KIT CARSON, Colo. – Cellphone use was ruled out Friday as the reason a van driven by a Colorado sheriff s deputy slammed into a cattle trailer along a rural highway under repair, killing him and five foster and adopted children he and his wife had taken into their home.
Seven other children in the van were injured, and at least one was in critical condition Friday.
The 1999 Dodge Ram van driven by Cheyenne County Deputy Howard Mitchell, 57, crashed into the trailer that had stopped Thursday in a construction zone on U.S. 287 near the town of Kit Carson.
The crash happened about 20 minutes after sunrise, and weather conditions were clear with no wind gusts along the north-south highway heavily used by tractor-trailers.
Mitchell was taking the 12 children to school in the town of Eads, south of Kit Carson.
"Of course he had 12 kids in the van, and there will probably be some distraction, but nothing we can prove," State Patrol Trooper T.A. Ortiz said. "We can only make our best educated guess as to why. The main factor is probably going to be speed."
The patrol also ruled out alcohol or drugs as factors in the crash.
The speed limit on the highway is 65 mph but was lower in the construction zone. A final report that would state how fast the van was traveling is not expected for weeks. Only 26 feet of skid marks were found at the accident site, Ortiz said.
The collision killed Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17.
Six children, ages 3, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 17, were being treated at Denver-area hospitals. A 14-year-old was treated for minor injuries and released from a local hospital.
The 14-year-old was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt, while the 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat, troopers said.
The driver of the tractor-trailer, Jared Kauffman, 26, of Cheyenne, Wyo., was treated at a hospital and released.
Howard Mitchell and his wife, Melody, operated a state-licensed group home for foster kids in Kit Carson, but their children attended school in Eads, another small farm town.
Gerald Keefe, superintendent of the Kit Carson R-1 School District, said the Mitchells began sending their children to Eads after the Kit Carson school board declined in January 2007 to support the Mitchells' application for a group home.
Keefe said group homes can accept children who have had trouble with the law. The Kit Carson board declined to support the application after residents said it would place a strain on the town's tiny, 115-student district.
"No student was ever presented at our door for enrollment and denied enrollment," Keefe said, adding he and the Mitchells never discussed why they decided to send their children to Eads. "That's a question better posed to the family.'"
Colorado's Department of Human Services was also investigating the crash. Spokeswoman Dee Martinez declined to elaborate, other than to say, "Ultimately, foster kids are under our care and we always work to make sure they are safe and secure."
Glenn Smith, superintendent of Eads School District RE-1, said the Mitchells sent their foster and adopted children to the Eads school because they seemed to thrive with staff and programs there. He and Eads High School principal Betsy Bennett said the Mitchells were dedicated to making their children "developing citizens."
Friends were saddened and perplexed about the accident.
"He's a sheriff's deputy and he's an excellent driver," Gary Longwell, a cook at the Trading Post restaurant next to the group home operated by the Mitchells, said of Howard Mitchell. Longwell said Jeremy Franks and two of the injured children worked at the Trading Post.
Waitress Kendra Sell sold Andy Dawson a soda and exchanged a handful of pennies he had collected for $4 before he climbed into the van Thursday morning.
"You can't make sense of it," she said.
In Eads, Smith and Bennett Smith described Andy as full of life, always with a smile on his face. Andy was a big University of Oklahoma fan who dreamed of going to school there.
Tony and Tayla Mitchell, Smith said, were full of energy, hugs and smiles. Both were fourth-graders who had been adopted by the Mitchells. Andy Dawson was being adopted, Smith said.
Austyn Atkinson liked middle school and played on the football, basketball, wrestling and track teams.
Jeremy Franks was a sophomore and a football player at Eads' 60-student high school. Smith and Bennett recalled him as a bit ornery and someone with a smirk on his face who always tried to push the limits.
"He wanted to kid with you a bit, but he always stayed where he needed to be," Smith said.
Last month, when a teammate's mother died, Jeremy worked with teachers and staff to design a school card to express condolences. The project was embraced by students.
"It warmed my heart that he would think of another student that he doesn't really know that well. But he knew that it was a hurtful time for the whole community and he wanted to do something about it," Bennett said.
"It was a turning point for him — when he felt like he was a part of our community and our school."
Smith said students are discussing a similar project for the Mitchell family.
Eads Mayor Cardon Berry said the town was ready to tend to the children still hospitalized.
"They'll be back and they'll need help and we will help in any way we can," Berry said. "That's just the way it works."