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HOLDINGFORD, MINN. -- Nineteen-year-old Ryan DeZurik heated up a pepperoni Hot Pocket in the microwave. It was a warm summer Sunday afternoon, and he was heading off to work the night shift, collecting shopping carts at the Cub Foods in St. Cloud. His parents teased him about his dietary dependence on Hot Pockets, waved goodbye and watched his 1990 Toyota Corolla ease down their rural driveway. At 9:36 p.m., Sherrie DeZurik sent her son a text: "Still coming home after work?" Yes, he said, "have class in the morning."
Ryan never made it home. Six miles before he got there, on a hilly, central Minnesota stretch of Stearns County Road 17 near Spunk Creek, a three-ton Hummer H2 crossed into Ryan's westbound lane at more than 95 miles per hour, plowing over the driver's seat without braking and crushing Ryan, who was strapped in his seat belt. A breath test revealed that the Hummer driver's blood-alcohol level of 0.346 was more than quadruple the legal limit.
Five months later, cold winds blow over the roadside where Ryan died and where his family has placed a photo memorial as they ache for his wry smile and silky hair.
Their struggle is as common as it is heart-wrenching. With nearly 180 Minnesotans killed and more than 400 severely injured every year in alcohol-related crashes, drunken driving continues to relentlessly rack up sudden, senseless deaths and catastrophic injuries. The horror stories are never-ending:
An intoxicated pickup driver zooms the wrong way down an interstate off-ramp in Minneapolis, colliding head-on with a van carrying a family of seven, ripping a pregnant mother's placenta and killing her soon-to-be-born son last month.
A drunken St. Michael driver speeds with his lights off in the wrong lane on Thanksgiving weekend, smashing head-on and killing a 17-year-old Buffalo High School student just two months after the driver picked up a previous DWI arrest.
A mother with twice the legal limit of booze in her blood drives her Audi home to Minneapolis at midnight from a June high school graduation event for her daughter in St. Paul, barreling into a bus shelter on Lake Street and killing a pedestrian on his way to buy cigarettes.
Every other day, a Minnesotan is killed in a crash involving alcohol. Every week, eight more people are severely injured. And reflecting a numbed apathy, nearly a quarter of Minnesota drivers admit they drove under alcohol's influence in the past year, ranking third behind only Wisconsin and North Dakota in a national survey.
A statewide DWI crackdown last month netted 2,577 arrests, and experts say some progress has been made -- Minnesota's DWI death toll is lower than it was 25 years ago. Yet the carnage remains alarming and continues to raise questions about whether police, judges, lawmakers -- and drivers -- are doing enough to combat the reckless, deadly behavior.
Ryan's father, Todd DeZurik, points to the courts to help reduce drunken driving's toll, insisting that penalties are too lax. His wife thinks the problem is bigger than that.
"How did we ever get in the mindset that I've got to drink when I'm ice fishing, I've got to drink at Christmas, I've got to drink because it's nice weather out, I've got to drink because the weather sucks?" Sherrie said. "The culture here has to change and that will only happen when people's hearts change."
Typical case, atypical kid
For the DeZuriks, hearts have hardened these last five months, as their sadness, shock and anger jockey to fill Ryan's void.
"A drunk took someone so precious from us, someone who was just starting to blossom," said Ryan's grandmother, Patt DeZurik, who remembers her son's phone call the morning after.
"I just let out the most ear-piercing, excruciating howl," she said. "You never think it's going to happen to one of yours. You just don't. He's in our hearts, yes, but I want to put my arms around this precious little kid we watched grow up. That beautiful smile would just melt your heart. We can't have him anymore and it's just so unfair."
In many ways, Ryan's case fits the profile of so many Minnesota DWI fatalities. The Hummer driver charged with vehicular homicide, 29-year-old Timothy Allen Rausch of Cushing, Minn., was a first-timer. Although repeat DWI offenders prompt outrage, 60 percent of drinking drivers had no alcohol convictions on their record at the time of a fatal crash.
And state statistics show that the majority of fatal crashes happen on two-lane highways in townships of fewer than 1,000 people, such as the picturesque county road east of tiny Opole where Ryan died. Drivers in DWI-related collisions on urban highways have a 1 in 337 chance of dying, while 1 in 62 die in rural crashes, according to Stephen Simon, a University of Minnesota professor who leads a state DWI task force.
Rausch told police he had swerved to avoid a deer. His trial is scheduled for the spring, and defense attorney Tom Beito said he's awaiting DNA test results from the blood on the Hummer's airbag. The massive vehicle was registered to the wife of a 42-year-old passenger riding along that night. Rausch and the man were out of the Hummer by the time deputies arrived at the crash scene at 10:37 p.m. Beito hinted that the DNA results could raise questions about who was driving. Assistant Stearns County Attorney Matt Quinn said he expects the DNA to "eliminate that doubt."
