The Ride of Their Lives
Death came many times for Christian LaFore in his twin sister's dreams. Over and over, she saw his life end on the ski slopes, even though Christian wasn't a skier.
He did ride a motorcycle, however, and while she slept one night, Sarah LaFore watched Christian pull out of a Taco Bell drive-thru. She woke when oncoming traffic slammed into the bike, killing her brother.
By day, the LaFore family and motorcycles were inseparable. Christian and the twins' older brother, Jason (or "Jace"), would cruise their bikes up city streets and down open highways alongside their father, Mike; their mother, Chris, would ride on the back. The LaFore boys built their bikes from the ground up at LaFore's Custom Motorcycle Shop, the family's business in Lakewood.
By the summer of 1999, 21-year-old Christian had already created about a dozen bikes and worked on hundreds of other motorcycles. When he was just sixteen, he'd rebuilt a loud 1967 Camaro. It was faster than Jace's 1968 Camaro, but not because Christian wanted to top his big brother. He knew just how his Camaro had to be, and that's the only way he would build it. He'd watched the classic '80s flick Better Off Dead countless times, and loved the scene when the girl restores John Cusack's Camaro.
Cars were cool, but Christian preferred working on motorcycle engines. Rather than crawling around under a hood, he liked looking at what was laid out in front of his face. The laid-back kid always knew he'd be a mechanic, and with bikes, he got to work with his father, his uncle and sometimes his brother.
A couple of months after Sarah's motorcycle nightmare, Christian went to a cemetery with his fiancée, Lisa, to visit her father's plot. It was a summer Sunday, and as he and Lisa strolled through the graveyard, discussing death, a kneeling-angel headstone caught Christian's eye. That's how he'd like his grave marked when his time came, he told Lisa.
"Seriously, Christian was the best thing that ever happened to me," Lisa says. "At the time when I met him, I was unsure about a lot of things about myself. And he came in and reinforced positivity. He showed me there is still good, there are still good people out there. Not only was he a companion, but he gave me that security, like a father. Just a good person, easygoing, never hesitated to help somebody -- a gentleman. Christian was definitely the best thing to happen to me."
The next day, on July 26, 1999, Christian went to work at the family shop, where he was putting the finishing touches on a bright-blue, 1998 custom swing-arm for a California man. LaFore's builds bikes at an average cost of $45,000, for customers across the country. Like most LaFore's customers, the California man waiting for the swing-arm had become a family friend. Mike knew the new machine was perfect for him, and he was proud of the job his son had done. "Christian always had that smile," Mike says. "When he started up a bike and goosed it a little bit, the smile would get big with the rpms."
All that was left was a final test ride. Then Christian could slap a custom LaFore's seat on the bike and hand over the keys to its new owner.
Mike always told his boys to use the service road along Sixth Avenue for test rides, because the main strip was too busy. Christian roared off with a flat-head screwdriver in his pocket for some last fine-tuning. He knew the $30,000 machine well; he'd spent the last four months creating it.
Christian rode toward a T-shaped intersection. From the right, a white Nissan sedan suddenly made a left directly in front of him. The bike's tires melted into the pavement, screeching as Christian tried to stop, and then the bike slammed into the sedan at the intersection. Police found Christian's sunglasses tangled in the wiper blades. The windshield was cracked where his body had ricocheted into the air.
The crash woke a napping neighbor.
The driver of the sedan, Mary Murphy, was only a quarter of a mile from home.
Two witnesses told police that Christian was speeding, one said recklessly. They'd determined Christian's speed as they were driving along Sixth Avenue and the motorcycle passed them on the frontage road, they explained. From the evidence, Lakewood cops figured Christian was going 72 miles per hour. The posted speed limit on the frontage road is 35 miles per hour.
Angered when Lakewood decided not to pursue criminal charges against Murphy, the LaFores hired police-certified accident reconstructionists. Other witnesses told them that Murphy was on a cell phone when she stepped out of her vehicle. The reconstructionists concluded that Christian was cruising at 39 mph and that Murphy cut a corner at the intersection.
Christian's mother wrote Murphy a letter; she never received a response.
"It was a very tragic accident, and I still have remorse," Murphy says. "I'll live with this until I die, and I don't want to talk about it. I still can't talk about it."
"Basically, what it boils down to is, she wasn't paying attention," Mike says. "The story is that there is such a prejudice against motorcyclists."
Jace tattooed their father's arm in honor of Christian. Their mother says Jace helped the family make sense -- if that was possible -- of Christian's death. Christian had had nightmares, too, and had dreamed that he would hurt his family in some grave way. Jace now interpreted Christian's dreams as an omen and his death as serving a greater purpose.
