Shawna Rush was a small-town girl who was taught to respect other people, to mind her elders and to give selflessly.
Growing up, she and her three sisters ate supper with their parents, Roy and Johnanna Rush, every night that they didn't have basketball or volleyball practice. They went to church every Sunday, and when the four tomboys weren't playing school sports, the were showing their prized pigs in the county fair.
Despite Shawna's wholesome upbringing, though, Roy admits she was "no perfect angel." All of his daughters rebelled as teens, but it was Shawna who gave him all of his gray hairs, he says with a chuckle. As the baby of the family and the last to leave home, she pushed the limits, staying out past curfew, not calling her parents when she was supposed to, and dating more than a few bad boys. When she got older, she strayed from her family and church in favor of the bars and nightclubs of Denver. "She would do the opposite of what people wanted her to," remembers Shawna's thirty-year-old sister, Nikki Basart. "Instead of listening to country music, she listened to rap, and that drove Daddy nuts."
Things slowly began to change when Roy and Johnanna started working at the Mountain States Children's Home, a residential child-care facility north of Longmont. Shawna took an interest in the kids and found she could relate to the girls. She saw an opportunity to prevent them from making some of the same mistakes she'd made.
She eventually moved from Thornton to Loveland to be closer to her family, returned to church and started planning to become a teacher. But on November 3, 2003, Shawna's world collided with that of Stephanie Huff, a troubled teen whose life was careering out of control.
December 16, 2003, was a crisp, clear day in Fort Collins. But inside the Larimer County courtroom where Stephanie Huff's preliminary hearing was taking place, the air was warm and thick with anxiety.
Stephanie sat to the left of the defense table, wearing an orange jumpsuit; she had a black air cast on her right arm. Her long, brown hair was unkempt, her pale face dotted with pimples. The puffy circles under her eyes were evidence of sleepless nights. No emotions crossed her face as she listened to Loveland police detective Susan Sauter describe the events of November 3. Not even a flicker of a smile appeared when she glanced at her grandparents, uncle and older sister sitting in the back of the courtroom.
Two months earlier, fifteen-year-old Stephanie had run away, taking her fourteen-year-old friend, Amber, with her. The two girls had spent a week driving around Fort Lupton and Evans, sleeping in a small red car. The friends then decided to steal a truck, Sauter told the court, and Amber lifted an extra set of keys from the home of a man she knew. On November 2, Amber and Stephanie spotted the man's truck outside a Weld County nightclub, and while he was inside, they took the white 1990 Chevy. The girls drove around all night, finally stopping in Loveland, where they parked in an alley and fell asleep.
Shortly before 6 a.m., Loveland police received a call about the truck, which was blocking a man's driveway. The responding officer tapped on the glass, waking Stephanie and Amber. He asked them their names and then went back to his cruiser to run a check. Stephanie came up in his database as a runaway. When the officer returned and told the girls to exit the truck, which had been reported stolen, Stephanie rolled up the driver's-side window, started the engine and accelerated in reverse.
The officer ran to the front of the house, where his patrol car was parked, and watched as the truck raced past him. He jumped in his car, turned on his lights and requested backup. But it was a foggy northern Colorado morning and the truck was speeding and swerving, so he called off the chase within minutes. Unaware of that, Stephanie told Amber, "Put on your seat belt; I'm not going to jail," Sauter testified. Six blocks later, Stephanie lost control of the truck and crashed into the Garfield Avenue duplex that Shawna Rush had moved into just a month and a half earlier.
Shawna had been in her duplex getting ready for work at StorageTek in Louisville and had called Roy at 5:15 to say she was dropping by on her way. When the phone rang, he was still in bed. "She said, ŒWhatcha doin', Pops?'" Roy remembers. It was their little joke; she knew exactly what he was doing at that hour.
