Commentary

The crash that killed Nick Adenhart

Originally Published: April 17, 2009
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

Adenhart MemorialAmy K. NelsonA memorial was set up at the Fullerton intersection for those who were in the car with Nick Adenhart.
Editor's Note: The times listed below are exact in some cases and approximate in others, based on the recollections of those interviewed for this story.

At 4:31 a.m. PT on April 9, Jim Adenhart sits in the emergency room of UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, Calif., when doctors in the operating room declare his son dead. Andrew Gallo, the driver suspected of hitting the car carrying his son, Nick Adenhart, is being treated for minor injuries at a nearby hospital. Others in the car with Adenhart -- Courtney Stewart, the driver, and Henry Pearson, another passenger -- were declared dead at the scene. A third passenger, Jon Wilhite, is also at UCI Medical Center fighting for his life.

Accompanied by Nick's pitching coach, Mike Butcher, and the Los Angeles Angels' vice presidents of communications, Tim Mead, Jim Adenhart is led to the room where the body of his 22-year-old son lies. Butcher and Mead respectfully wait outside the room to allow a father his final moments with his son.

Shortly thereafter, Jim Adenhart returns. "Do you want to see him, too?" he asks.

The men nod and follow him into the room. The pain suddenly becomes acute for Jim Adenhart. The surreal becomes real: Nick is gone.

12 hours earlier

Getting ready at her off-campus apartment before driving to the Angels game, 20-year-old Courtney Stewart is excited. The night before had been a good one. She had gone to a country music concert, and then had Nick Adenhart over to watch TV and hang out.

When she met the Angels right-hander last summer through mutual friends, she was intrigued, but grounded. Courtney was going to be a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton, and being a busy young woman, she had plenty occupying her time.

She and Nick kept in touch, and when the rookie pitcher made the Angels' roster out of spring training, they reconnected when the team returned to Anaheim. Her roommates and her mother knew she was excited about the possibility of a long-term relationship, but it was just the beginning; Courtney and Nick were still getting to know each other.

"She just lit up when she talked about him," says her mother, Carrie Stewart-Dixon. "She liked the fact that he was very down-to-earth."

A beautiful blonde who always wore perfect makeup, Courtney Stewart enjoyed breaking stereotypes. She was a straight-A student who would sit in the front of the class and who, the night before her death, studied index cards while waiting in line for the Billy Currington concert. She was a sorority girl and a cheerleader, but she also loved golf and baseball, especially the Angels. She knew the stats of most of the players (including those of her favorite player, Reggie Willits) and she went to games whenever she had the opportunity. Her stepfather, Richard Dixon, had season tickets and the two would bond by watching the games together.

But tonight she will be meeting Wilhite and Pearson at the game. As she chats with roommate Catie Derus about the night ahead, Courtney stops to update her status on Facebook, the social networking site. She posts the final update of her life at 4 p.m.: "Angels game tonight!"

11 hours earlier

Andrew Thomas Gallo took the keys to his father's red minivan and told his stepmother, Lilia, that he and his stepbrother, Raymond Rivera, would be back later. Raymond was Lilia's son, born to an alcoholic father who wasn't much of a presence in Raymond's life. He inherited the disease, a bond the family said he shared with Andrew.

Courtney Stewart
Carrie Stewart-Dixon for ESPN.comCourtney Stewart was a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton and an avid baseball fan.

Andrew was born in El Monte, Calif., on Dec. 10, 1986. He lived with his parents in Baldwin Park until they divorced when Andrew was 5 years old. The youngest of two kids, Andrew took the split especially hard.

"I saw a lot of anger," Thomas Gallo, Andrew's father, says. "He was devastated."

An avid reader, and also a big fan of flag football, Andrew lived with his mother and saw his father on weekends. He was an outgoing boy, known for his charisma and his desire to bring neighborhood kids together to play pickup baseball. Perhaps because of his own childhood, Andrew was especially caring with children, including his younger half-sisters, family members say.

While the divorce was difficult for Andrew, his parents maintained an amicable relationship, and their son's life was fairly nondescript until Andrew's mother, Sandra, moved the family to San Bernardino when Andrew was 14. Sandra's family with her new husband was growing, and they wanted to be closer to his work.

Being away from his friends, starting anew, proved difficult for Andrew.

"Maybe he was lonely," Sandra says.

Over the next few years Andrew bounced between living with Sandra and Thomas, who by then had married Lilia and lived in nearby Covina. Never having a stable home, Andrew felt out of place, and at some point began drinking, according to family members. Thomas Gallo does not allow alcohol in his home, so Andrew usually went out with his friends and Raymond.