Four days after Christian died, hundreds of regretful riders rolled down Sheridan Boulevard in his honor. Traffic cops admired the machines rumbling along. The procession stretched as far as the LaFore family could see from the limo.
The Sturgis motorcycle rally was coming up. Christian had been building a new bike for the family outing to South Dakota; he'd planned to sell the bike in Sturgis and use the money to put a down payment on a house, where he and Lisa could raise a couple of kids.
"You have all brought Sturgis to Christian," Jace told those who attended his kid brother's funeral.
On Christian's grave is a kneeling-angel headstone.
Back in 1966, Denver kids liked to cruise. They'd spend a night hopping from diner to drive-in, rolling up and down drag strips. Some nights they'd cruise through two tanks of gas.
One afternoon, Mike LaFore parked his two-door 1953 Chevy outside West High School. He got out and, hands in his pockets, approached a pretty, brown-haired girl named Chris Cobo, who also attended West.
Chris declined Mike's offer to cruise her home in his blue hot rod. But Mike was persistent. He'd souped up the eight-cylinder engine with his own wrenches, and word had spread that he had the fastest ride on the west side. Mike's friends couldn't believe their eyes the day they saw Chris driving that dragster solo. "You don't even let us drive it," they told Mike.
Two years later, Mike and Chris got married.
Soon after Jason was born, in 1974, a house near Sheridan and Sixth Avenue, the oldest and biggest one in the subdivision where Mike had grown up, went on sale. The old lady who'd lived there would let kids pick apples off the ground from under a tree on her property, Mike remembers, but always told them not to take them off the tree. Kids would snatch them anyway. But only Mike was brave enough to approach the old lady.
Now Mike and Chris bought her house. And then Mike bought a motorcycle. He loved riding a motorcycle, because he loved the control: People steer cars, but bikes are maneuvered with body weight. Mike appreciated the simplicity of what two wheels and a motor could do.
In 1977, Chris gave birth to Christian and Sarah LaFore. With three young kids, Chris had to put her career as a nurse on hold. Mike did contracting work and helped make ends meet with some mechanic gigs.
But he always found time to walk with the kids around downtown Denver on Saturdays. And on Sundays, the three little LaFores would line up on the porch in sunglasses, waiting for their father to strap them on his bike like mini-co-captains between him and the tank. Soon the LaFore kids had a mini-bike of their own that Mike had picked up for $75. Jace and Christian would putt around the yard and the neighborhood; Sarah pretty much gave up riding after a collision with a backyard fence.
Christian taught his mother to ride when he was just six years old. He was riding on the back of the bike when Chris drove straight into a bush. Nine-year-old Jace watched from the porch, laughing his ass off. From then on, Chris stayed on the back of bikes.
When the kids were growing up, the LaFores' lawnless back yard was like a giant sandbox, with dogs and cats and kids always running around. Mike and the boys built a treehouse back there. Neighborhood kids would come to the LaFore yard to bust daredevil tricks on skateboards or jump bikes off homemade ramps. Inside the house was a room where they could draw on the walls.
One day when Jace and Sarah were wrestling inside the house, Sarah smashed into a window and broke it. Assuming his first-born responsibility, Jace ran out to the yard and grabbed a rock, which he planted as phony evidence in the glass. The kids all told the same story: Someone had thrown a rock at the window, then run away. It was a secret they shared for years.
Eventually, Mike's passion for mechanics started bringing in more money than his contracting work. In 1986, he and his brother, Felix, started a business in Felix's garage. Things went well, and in 1988 they opened a small shop, LaFore's Custom Motorcycle Shop. Four years later, they moved into a bigger building.
Hot rods and motorcycles came and went through the boys' childhood. Christian had a more mechanical mind, but Jace loved watching his father work on engines, too.
Jace was from the same eclectic mold as his mother, who swears that he was the smartest person she ever met. He studied the stars and Greek mythology. He listened to classical music and jazz and was always reading something. He ventured on foot as a boy -- and in a borrowed Toyota 4-Runner as a man -- to trap frogs in the wild. He loved art. He could answer any question that Sarah came up with.
When Jace headed off to Arizona State University, the family felt incomplete without him. Jace talked with his parents and siblings often over the phone and left school just a year later.
"Jace decided that's not how he was going to learn the best," Chris says. "He was going to learn it on his own."
Christian took his first airplane trip when he flew to Phoenix so that Jace wouldn't be alone on the drive home. The brothers rolled from the desert to the mountains in Jace's blue Camaro.
Mike and Chris were sitting in the kitchen when they heard the Camaro's exhaust pipes pulling up. They were pleased but pissed to see their boys home a day ahead of schedule, courtesy of the powerful engine in Jason's ride.
"They loved each other," Mike says. "They'd die for each other."