She asked to speak to her mother, but Roy told her Johnanna had spent the night in Loveland, caring for her three granddaughters while Nikki and her husband drove home from Nebraska. Nikki was scheduled to arrive home shortly, so Shawna offered to pick up her mother on the way to the house. "I said I'd go get her," Roy recalls, "but she said, 'Nope, I'll get her; you put the coffee on.' I said, 'Whatever you say, bossy britches.' She said, 'Oh hush, Daddy. I love you.' That was the last thing she said to me."
Roy got the coffee brewing and expected to hear his wife's and daughter's laughter spill into the quiet home at any moment. But while he sat and waited for them, Shawna was lying in what was left of her living room, conscious and alert but severely injured. Stephanie fled the scene, but Amber stayed behind.
Shawna implored a neighbor who'd come to her aid to call her father, and at 6:15, the neighbor finally got ahold of Roy, telling him that Shawna had been in an accident and was being transported to Loveland's McKee Medical Center. Operating on autopilot, Roy called Johnanna at Nikki's, and they each took off separately for the hospital. Once there, the frantic parents learned the details: The 28-year-old had been in the living room of her duplex when the truck came barreling into the front of the house, leaving a disaster zone of brick, crushed furniture and one very broken body.
Within thirty minutes of arriving at the hospital, the Rushes were joined by a couple dozen friends and relatives who all waited nervously while Shawna went into emergency surgery. At 8:30 a.m., doctors came out with bad news: Shawna didn't survive the operation. The cause of death, Sauter told the court, was abdominal blunt-force injuries.
Stephanie Huff has been charged as an adult with one count of vehicular homicide, one count of vehicular eluding resulting in death, and one count of motor-vehicle theft.
Roy Rush heads toward the pigpen, his faithful black lab, Jake, in tow. The view from the 155-acre property west of U.S. Highway 287 is breathtaking.
Kids whose parents don't want them or don't know how to handle them come here, to the Mountain States Children's Home, for counseling and rehabilitation. They often come at the referral of a family friend or relative, but sometimes it's by order of a judge. The nonprofit, which is operated by the Longmont Church of Christ, is a place for kids to escape the temptations of city life, a place where peace seems to blow in with the fresh country air. But it's no vacation.
The approximately 35 teens who pass through the farm each year live in one of three cottages staffed by "house parents" who run the homes like a family. Six girls at a time can live in each of two cottages, while six boys live in another. The kids are expected to make their beds, do their laundry, attend church and go to school or study on campus while they transition back into a regular public school. Learning responsibility by caring for animals is part of the facility's mission, so the kids are encouraged to work on the farm -- riding horses, caring for the tack and feeding and weighing pigs in preparation for the National Western Stock Show as well as state and county fairs.
Exhaling warm breath like smoke in the cold December air, Roy talks about the city kids who cringe at the prospect of castrating pigs. It's a chore the boys are usually too squeamish to perform, but one that some of the girls enjoy. "They say, 'Ewwww,' at first and then a month later, it's 'Let's go cut another one,'" he says, laughing.
Roy, who has the thick hands of a man who's used them all his life, was "born and raised on the back of a horse." His home town of Elida, New Mexico, had a population of 300, "if you count all the dogs and cats," he says.
He met Johnanna in a 4-H horse club when he was fourteen and she was thirteen. They got married three years later and lived on Roy's father's cattle ranch for many years before moving to their own acreage in Clovis, a town 44 miles to the north. They raised four girls while Roy auctioned off livestock on his land and Johnanna worked at the Safeway milk plant in town. But in 1988, when Shawna was thirteen, Johnanna was transferred to Safeway's Denver milk plant. Rather than settle in the city, though, the Rushes preferred to live in the rural community of Fort Lupton. Roy took a job at Robinson Dairy, and the family joined the Longmont Church of Christ.
In 1995, a church elder who sat on the board of directors of the Mountain States Children's Home asked Roy if he'd be interested in managing the farm. The prospect of getting back to the land was thrilling, and as Roy toured the horse barn and pigpen, childhood memories came flooding back. He quickly accepted the offer. A year later, Johnanna joined him on staff, overseeing correspondence between the home and its donors.
