Editor’s note: In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2007, the lives of two Tarleton State University students were shattered when a devastating accident claimed the life of Stephen Cage and left Ryan Crutsinger charged with intoxication manslaughter. In 2008, Crutsinger pleaded guilty to the charge and in January began serving a six-month sentence for his crime. On May 4, Crutsinger agreed to a jailhouse interview, where he talked about that fateful night, his regrets, struggles and what he hopes the future holds.
Ryan Crutsinger described his first 48 hours in jail as “grueling.”
He was in a mandatory holding cell, where he slept on a mat, had no privacy and was terrified of what he would face in the coming months.
“On the outside, I was calm and collected, but on the inside, I was scared,” Crutsinger said, describing the moment when he first walked into the Erath County Jail. “I had never been in trouble in my life - and now I was in jail. I didn’t know if I was going to make it. It was an eye-opener.”
Crutsinger began serving a six-month jail sentence on Jan. 2 after pleading guilty to intoxication manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Stephen Cage. It was a difficult moment for Crutsinger and his family, but one they had plenty of time to prepare for.
The prior year had been nothing short of a nightmare for Crutsinger, who at 19, had to deal with the unimaginable horror of being responsible for an accident that claimed the life of his friend.
The athletic, popular teen who had been voted “Mr. Alvord High” by his classmates during his senior year of high school never imagined that his life would take such a drastic turn.
A budding friendship
Stephen Cage and Ryan Crutsinger had known each other for only a few weeks when a night of bad decision making ended in a devastating crash that would claim Cage’s life.
The two, both freshmen at Tarleton State University, met at Duck Camp two weeks before classes began in the 2007 fall semester.
Cage, a 19-year-old from Conroe, and Crutsinger, an 18-year-old from Alvord, formed a close friendship. Smart, handsome and athletic, the two immediately discovered they had a lot in common.
“We hit it off right away,” Crutsinger said.
The two would spend the next several weeks hanging out, playing golf and enjoying their newfound freedom that living away from home for the first time offered.
“I was just soaking it all in,” Crutsinger said. “This was the first time in my life that I could leave the house without telling my dad exactly where I was.”
Indeed, Crutsinger’s upbringing was fairly strict, but it was one full of love and support. His parents are both educators and divorced when Crutsinger was young. He lived with his father and his sister lived with his mother.
“But we all remained very close,” he said.
When Crutsinger was in the second grade, his dad remarried and he gained a stepbrother and stepsister.
Unlike many blended families, Crutsinger said his was unusually tight-knit.
And it’s that closeness that he said got him through the weeks and months following the accident.
A deafening crash, then silence
In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2007, Cage, Crutsinger and two friends, left an apartment after a night of “huffing” from an aerosol can and headed back to the dorms.
Crutsinger was behind the wheel of a black Saab. Cage was in the backseat and was not wearing a seatbelt. As the car traveled down Washington Street and turned left onto Lillian, Crutsinger took another “hit” from the can, then lost consciousness.
Ryan Mason, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, testified during Crutsinger’s trial that he grabbed the steering wheel and attempted to take control of the car, which was traveling about 50 mph.
“Everyone was yelling,” Mason said.
Moments later, the car smashed into a wall, killing Cage instantly.
Crutsinger’s memory about the accident is vague. Floating in and out of consciousness, he remembers looking back and seeing Cage in the backseat.
“I knew it wasn’t good,” he said.
While Crutsinger was in the emergency room, the hospital chaplain came in to tell him that Cage was dead.
“I freaked out,” he said.
Crutsinger spent the next two weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries. After he was released, his family convinced him to stay in school.
“I wanted to go home and lay in bed and sulk,” he said.
But he didn’t. With his jaw still wired shut, Crutsinger went back to class with help from his family and friends.
Slowly, his physical injuries began to heal, but the inner demons were just beginning. Charged with intoxication manslaughter, Crutsinger had to face the fear of spending the next two to 20 years in jail if convicted, while dealing with the guilt and heartache of losing a friend.
Christmas 2007 was an especially trying time for Crutsinger, who was now at home with his family.
