SARA VANDEN BERGE

Itís no secret that I have over-protective tendencies when it comes to my three children. Since the day they were born, Iíve spent an enormous amount of energy working to keep them safe and healthy.

When they were young, I was the mother who slathered on extra sunscreen at the lake, was adamant that they never travel in a vehicle without wearing a seatbelt (or strapped into a car seat) and refused to let them ride their bikes on the road, terrified that they would get struck by a car.

Perhaps my angst is no different from what most mothers fear when it comes to their children, but I admit that Iíve had to work hard at allowing my children to enjoy the freedoms that come with growing up.

When my oldest starting driving in November, the time I spent fretting over his safety was amped up significantly. No longer was a sunburn the worst thing that could happen. Every parent knows that when a young driver gets behind the wheel of a car and experiences independence for the first time, a myriad of things can go wrong, which brings me to a double tragedy that has haunted me for almost two years.

On Sept. 10, 2007, a night of huffing and bad decision making resulted in a devastating car accident that claimed the life of Stephen Cage. The accident left Ryan Crutsinger, who was behind the wheel of the car, in serious legal trouble.

During the past four years, Iíve covered hundreds of stories. Iíve sat through a dozen trials on everything from murder to sexual assault. Iíve reported on hundreds of thefts, accidents, assaults and child abuse cases, but none has ever affected me like the story of those two Tarleton State University students only three weeks into their freshman year.

Their tale is every parentís worst nightmare.

Two good kids, two families devastated in an instant, their lives forever changed in a single moment.

I remember covering the trial, which took place just weeks before my son turned 16. Watching the suffering on both sides was excruciating. I remember coming home after the sentencing and crying. There was so much sadness between the families, so much loss on both sides.

One young man was dead. Another was headed to jail. I wondered how I could keep my children from making a similar mistake.

Today, Ryan is serving a six-month jail sentence and is scheduled to be released on June 30. The now 20-year-old agreed to a jailhouse interview Thursday, and opened up about that fateful night, his struggles since then and his plans for the future.

Ryan is a strikingly handsome young man who is well spoken, intelligent and compassionate. Seeing him walk through the doors wearing an orange prison uniform made my heart sink, igniting every motherly instinct I had.

He is seemingly the all-American kid - one whose pain is masked by a sense of determination to complete his punishment and who is eager to share his story, which he hopes will keep someone else from making the same mistake.

Next Sunday, my interview with Ryan will be featured in the Empire-Tribune. Itís a story of immeasurable sadness, forgiveness and ultimately hope. Itís one you wonít want to miss.

SARA VANDEN BERGE is managing editor of the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 240.