Working on the farm came naturally to Roy. What didn't come naturally was working with kids who had the kinds of problems he'd only heard about on television. The 54-year-old never could have guessed that one day he'd be helping kids who'd been abused, kids who'd smoked, snorted, swallowed and injected every drug there is -- some he'd never even heard of.
"I lived a pretty sheltered life," Roy says. "When I was growing up, the only things you could get into were alcohol and cigarettes. I'd heard of marijuana, but I'd never seen it. And even though I've been married for 37 years, these kids probably know more about sexual things than I do. So I guess you could say that coming here was a rude awakening. If I had my druthers, I'd be raising Hereford cattle, just like my daddy. But I guess the Lord didn't intend for me to do that."
Mountain States Children's Home, which was formed in 1960 by members of the West Cedar Church of Christ in Denver and then taken over by the Longmont church in 1974, is open to kids of all ages. But Randy Schow, the home's executive director, says the home serves teens because "that just seems to be where the need is."
When county social-services agencies send kids to them, Mountain States collects a government subsidy. Because most of the kids are referred privately, however, the home has a sliding-scale fee based on what parents can afford. Private donations make up the difference. When the home is full or receives referrals for kids whose problems are too severe for it to handle, staff members help find another placement.
The teens who reside here receive individual, group and family counseling. Most stay for two years, and half to two-thirds of the kids return to their parents or grandparents. For those who can't reunite with their families, Mountain States cares for them until they're old enough to live on their own. The organization's $835,000 annual budget provides salaries for the trained therapists, teachers and house parents on staff, as well as partial tuition for kids who don't have the means to pay for college.
Roy's role is not to counsel the kids, but to help them care for the animals. Nonetheless, he has become a confidant and "adoptive grandfather" to many. "I've established a close bond with a lot of the kids. I tell them they can tell me anything, but that I have to report any abuse or plans of suicide. Other than that, whatever they tell me stays right down there at the barn," he says. "A lot of the kids hug me and say, 'Grandpa, I love you.'"
Tyressa, a seventeen-year-old from Denver, had never even seen a pig until she came to Mountain States last May. Now she takes pride in caring for her swine. Working on a farm, she explains, "teaches me responsibility, and I want to please Roy, so I try really hard." Tyressa is adopted and never knew her biological grandparents, nor is she close to her adoptive ones, so Roy "is like a white grandpa to me," she says, laughing. "He encourages me to keep going and to be strong. What I've learned from him is that everyone has it in them."
And Roy has learned a few things about himself since taking the job: Despite the fact that he comes from a different world and a different time than the kids on this farm, their emotional troubles aren't so far removed from those he suffered as a teen. "My daddy was my idol, and he died when I was fifteen," Roy says. "Looking back, I see that I had a lot of anger in me."
Roy's rebellion over his father's death didn't take the same form as that of many of the home's teens -- he simply disobeyed his mama by chewing tobacco and growing sideburns -- but it was rebellion nonetheless. "If I hadn't had some men take me out behind the barn and bust my butt, I might have ended up where these kids are."
The girls were an awakening for his daughter, Shawna, as well. She could relate to them, see herself in them.
Nikki says her sister's only mistake in life was that she often gave too much. She threw herself into relationships with several guys who were bad news, including one who was abusive. "That was Shawna; she didn't care if she got nothing in return," Nikki says. "She had her rocky times, and she was going back and forth between churches, but she was getting back on track, living the life she knew she needed to."
The change in Shawna became evident when Nikki and her husband, Mike, had a baby. Shawna was bothered by the fact that their infant daughter, Kelsey, would cry and fuss whenever she tried to hold her. When Shawna mentioned that to Mike, he told her it was because she wasn't around much, so Kelsey couldn't bond with her. "Two days later, she called me up and we went apartment-hunting in Loveland," Nikki says.