It is around 5 p.m. when Andrew and Raymond tell Lilia they plan to drop off Raymond's job application at Sears and then get dinner somewhere later that night.

10 hours earlier

Officer Amador Nunez starts his night shift with the Anaheim Police Department. He's 47 years old and has been on the force long enough that retirement is in sight. He has three kids, his oldest 22 years old, and hopes to work as a teacher, encouraging at-risk youths in his community to avoid gangs. But that's for later, once he's off the force.

Tonight he's just beginning his shift, his beat covers the area around Angel Stadium; he occasionally works games at the ballpark, too, but tonight he's in his patrol car by himself.

Just after 7 p.m., Nunez turns on the Angels' game in his car, listening as Nick Adenhart takes the mound against the Oakland A's.

As Nunez tunes his radio, Courtney Stewart, Jon Wilhite and Henry Pearson take their seats in the stadium, and keep in touch with the outside world by text-messaging friends and family.

Henry is between law schools and recently decided to move back into the bungalow behind his parents' Manhattan Beach home. The past few weeks he's been attending as many local baseball games as possible, scouting talent he hopes to one day represent.

Born to father Nigel and mother Areta, Henry is 25 years old and an aspiring sports agent who already has a few baseball clients, including Robi Estrada, currently in Class A with the Tampa Bay Rays. Henry, like Courtney Stewart, is naturally gifted with people. Tonight he's texting with Areta, a United Airlines employee who was recently transferred to Las Vegas and works there four nights a week.

It's 7:18 p.m. and Areta texts her son a message, asking what's happening in the game.

Andrew Gallo
Courtesy of the Gallo FamilyAndrew Gallo, right, had been to a rehab facility on two occasions, once after a DUI charge.

"Bases are loaded," Henry responds right away. "Nerve wracking."

Around the same time, Andrew Gallo phones his stepbrother, Carlos Rivera, asking if he can come over to his house. Carlos Rivera's home was a shelter for Andrew when he was trying not to drink. In 2006, Andrew had been busted for DUI, and as part of his plea deal he had to go to the Bible Tabernacle New Life Institute, a rehabilitation facility that is also a Christian ministry, using faith instead of traditional therapeutic approaches to recover from substance abuse. Mario Harper runs the facility and says its intent is to put discipline back into men's lives.

Andrew was required to stay six months, waking each morning at 5:30, reading his Bible for 90 minutes, then working each day as a grounds-crew member, raking leaves, taking out trash and performing other menial tasks.

After his release, Andrew couldn't find steady work and was arrested two more times, for public intoxication and for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. This past September, Andrew returned to the Bible Tabernacle. Though Harper says Andrew's family sent him through a friend of the church, the Gallo family says he went on his own. The family was shocked when he called them and said he was back in rehab.

At the time he returned to rehab, Andrew was trying to stay clean. Debra Rivera, Andrew's sister-in-law, says he would come to her house to escape.

"It was sort of a safe haven for him," she says.

Tonight, Andrew is seeking that haven. But Carlos tells Andrew he is tired and has to wake up early in the morning. Instead of staying sober, Andrew continues his night with Raymond, and the two head to The Redwood Inn, a dive bar in a strip mall in West Covina. According to the bar's owner, shortly before 8 p.m. the bartender serves Andrew a shot and a beer before Andrew and Raymond leave.

9 hours earlier

Areta is nearing the end of her shift, and she checks in with Henry again. It's now 8:48 and Areta wants to know what inning the game is in. Henry texts back that the game is through five innings, and that Adenhart "hasn't given up any runs! They are up 3-0."

Henry's encyclopedic knowledge of sports, even at a young age, enabled him to easily navigate conversations with adults. When he was 9, Henry overheard two women in an airport talking about a race horse, repeatedly getting the horse's name wrong. Henry politely interrupted and corrected them.

His sister, Jessica, just a year older, was stunned.

"You know about horse racing, too?" she asked him. "Are you kidding me?"

Henry and Jon Wilhite attended Mira Costa High School together in Manhattan Beach, and they were friends and teammates. While Jon went on to play catcher at Cal State Fullerton, Henry knew his limitations; he was never going to make it as a baseball player, so instead of going to Ithaca College on a scholarship, he went to Arizona State, his mother Areta's alma mater.

He soon befriended Brandon Wood, the Angels' first-round pick in 2003, who went to high school in nearby Scottsdale. Henry became part of Wood's inner circle, the two growing close. A year later, Nick Adenhart was drafted by the Angels in the 14th round and attended ASU as he rehabbed from Tommy John surgery.