But Christian died for another love.
Although the LaFores love bikes, they don't love biker stereotypes.
After bad-boy Marlon Brando led a motorcycle gang in 1953's The Wild One, mainstream America saw bikers as rebels, maybe communists. After Peter Fonda smoked joints, dropped acid and stuffed his cocaine profits into a gas tank painted like an American flag in 1969's Easy Rider, the druggie-biker badass stigma stuck.
It took decades for the image of bikers to change. Baby-boomers helped fuel the change, and today everyone from lawyers to lawmakers are buying Harleys. As the number of motorcycle enthusiasts increases, though, so does the number of bikers who die on the road. Christian was one of 2,483 motorcycle fatalities in this country in 1999. In 2003, the tally was 3,661.
Imre Szauter, legislative-affairs specialist for the American Motorcyclist Association, attributes many of those deaths to automobile drivers failing to pay attention to bikers. Most of the fatal accidents occur at urban intersections, where a driver's depth perception can be confused by a single headlight, he says.
Christian wasn't wearing a helmet when he was killed, but his parents don't believe that's what killed him. "Wearing a helmet doesn't stop people from turning left in front of you," Chris says, "and that's the cause of this."
Helmets are optional under Colorado law, and as a nurse, Chris has very specific objections to them. "One of the most common and most severe injuries caused by helmets is called the Hangman's Noose," she says. "When the head is involved, on impact the helmet jerks back, pulling the strap up, causing strangulation and anoxia, severe brain damage, and, in many cases, breaking the neck."
Mike agrees that motorcycling with a helmet is just as dangerous as riding without. Helmets impair riders visually, he says. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmets would be effective in about a third of all otherwise potentially fatal cases.
When traffic is heavy or the weather's bad, Lois Tochtrop will strap on a helmet as she straddles her customized 1986 Harley-Davidson low-rider. In addition to being a biker, she's also a state senator. "People ask why I wear a helmet, and I say, 'Because I don't have to,'" explains Tochtrop as she waves at several senior constituents passing by at a local Village Inn.
The Democrat was a state representative when she fought to increase penalties on careless drivers who kill or seriously injure bikers, advocating a mandatory one-year license suspension. That proposal was inspired by the life and loss of Christian LaFore; Tochtrop, who's also a nurse, had become friends with Chris LaFore before the tragedy, when both worked at the same facility.
During testimony before the Colorado House of Representatives, Chris held up a picture of Christian and pleaded for stronger penalties for careless drivers. The bill made it out of the House, but it died in the state Senate.
Feeling they'd been denied justice both in Jefferson County and the Colorado Legislature, the LaFores filed a civil suit against Mary Murphy. That case was settled out of court.
Ed Smalley, the family's attorney and a biker himself, says that wrongful-death cases involving motorcycle riders face several hurdles. "A motorcyclist has precisely the same rights as any other motor vehicle on the road," he says, "but because we're more exposed than a car, sometimes people think we deserve it, and it's troublesome in any civil action." Non-riders often don't understand the dynamics surrounding motorcycle accidents and what bikers are up against on the streets, he adds.
Tochtrop is now working with motorcycle-advocacy groups ABATE (A Brotherhood Active Towards Education) and BIKEPAC to reintroduce legislation that would stiffen penalties for careless drivers who hurt or kill motorcyclists, skaters, bicyclists and pedestrians.
If the LaFores testify again, they'll have a lot more to say.
This past Halloween, Tochtrop was home with her new grandchild when the phone rang. "Kids are knocking on the door, baby cute as a button, you know, sixteen months old, and I get a phone call," she remembers. "It just felt surreal. It was like, 'No, no, it's not true.' I couldn't believe it. How much more could a person take, how much more pain?"
After Christian's death, Jace went to work for his father. He was the only one allowed to use his brother's tools, still stuffed in the box with a yellow "Cool It" sticker.
After his stint at ASU, he'd gotten a job doing graphics at the Rocky Mountain News. But that job ended when the News entered into a joint operating agreement with the Denver Post, and he was happy to fill the void in the family shop.
A cousin describes Jace as "borderline brilliant." He struggled with electrical wiring at first, but after the light came on, he never struggled again.
After Christian died, Sarah told Jace about her dream. But when Jace asked her if she'd ever dreamed of him getting married or meeting someone, she just laughed. Jace told his mother that he'd like to be cremated and launched into space when his time came.
At Mike's suggestion, Jace took the engine from the bike Christian had been building and put it in one of his own motorcycles. "That engine, it'll keep you safe," Mike had told him. "Your brother would want you to have that."
Although Jace had mixed feelings about using the motor, he decided he'd rather have one built by his brother, one of the best mechanics in the business, than by anyone else.