After Shawna moved to 805 North Garfield Avenue in September, she rejoined the Longmont Church of Christ. She became more active with the kids on the farm, too, and the bond with her nieces grew stronger. "Within a week of Shawna moving to Loveland, Kelsey and my other two girls became close. She had supper here several times and babysat a lot, and the girls would go right to her," says Nikki, who considered Shawna her best friend.
The sisters were also best friends with their mother, often going to get their hair and nails done together. Roy, on the other hand, was strict, and the Rush girls frequently butted heads with him. "He was hard on all four of us; he treated us more like boys than girls," Nikki says. "But we all grew to respect him. There's that saying, 'The older you get, the smarter your daddy becomes.' Well, that's exactly what Shawna learned at the very end of her life."
Shawna's work at the farm brought her and her father closer than ever. So close that she called him every morning on her way to work. "None of us knew that until she died," Nikki says, breaking into tears. "Not even Mama."
"She was my right-hand woman at the farm; she was my spark plug," Roy says. "She'd come by two or three times a week and help me with the pigs. And she became a mentor to some of the girls. She was a listener; you could just talk to her, and she didn't try to fix the problem or pass judgment."
Tyressa and seventeen-year-old Kay viewed Shawna as an aunt, someone older and wiser than they but still young enough that they could relate. "She told me to find out who I am before I start looking for a boyfriend and to love myself before I love someone else," Tyressa says. "That's something I really needed to hear."
The two girls became close to Shawna in August when they shared a Pueblo hotel room for three days while showing pigs in the state fair. "She was always there to talk to you. She'd talk about anything you wanted," Kay says. "She never judged, and she shared a lot of her past with us. We did a lot of the stuff she'd done."
"She said one of her biggest mistakes was having sex before she got married," Tyressa adds. "That was one of my mistakes, too."
News of Shawna's death came as a blow to the girls, who had both lost other people, either through abandonment or death. "I feel like I don't want to get close to anyone anymore," Tyressa says.
"When I first came here, I had a hard time getting close to anyone. A month before I came here, my best friend died," says Kay, who's been at the home for a year and had attempted suicide before arriving. "But Shawna was special; she filled that hole in my heart."
"The day before she died, she told me she was proud of me," Tyressa says.
While the two girls struggle with their loss, they are also trying to help the Rushes deal with theirs. When they see Roy and Johnanna, Kay and Tyressa remind them how much Shawna helped them. For Johnanna, talking publicly about Shawna is still too hard. After all, this is the second time she's had to bury a daughter. Roi Leigh, the eldest of the four Rush girls, died almost three years ago of leukemia.
Roy is more able to discuss Shawna, but he grapples with the fact that she was killed by the type of person she would have tried to help. Rather than making him angry and turning him away from troubled teens, however, the accident has solidified his commitment to the home and to helping kids.
"Parents need to step up and do more before it's too late. We try to redirect children before they're beyond control, before they get into a terrible predicament like this," says director Schow. "More needs to be done for these kids."
No one agrees more than Linda Littlefield, founder of Kidz Ark, a residential treatment center in Sterling where Stephanie Huff once stayed.
When Stephanie was just twelve, the Weld County Department of Social Services referred her to Kidz Ark. Linda doesn't know how Stephanie got involved with social services, but she says that as far as she knows, it was the first -- and only -- time she was placed in a treatment program.
Stephanie could have gotten into the social-services system in a variety of ways. Social services can deem kids dependent and neglected if they're homeless, have been abused or abandoned, or if they've been denied food, education or medical care by a parent or guardian. They can also enter the child-welfare system if they've broken laws. But usually these kids are assigned to a mental-health center, the division of youth corrections or a therapeutic foster home. Residential treatment centers such as Kidz Ark are a last resort for those who fail to improve in other settings.