“I couldn’t forgive myself because I thought that would be selfish,” he said.
Crutsinger fell into a deep depression, worried for his future and what fighting his legal troubles would do to his family financially.
“I had burdened my family and I really worried about that,” he said.
Then there was Cage’s family, who he desperately wanted to reach out to, but on the advice of his attorneys, did not.
“I wanted to write them a letter and tell them how I was honestly feeling. I had so much compassion for them,” he said.
Before long, the inner struggles became too much for him to deal with. Slipping into a deep depression, he thought of suicide.
Worried, his family sent him to a therapist. By the spring of 2008, things for Crutsinger slowly began to improve, but his trial still loomed.
Crutsinger’s trial began in November 2008.
Members of Cage’s family, including his father J.C. Cage, told the jury and a packed courtroom how his death changed their lives.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about him,” he said. “There is a big hole in my heart. I wouldn’t wish this type of situation on anyone.”
Stephen Cage had just finished his first week at Tarleton when he died. He had left his home in Conroe just 20 days prior to the accident.
His mother Melanie said the family was struggling with the loss.
“Grief is the cost of loving someone very, very much,” Melanie Cage said, sobbing. “What I have learned (since the accident), is that in your deepest, darkest hours there are people who will rush to your side to help your family.”
Meanwhile, family and friends were on hand to offer support to Crutsinger.
His attorney Bob Glasgow called the accident a “double tragedy.”
“There is no doubt that Stephen Cage was a good kid and valuable member of society,” Glasgow said. “Ryan Crutsinger is too.”
A string of friends and family members testified on Crutsinger’s behalf, describing him as trustworthy, hardworking and honest.
His former football coach called Crutsinger “an outstanding young man.”
But perhaps the most poignant moment in the trial came when Crutsinger took the stand.
“Not a day goes by that I am not remorseful for what I’ve done,” Crutsinger said sobbing. “It was an accident, but I take full responsibility.”
Before an Erath County jury had the chance to deliberate his fate, however, the prosecution and defense struck a deal. In exchange for a guilty plea, Crutsinger would serve six months in the county jail.
Cage’s family agreed to allow Crutsinger to finish the semester and take final exams before beginning his sentence.
The next day, the two families met at the office of John Terrill, who was the district attorney at the time, and watched the video of Cage’s funeral together.
Crutsinger said it was the moment when he believes both families began to heal.
“His dad said that he had forgiven me a long time ago,” Crutsinger said. “That’s when I started to forgive myself.”
Preparing to leave
Crutsinger said he has adapted to life in jail and is trying to make the most of his experience there. One week after he arrived, he was made a trustee and given work privileges. His initial duties consisted of mopping and sweeping, something he said made him feel “proactive.”
Today, Crutsinger rises from his bunk at 3 a.m. every day to prepare breakfast and lunch for the more than 60 inmates inside the jail.
“It’s the highlight of my day,” he said. “Before I started this, I knew how to cook a little, but you get pretty good when you cook for 60 people every day.”
Crutsinger is back in his cell by noon, where he either takes a short nap or reads. At 5 p.m., he eats dinner in his cell, then goes to the recreation yard to play basketball and get some exercise until dark.
“Then I take a shower, go to bed and do it all over again,” he said.
He looks forward to the weekly visits from his parents, who have never missed a chance to see their son.
“I’ve learned how to do time,” he said. “I make the most of it.”
Crutsinger will walk out of jail at 12:01 a.m. on June 30 and into the arms of his father. The two will spend the night in a hotel before meeting with his probation officer later that day.
“I’ll probably go to Whataburger as soon as I get out and get something to eat,” he said.
Then, he will head home to Alvord, where he will begin working to pay his fines and complete his community service hours.
“After I pay my fines and complete my community service, I will head back to Tarleton to study horticulture,” he said.
Along the way, he plans to share his experience with other youth he hopes to keep from making a similar mistake.
“I think about Stephen and his family every day. I will always struggle with this,” he said. “I just want to keep one person out there from making the same mistake as me.”
Update: Since the interview, Crutsinger has learned that the Cage family has filed a civil suit against him.