By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Diver says that many of the cops he's friends with have told him they don't bother chasing crotch rocketeers. "They figure they can just go down the road and pick up the pieces."
Some of life's toughest lessons consist of simple yes/no variables. Others are like complicated physics equations. In the case of 18-year-old Thaddeus J. Pope, both were imparted simultaneously. On Friday, May 27, he and a group of his friends took turns riding a crotch rocket that police believe had been stolen the week before. "He was prewarned not to do it," sighs Pete Peterson, Pope's stepdad, voice weary with pain and sadness but still -- understandably -- wishing he could slap his son upside his head.
"I forbid him to ride it. I told him if I caught him on it, he's going to lose his car. That's the only leverage I had on his ass."
Pope's cherished 1992 Mercury Grand Marquis never went anywhere -- it's still parked in front of the tree-covered home where his family lives. About a mile away, in an otherwise quiet southwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood, Pope and his pals were attempting to discover exactly what the 2004 Honda CBR-600 was capable of. They say knowledge is power, and Pope got more than he bargained for.
The young men test-drove the bike through Chula Vista's side streets. It had a stolen tag, of course, so they didn't want to risk taking it on the highway. At 8:15 that night, Pope took the bike down SW 16th Street, heading west. When a Chevy S-10 suddenly appeared a few blocks down the street, the laws of inertia and gravity -- perhaps an echo of the straightforward warning from his stepfather -- all came into play at once.
"He knew how to get it going really fast," Peterson says softly. "But he had no idea how to stop it at those speeds. Judging by where the skid marks started, if he'd known how to operate that front brake and knew how to downshift properly, he could have stopped." Pope hadn't learned those catastrophe-averting techniques. Instead, in a panic, he clamped down on the bike's rear brake. The back wheel locked up, throwing him off the bike. Still shrieking with unspent rpm's, the bike slid underneath the Chevy; Pope ended up practically embedded in the back bumper. Witnesses say he somehow remained conscious and even asked for a drink of water as help was summoned.
Judging from the skid marks, friends and family say Pope's body must have been traveling at least 120 mph at the time of impact. (Immediately after the accident, the bike was stolen again, complicating the police investigation.)
Exhausted from a swordfishing trip the night before, Peterson and his wife went to bed around 8 p.m. that Friday. After an officer's urgent knocks on the door awakened them, they rushed to the hospital. "An absolute horror scene," Peterson shudders. Pope's left leg had been virtually torn off, the muscles practically flayed from the bone. His liver and spleen had been ripped in half and one kidney obliterated by the S-10's chrome trailer hitch, which ended up protruding through his stomach. When he died (of "blunt force trauma to the abdomen," says John Dela Gloria, an investigator with the Medical Examiner's office) at 9:30 p.m., he was less than 16 hours from attending his own high school graduation.
His classmates were stunned by the news, still so fresh it hadn't completely traveled through the crowd. During the ceremony, Stranahan's principal presented Pope's parents with his diploma, which they subsequently buried in his casket. The six-foot-six-inch senior had been defensive end for Stranahan's football team. "He was a tough kid," coach Keith Skinner says. "He had a future. He could have gone to a junior college and probably played for somebody, because he was still going to put on that weight."
One wet weekday afternoon several days after the accident, the intersection of SW 16th Street and SW 31st Avenue stands as a spray-painted memorial to the memory of a happy-go-lucky man known simply as Pope to his friends and Harry to his immediate family. Poker-faced 21-year-old Mark Pope, a nervous guy with his kid brother's strapping build, stands in the street in the rain, talking on his cell phone, smoking a cigarette. "I'm a mess, man," he says. "I don't think it hit me until today. One bad decision. That's all it was."
Flowers, candles, photos, and hand-written remembrances surround the scene. "THADDEUS J POPE 12-11-1986 / 5-27-2005 ONLY TIME WILL TELL" -- no explanation given -- reads one sign. Neighborhood kids on summer break cruise by on bicycles and in cars to pay respects, commiserate with Mark, or just stare at the black skid mark ending so abruptly in the street. Patricia, a friend from down the street, sums it up: "He probably just didn't know how to ride it."
Peterson, groping to explain, says: "What my son did was stupid. He was one of the ones who wasn't out there drinking or doing drugs, so I guess he had to get his thrills in a different way. But we want to make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else's child."