Stephanie refused to get out of the car the day a social worker took her to Kidz Ark, a Christian-based facility that, with its three family-style houses, is very similar to Mountain States Children's Home. "She was probably scared," Linda says.
Not long after she arrived, Stephanie accompanied the rest of the kids on an overnight trip to Estes Park, but she and another girl ran away from the group's YMCA camp at ten o'clock one night. "Running away is common among these kids," says Linda, who has been working with troubled youths for a decade. "I think a lot of times they're running from themselves."
Kidz Ark staff members found the girls two hours later and took them back to Sterling. After that, Linda says, "Stephanie kind of settled in." And during her five-month stay at the home, she seemed to make progress. "She changed her attitude around and was compliant," Linda recalls. Her good behavior even earned her weekend passes to visit her grandparents in Eaton, a small town north of Greeley. Linda drove her to those visits and learned a little about Stephanie during the long trips. When she and her two sisters were abandoned by their mother a couple of years earlier, their maternal grandparents adopted them. To this day, Linda says, no one knows where their mom is, and the girls' father isn't around, either.
Stephanie's grandparents blame her anger on being abandoned by her father and then her mother. The other Huff girls have adjusted better, but Linda says Stephanie reportedly has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She also may be developmentally delayed and have other mental-health problems. Kidz Ark couldn't keep Stephanie forever, though; once she successfully completed the facility's program, she was released back to her grandparents.
The teen stayed in touch with Linda, and she frequently calls her from jail. Linda mostly tries to encourage Stephanie to keep her chin up, but she also tries to explain the seriousness of the situation. "I'm not sure she comprehends it," Linda says. "I asked her if she'll ever write to Shawna's parents, and she said, 'I want to, but I can't do it yet.' She has a pretty flat affect; she doesn't get overly excited about much."
The first week Stephanie spent in jail, she cried and couldn't sleep, according to Linda. "She tells me she's sad about not being with her family and that she's worried her grandparents won't be around when she gets out of jail."
Stephanie's public defender, Stephen Sneider, obtained a gag order, effectively sealing any public records related to the case and preventing witnesses -- including Stephanie -- from speaking. Stephanie's grandparents declined to comment for this story but gave Linda permission to share what little she knows of the young woman.
Linda had stopped by the grandparents' home ten months after Stephanie left Kidz Ark to check on her. She and her sisters were in the back yard, playing with their pet rabbits, and, Linda says, Stephanie seemed to be doing well. But just a few months later, she was back in court for running away again. Her grandparents tried to get help for Stephanie -- they wanted her to return to Kidz Ark -- but the Weld County Department of Social Services turned them down because of a lack of funding.
Judy Griego, director of the department, says she's been advised by the county attorney not to discuss any aspect of Stephanie's case. She also declined to speak in general terms about any funding difficulties the county is facing. Linda is quick to point out that it's not Weld County's fault it couldn't afford to send Stephanie back to Kidz Ark, where treatment costs $112 per day per child. Nor is it really the state's fault. She believes it all goes back to society's view of kids like Stephanie.
When Linda and her husband and another couple first got into the child-care industry, they ran a home near Colorado Springs. "We were fought by residents when we tried to open, and when we tried to expand our Sterling facility, we were fought there, too," she says. "People always tell us that what we do is wonderful, as long as it's not in their back yard.
"Everyone looks at these kids like they're horrible monsters, but they're not. They're human beings who have had bad things done to them."
Very bad things. Incomprehensible things.
Kidz Ark has treated children who were chained up by their parents, introduced into prostitution by their parents, left for dead by their parents. Many of the kids have been abandoned by their mothers. They found tequila in the bottle of one abandoned baby, and her seven-year-old sister, who weighed 72 pounds, had so much anger that it took three adults to hold her down when she went into rages. "When you have kids who have suffered this much abuse, it takes more than three, six, even nine months in therapy to help them," Linda says. "But that's all the funds are providing now."