Nick and Henry met during a pickup basketball game. The two competitive players went at it the entire game. When it was over, Nick was walking home from the game when Henry offered him a ride. A new friendship was formed.

And tonight Henry is delivering the good news of his friend's pitching performance to his mother, while Courtney is texting back and forth with her mother, too. Courtney texts Carrie with her own exciting update: "Wooooooo! 5 K's!" Carrie has just gotten home from dinner with her husband, Richard, and turns on the game.

Henry Pearson
Courtesy of the Pearson FamilyHenry Pearson played baseball at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach.

After Courtney's parents divorced, mother and daughter lived on their own for 10 years and became best friends. Each morning, Courtney called Carrie on her way to class, and every conversation ended with "I love you."

Making an impression seemed to be a gift Courtney had, and Carrie saw it manifest itself in myriad ways. When Courtney was 2 or 3 years old, Carrie brought Courtney to her high school reunion, held in a local park. Courtney got on top of a cooler and belted out a song for the crowd, her voice beautiful already at that age.

"She wasn't shy at all," Carrie says.

Courtney loved country music and cowboys, and hoped to one day be a sideline reporter for professional rodeo. Pink was her favorite color, and early on she developed a love of cosmetics. Once when she babysat a family friend's 5-year-old son, the parents came home and found him with a fresh coat of nail polish and a face full of rouge. Another son of a family friend couldn't escape Courtney's deep desire to keep everyone well-groomed; he got newly plucked eyebrows.

Courtney's warm nature was clear to those who loved her, and even to strangers. Carrie once took Courtney to lunch at a restaurant and sat in a booth next to an elderly couple. After finishing their lunch, the couple stopped by the table.

"When we saw you sit down we said, 'Oh no, a little kid'," one of them told Carrie. "We just wanted to tell you what a pleasure it was to sit next to you, and what a sweet girl your daughter is."

It's now 9:05 p.m., and Courtney texts Carrie that reliever Jose Arredondo is in the game, but "Nick did great!"

8 hours earlier

It's around 10 p.m. and Andrew and Raymond are leaving their latest stop, The Well Bar, a dank watering hole where the women bartenders wear bikinis, and where only beer is served. After finishing their Bud Lights, Andrew and Raymond walk past a sign on the way out that reads: "Beware of pick pocketers and loose women."

The past few months have been difficult for Andrew. In December, he was expelled from the Bible Tabernacle for having a bad attitude, according to Harper. Andrew was talking back to the staff, disrespectful of authority.

"A kid with an attitude like that usually ends up in jail," Harper says.

Unemployed and kicked out of rehab, Andrew returned to his father's house in San Gabriel. In January, he lost a cousin, Manny, to heart disease. Manny was like a best friend and father figure to Andrew, and his death was devastating. In spite of the loss, Andrew recently had been trying to take control of his life. He had told his family he was set to start a new construction job, in hopes of one day owning his own construction company.

"He's not a bad person," Thomas Gallo says. "People are making my son out to be a monster; he's not. He's a good person."

On this night, he and Raymond leave The Well Bar, their destination unknown.

Shortly after Andrew and Raymond depart, Henry Pearson texts Areta from the ballpark with some bad news. It's 10:11 p.m., and Henry tells his mother that the Angels' closer just blew the game. "Yes we still get last licks," Areta writes back. "Ya," he writes back a minute later.

7 hours earlier

The A's come back in the ninth inning, winning 6-4. Courtney, Jon and Henry drive back to Courtney's apartment, just a few miles from the Cal State Fullerton campus, where Courtney is majoring in communications.

[+] EnlargeCarrie Stewart-Dixon
Amy K. NelsonCarrie Stewart-Dixon holds a picture of her daughter, Courtney Stewart, who died in the accident.

The three are beaming, talking about the game, life and how well Nick pitched. Courtney's three roommates -- Catie Derus, Jerica Stroing and Jackie Adishian -- are all home, and they meet Henry and Jon for the first time. They are all awaiting Nick's arrival. It's Wednesday night and Courtney already has made plans: line-dancing at country bar in Fullerton called In Cahoots, where she goes each Wednesday. Courtney takes it so seriously that she leaves her phone and purse behind and brings only her ID, so she can dance and not worry about losing her personal items.

It's now close to 11 p.m. With a belly full of the postgame spread from P.F. Chang's, and wearing a Redskins T-shirt along with a big smile, Nick Adenhart meets with his agent, Scott Boras, outside the Angels' clubhouse. Nick has just pitched six scoreless innings, and Boras tells his client that tonight he was a big leaguer. Boras thinks Nick seems at peace with himself, happy with the way he pitched.