To paint Ryan DeZurik's case with numbers and legal strategies misses the point, according to those who knew him, miss him and lined up for six hours to pay their respects at his wake. All that for a kid who graduated in a class of six from St. Cloud Christian School two years ago.
"Ryan was a bit of an enigma who was just coming out of his shell," said John Jose, the Joy Christian Center youth pastor who watched him grow up the past decade and wears a bracelet with a shard of glass from the crash scene to remember Ryan. "Everyone would look at his dark clothes and dyed hair, but a gentle and brilliant spirit was willing and waiting to open up."
Once an unassuming, shy kid who guzzled Mountain Dew and played video games endlessly, Ryan had started writing deeply spiritual lyrics and singing his tonsils out in a thrashing Christian rock band called Oath by Blood. Youtube video clips -- www.tinyurl.com/yexd4kz -- show him growling in the band's so-called screamo style.
"Two weeks after the crash, I lay on Ryan's bed gut-crying -- when you can't move and you can only curl up in a ball," his mother said.
She had been to the impound lot to extract what Ryan called his murse (short for man-purse), which held an inches-thick trove of lyrics to songs with titles such as: "Into the Abyss," "Shell of an Empty Soul" and "Wolves at the Heels of Saints."
That night in his room, where Ryan's caps still hang from the bed's headboard, Sherrie found a note he had scratched on the back of one of his songs:
My passion and purpose in the band: To meet kids exactly where they're at and teach them that God will take them and use them where ever they are if they will submit their hearts, minds and bodies to Him, all the while learning to do so myself.
A storyteller silenced
Ryan took a year off after high school, and Sherrie asked him what he really wanted to do in his heart. He said he wanted to tell stories, so he enrolled at Rasmussen College in St. Cloud, studying multimedia technology while working at Cub. He was heading home to catch some sleep before a Monday morning video class when he was killed.
Jim DeZurik, Ryan's grandfather, makes his own artificial fishing lures -- Jimmy D's River Bugs -- in his furnace room north of Sartell, not far from the home of Todd, Sherrie and their four kids. Ryan was No. 2.
At times, the demand for Jim's jigs would overwhelm him, so Ryan would come over and pour hot lead into "itty-bitty holes" in the molds.
"One day, he had his Mountain Dew and his iPod headphones in and he's bopping to the music while he's pouring the lead," Jim said.
Ryan asked his grandfather if he was doing OK. "I told him he was doing better than I could, but I wondered how he could do it bouncing around. Ryan smiled and said: 'Don't worry, Grandpa, my hands are steady and I won't make you look bad.'"
Jim broke down sobbing when he retold that story. "I just miss him so much. For 18 years, he'd been listening and now he was really starting to say something. He was just becoming a man."
For Ryan's father, who drives a bus for special-needs residents of St. Cloud, "mornings are my hard time." Sometimes, his mind tricks him.
"I'll catch myself thinking, my, Ryan's been gone a long time, why hasn't he come home?" Then Todd remembers the funeral home.
Sherrie asked morticians if they could view Ryan's body before the burial. "There was no way I was going to go without touching my child one more time," she said.
She remembers kissing her son on the top of his head that Sunday at the kitchen table before he went to work.
"A few days later, I'm kissing what's left of his head in a casket," Sherrie said. "No mother should have to do that."
Ryan's neck and face were all bandaged, but they left some of his long bangs dangling. Family members snipped off some locks as keepsakes. They couldn't help but smile through tears as they recalled how much Ryan hated getting his hair cut.
He also detested being photographed. But the few times he'd smile for the camera are now plastered around the DeZuriks' home, as well as the St. Cloud home of Megan Fink, Ryan's girlfriend. She has photos, letters and receipts on the wall by her bed. She met Ryan at a diner in St. Cloud. He was too shy to talk to her, so he sent a friend over to say he thought Megan was cute.
"Ryan once told me that if he died, no one would notice," Megan said.
She convinced him that that was ridiculous and credits him with "waking me up and comforting me and helping me notice the good things."
In the five months since Ryan's death, Megan often spends weekends at the DeZuriks and remains best friends with Ryan's youngest sister, Tawney.
The DeZuriks run their own family business, renting out and setting up portable black signs for roadside advertising. Every month around the 16th, the day Ryan died, they change the message on the sign they've set up at the crash site and another in front of their house.
Ryan DeZurik would have turned 20 on Feb. 19. His family is planning a memorial concert at the Joy Christian Center that day.
"And I'm going to change the sign in front of our house," Todd said.
Right now, it says: "Ryan we love you, you are our hero" in pink, yellow and white letters.
"I want to change it," Todd said, "to say: Please don't drink and drive."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767