Most of the kids Linda sees aren't adoptable or even ready for foster care, they're so troubled. But residential treatment centers -- which differ from residential child-care facilities, such as Mountain States Children's Home, in that they get Medicaid funding and can therefore treat kids with more severe problems -- have been suffering from budget cuts.
The Colorado Department of Human Services doles out block grants to the county departments, giving them discretion over how they spend the money. "After they spend that, 100 percent of the cost of RTC placement comes out of their pocket," explains Peg Long, executive director of the Colorado Association of Family and Children's Agencies. "Most counties have spent their reserves. The system is bankrupt. It's bankrupt at the county level and it's bankrupt at the state level."
She points to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights as the cause. TABOR, as it's widely known, is a 1992 constitutional amendment that limits the amount of revenue the state can keep and spend. The legislation requires voters to approve additional taxation and to allow the state to keep extra funds when there's a surplus. Everyone from school administrators to Medicaid recipients have decried TABOR for the budgetary restrictions it's placed on social programs, and child-welfare providers are no exception. "The only bad guys here are the taxpayers who have applauded the tax cuts we've had in Colorado," Long says.
The amount of money RTCs receive from the state hasn't kept pace with the cost of treatment. For example, Denver Children's Home spends $169 a day per child on treatment but gets only $136 per child per day from the state. Due to the lack of funding, the length of time kids can stay in a residential treatment facility has dropped dramatically. In July 2002, the average number of days that beds were available in RTCs was 1,500; by July 2003, that number had dropped to 1,369.
"We have kids with some serious mental-health issues, and they need treatment," Long says. "Stephanie Huff is a perfect example of what can happen when there's no safety net."
Safety net or not, Shawna Rush's family says there's no excuse for what Stephanie did. At first they felt sorry for her. She was only fifteen and certainly never intended to kill anyone. But two days after Stephanie was caught by police after fleeing the scene of the accident, she managed to run away again. And that, Nikki says, is when "our sympathy went out the door. She knew what she did to Shawna, and she still ran."
While transporting Stephanie and two boys between court hearings in Fort Collins and a juvenile facility in Greeley, a community-corrections employee stopped at the Larimer County Department of Human Services to pick up another child. The employee left the van running, and Stephanie reportedly squeezed through a security window separating the front from the back and drove away. The two boys were found that night, but Stephanie eluded police until the next day, when she was found hiding in an Evans home.
For that, Stephanie was charged as a juvenile with vehicular eluding, first-degree aggravated motor-vehicle theft and escape from a pending felony. The Larimer County District Attorney's Office requested that the case be transferred to district court, where Stephanie would be charged as an adult. That request will be considered during a hearing on February 12. Two days before that, Stephanie will enter a plea in the vehicular-homicide case. Stephanie is being held at the Larimer County Detention Center on separate bonds of $500,000 and $50,000 for the two cases against her. She is not receiving any treatment or counseling.
Nikki feels that Stephanie simply didn't have the respect for others that her parents had instilled in her and Shawna. She and Roy would like to see her get help, but they also want to make sure she can't escape again. "She needs to be confined, whether it's behind bars or behind a gate," Nikki says. "If she's given another chance, she'll run."
When Tyressa and Kay first heard about the accident, they could relate to Stephanie. "It was like, 'That could have been any of us,'" Kay says. "Most of us have had thoughts of running away."
But the two of them say people deserve only so many chances. "I'm grateful that I got a second chance; not everyone does," says Kay, who plans to make the most of hers. She wants to go to college and become an obstetrician.
Tyressa is also committed to changing her behavior. "Shawna did a lot of the stuff we did, and she changed. She had such an impact on me, and I want to be able to have an impact on others," says Tyressa, who also hopes to attend college and plans to someday open a day-care center.
Even Linda thinks Stephanie needs to do time. She just wonders whether all of this could have been avoided had Stephanie gotten the proper treatment. Instead, the Rushes lost their daughter, and Stephanie is facing up to 24 years in prison.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.