Nick and Jim Adenhart chat with Boras for the next 20 minutes or so before pulling out of the players' parking lot at 11:31 p.m. in Nick's silver Mustang. Nick passes security guard Charlie Rush, the last to see him at the park that evening.

Nick drops off Jim at the Ayes Inn, where they're sharing a room together, and drives to Fullerton. He arrives at Courtney's apartment some time around 11:45 and sits in a chair at the kitchen table, smiling the entire time. As they drink water and eat chips and salsa, the four friends -- Nick, Courtney, Jon and Henry -- relive Nick's exciting start. They're jubilant, a bit loud and ready to celebrate at In Cahoots.

Henry impresses Courtney's roommates with how affable and open he is. Always known to say the right thing, Henry also had a sensitive side. After he attended Wood's big league debut, Henry's sister Jessica asked him how the game went. Henry's response was touching: Instead of reciting Wood's line for the night, how the Angels fared, or anything concerning the game, Henry instead spoke of Wood's mother.

"You should have seen her," he told his sister. "To watch Brandon's mom, crying with the American flag behind her, watching her son play."

Henry had a feeling for moments like that, one so special for his friend's mother. Those closest to him always felt comforted and supported. That he spent tonight watching Nick's start and celebrating afterward is no surprise.

6 hours earlier

It's a little after midnight when Nick, Jon and Henry pile into Courtney's car, a silver Mitsubishi Eclipse, and set out for In Cahoots. At about 12:20 a.m., Courtney, with Nick sitting beside her in front, Jon behind her in back and Henry behind Nick, approach the intersection of Orangethorpe Avenue, heading northbound. Courtney is on Lemon Street, in the right-hand lane, seeing a green light all the way. She's less than a block away from the bar, or as Lt. Kevin Hamilton of the Fullerton PD said, "a tee shot away."

Another driver, Estevan Quiroz, is on Lemon Street heading in the opposite direction, facing Courtney, and inching out into the intersection, preparing to turn left onto Orangethorpe.

In the corner of his left eye, Quiroz catches a red blur, which in Quiroz's estimation a vehicle is traveling at about 90 mph. He wisely stops because, as he sees the blur, he can tell it has no intention of stopping.

Andrew Gallo, driving recklessly, not knowing why he's almost 20 miles south of where his night started in Covina, slams full speed into the passenger side of the Mitsubishi, where Nick Adenhart and Henry Pearson are sitting, according to police. Andrew doesn't even tap his brakes, T-boning the Mitsubishi, the force of the crash spinning the sports car across the intersection and killing Courtney and Henry instantly.

"A half-second before or after," Hamilton says, "and there's no impact. That's like taking one more brush of your hair."

5-plus hours earlier

The 911 call comes in at 12:23 a.m. Officer Nunez hears it over his radio and drives to the scene. Seven minutes later he arrives, and Nick and Jon are already in ambulances. According to Fullerton police, Jon Wilhite, just 24, is internally decapitated by the blunt force of the impact, but survives, still fighting for his life.

[+] EnlargeAmador Nunez
Courtesy of the Anaheim Police Department Officer Amador Nunez pursued Andrew Gallo on foot before arresting him within an hour after the tragic accident.

Nunez surveys the car and sees Courtney, who still looks beautiful, not a scratch on her face, and thinks about his own daughters. Raymond is picked up at the scene, but Nunez is told that the suspect has fled on foot, so for about an hour, Nunez searches for a man wearing dark clothing. He looks through dumpsters and shines his spotlight into storefronts. Freeway 91 is nearby, and Nunez thinks the suspect would probably try to go home. He gets on 91 eastbound and loops back west; if the suspect is walking on the highway, he'll likely be going in the opposite direction.

Shortly after heading westbound, Nunez sees a man emerge from the bushes, walking toward him on the dirt shoulder of the freeway. The man matches the description, and there isn't a doubt in the officer's mind that this is Andrew Gallo. He pulls his patrol car over, gets out and yells "Hey!"

The suspect runs, and 47-year-old Nunez chases. Radioing his colleagues that he's in pursuit on foot, and in the dark with cars whipping past him, Nunez runs with his right hand holding onto his gun, ready to draw, yelling at the suspect to stop. The chase lasts only about 30 yards when finally the man stops, puts his hands up and gets down on the ground. Two backup units arrive. It's around 1:15 a.m., and Officer Nunez pulls out his handcuffs. Before placing them on the man, he asks if he's Andrew Gallo. The man, just 22 years old, says yes.

Then, before anything else happens, Andrew Gallo adds something else:

"Are the other people in the car all right?"

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.