Sobering reality at Colusa High School



hile the ramifications could last for a lifetime and affect countless others, it only takes one second to decide not to get behind the wheel.

Young drivers at Colusa High School got a realistic look at how deadly the consequences can be from driving distracted or under the influence, as the Williams Area Office of the California Highway Patrol and a local high school senior teamed up to bring the “Every 15 Minutes” program to Colusa High School on Thursday and Friday. 

This year’s program, which alternates between Colusa County’s various high schools from year to year, was organized by Addie Taylor, as a part of the 17-year-old’s senior project. In addition to Taylor and the California Highway Patrol, the program was a combined effort between the Colusa Police Department, the Colusa County Sheriff’s Office, ENLOE, and McNary Moore Funeral Service, Rideout Trauma, and the Colusa Medical Center.

On April 19, during Thursday morning classes, a handful of pre-selected “living dead” students were pulled out of classrooms in 15 minute intervals by the ‘Grim Reaper’ – each representing one person across the nation who will be involved in a drunk-driving-related incident every 15 minutes.  

At 10:43 AM, an apparent tragedy struck just outside Colusa High School. At the intersection of Will S. Green Avenue and Colus Avenue, five Colusa High School students could be seen covered in fake blood, seated in a pair of mangled vehicles that were involved in a mock-collision. The entirety of Colusa High School’s student body, released just minutes earlier, gathered around the scene and listened to the story behind the mock crash involving their classmates. 

Senior Raymond Frias played the drunk driver of the car crash, who slammed head-on into another car and took the lives of two fellow classmates – including junior Conner Saso, playing the part of a victim who was ejected through the windshield and pronounced dead on arrival; and senior Caitlin Vaca, who played a victim who was life-flighted to Colusa Medical Center, where doctors were unable to save her life. 

Junior Christian Lyss played the part of Frias’ passenger, who was “drinking” with Frias in the car before he was seriously injured in the collision, and was transported by ground ambulance to Colusa Medical Center. 

While the event was staged, organizers did everything they could to make it feel real.

Emergency personnel responded to the scene as if it was a real accident, and Colusa Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to remove the trapped students from the cars. Frias was given a field sobriety test by Colusa Police Officers, and when he “failed,” he was arrested and booked into the Colusa County Jail. 

Saso’s father and Colusa County Assistant Sheriff Jim Saso was called to McNary Moore to identify his son’s body, while Vaca’s parents were informed by doctors at Colusa Medical Center that their daughter had passed away. 

Frias had to call his mother, Becky Frias, from jail, to inform her that he had been “arrested” for driving under the influence, and had hurt three other people in the collision. On Friday, a mock funeral was held during an assembly for the two students who were “killed” in the collision. 

“You know it’s not real, but you definitely feel some emotion about it,” said Jim Saso. “I think the message is, I hope when everybody leaves there, they really think about the decisions they make, because one decision could effect a lot more people than they would even imagine.”

Thursday’s mock crash had a profound effect on Frias, who said the experience was eye-opening.

“It really opened my eyes and made it a real life situation for me,” Frias said. “Especially being the drunk driver, and killing two of my close classmates and seriously injuring my best friend. It really drove home that when you get behind the wheel, don’t drink and drive, or text, or any of that… When I looked back and saw Conner laying on the hood of the car, with the blood running down his face, it really hit me.”

Frias said that the emotions really kicked in later that night, when the participants gathered for a group session at  the Colusa Casino and had to write letters to their parents. He said he was hit hard when his younger sister, Makayla Frias – a freshman at CHS – read his letter out loud during Friday’s assembly, and when his dad, Jesse, read a letter his parents wrote to him after his “arrest.” 

His mother, Becky Frias, said that the experience was extremely difficult to go through as a parent.

“It really wasn’t until I was at work and received a phone call from the jail, letting me know he had been involved in a DUI accident and had killed two people,” Becky Frias said. “But I feel very positive being a part of something you know had a really positive impact on the students. The emotions were raw, very powerful, and moving. Leaving the assembly on Friday, it felt as if I had just come from a real funeral.”

The crash “victims” and their families read letters at the Friday’s assembly, too. Addie Taylor said that while Thursday was likely the most emotional day for the participants and their families, Friday’s assembly was the most emotional day for the student body as a whole. 

“My goal was just to get them to understand that their decisions don’t just impact themselves or their families, but other people in our community,” Taylor said. “I hope that the program will make them think twice before getting into a vehicle, remind them that there is always someone there who can give you a ride – that there are people out there that will come and help, and that they’re not by themselves.” 

Taylor credited all of the agencies and businesses that helped make her senior project a success. 

“In the end, I definitely feel like everything came together perfectly,” said Taylor ■

Brian Pearson is the former Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects included reporting local government and the sports page.