. Perhaps that is why he didn’t notice the cop’s flashing lights or the passengers screaming at him to slow down. He was worried more about the beer bottles in the car than his friends’ safety.

Knowing those roads well, and in a panic, Travis drove into the Road and Bridge Department parking lot and turned off the headlights. He then turned onto an access road that ran parallel to the railroad tracks. He had been down there many times to go fishing in the Yampa River . Normally the gates were closed to the access road. But this is a story about fate, and on that night the gates were open.

What happened just before they crashed into an embankment and flew through the air and landed on the two passenger wheels and slid just twenty feet shy of the river is not clear. What is certain is that no one was wearing a seat belt and that the car was totaled. Jennifer says Courtland punched Travis just before they hit the embankment. Travis says Tina reached over and turned on the headlights before they went airborne. After the crash, Craig told the Daily Press that the Ford traveled 85 feet through the air, and reached speeds of 60 to 65 miles-per-hour during the chase.

Whatever happened, it was surreal to Jennifer. After all, her father Randy had worked in law enforcement most of his life and had worked at the Road and Bridge Department for several years before retiring just months before. Thoughts raced through Jennifer’s mind yet everything around her seemed like it was in slow motion. He’s running from the cops, oh my God, he’s running from the cops.... this jerk is wrecking the car...Oh God, that really hurt....

When the Ford came to a stop, her belly felt like it was on fire and she was gasping for air. Courtland lay in Jennifer’s lap, dazed. She couldn’t feel him laying on her. As the windshield shattered, Courtland broke his jaw on the dashboard. Tina broke her nose as did Travis, who hit the steering wheel so hard he was momentarily unconscious when the car landed. Luke had just a few bruises.

Jennifer tried to push whatever it was out of her back with one hand as she grabbed the handlebar above the door with the other hand. By then Travis was awake and frantic and he said he told Tina to say that she was driving. Jennifer said Travis was pulling Tina toward the driver’s seat and yelling, “She was driving! She was driving!” when the cops arrived and told him to freeze and handcuffed him. Travis denies that claim. However, he was headed to the Coast Guard and knew he’d be kicked out if arrested.

The policeman in the pursuit had radioed for an ambulance during