Slowly the LaFores put their lives back together. By this fall, they were finally getting to a point where they could celebrate Christian's life instead of mourning his death.
The morning of October 30, Chris LaFore woke up with a headache. When Mike woke up, he turned on the light, thinking that his wife had already gotten out of bed. Instead, he saw Chris lying on her side, obviously in pain. After eating breakfast at his mother's house, an every-other-day ritual, Mike picked up some prescription drugs for Chris. Then he went to the shop to build motorcycles.
Sarah, who'd moved out of the family home years before but still lived nearby, was standing at the stove, cooking breakfast for her husband and two young daughters, when she suddenly started sobbing. She didn't know why, and scrambled to come up with a good excuse so that her family wouldn't worry.
"Everything was different that morning," Mike says. "Everything was different that morning."
Jace, a marathon runner, would sometimes jog to work. This morning, he was cruising his 1978 Triumph down Sheridan toward the family shop, a gas station just ahead on the right.
Gregory Nester was driving his Ford F-150 truck up Sheridan, pulling a double-axle trailer behind. He saw the station, decided he needed gas, turned on his blinker and made a left turn over a median, right in front of Jace.
Jace collided with the trailer as Nester's truck pulled into the service station.
Back at the LaFore house, the phone started to ring. Chris recognized Jace's number on the caller ID and picked up. But it wasn't Jace on the other end of the line. A man who said he was a doctor told Chris he was sorry, but her son had been in an accident and didn't make it.
"All I could think was, 'Not again. No, this could not be happening,'" Chris remembers. "And I said to him, 'Are you sure it's Jason? Are you sure?' And I mean, I knew it was. He was on Jason's cell phone."
The doctor told Chris to come to the hospital and asked if she needed directions. "I know where you are," she told him. "This happened to my other son five years ago."
The doctor told her to be careful.
"And I remember throwing the phone, scaring the hell out of the cats, walking around going 'What do I do, what do I do?' for probably ten minutes," Chris says.
Then she went to her daughter's house, where she found Sarah finishing breakfast. Chris told her that Jace was dead. Sarah threw whatever was in her hand. "And I just walked upstairs and started brushing my hair, like we had done this before, we were going to the hospital," Sarah remembers. "With Jason, it was so unbelievable that it had happened again, I couldn't take it in."
Chris left to go tell her husband at the shop, heading toward Sheridan. "About a block from the light," she says, quivering, "I saw Jason's shoe in the street and I thought, 'Oh, my God, it's right here.' And I saw his bike laying there. I saw the truck and the trailer."
A half-dozen police officers and witnesses were crowded around the crash site. Chris ran up to the officers. The first cop saw the patch on her coat that says "In Memory of Christian LaFore" and didn't even have to ask Chris to identify herself. He told her that Jason had been traveling at a high rate of speed when he hit the truck.
Then another cop stepped up and said they really didn't know yet what had happened, except that a truck had pulled in front of Jason. Chris spent about five minutes at the scene, then went on to the shop.
Mike looked up and smiled when Chris walked in. Then she told her husband that their other son was dead.
Nester told police that he hadn't seen the bike coming. "I was not paying attention," he said when they asked if he'd noticed whether the light ahead was red or green when he turned on his blinker. Witnesses told police that Jace was driving erratically.
Driving fast is another biker stereotype. According to Mike, people just don't understand that bikes accelerate to the speed limit more quickly than cars do.
"Christian and Jason knew how to lay a scooter down," he adds, "but neither of them had an escape here."
Jace's ashes will be laid to rest by Christian. They will not be shot into space.
Although the life they knew is over, work goes on at LaFore's Custom Motorcycle Shop.
Harleys and custom choppers stand side by side outside the glass doors of the shop on Sheridan. Inside, bikes ranging from bare-bones stripped frames to fancy, finished machines line the back room. Parts pulled from long-retired bikes decorate the walls.
Leaning against a back wall is the yellow motorcycle frame that Christian was working on for Sturgis, the bike that would buy his future. The remnants of Jason's Triumph are in a room that's closed off. In the center of the front room, a bike stands like a shrine to the brothers: Christian's chrome engine shining in Jace's grey frame. The black tires rest on steel plates over the carpet.
In the LaFore family, people say "See ya," never "Goodbye."
"I can tell you this," Chris says. "My children never, ever left the house without both of us hugging them and saying ' love you' and them saying 'I love you' back. I think that we're very fortunate in that our children know how much they're loved. It was never a question. And truly, it was unconditional."
Both Jace and Christian were killed in Lakewood. Between 2000 and the end of 2004, twelve people were convicted of careless driving resulting in death or serious bodily injury in that city. Although the LaFores gave their reconstructionists' report to Lakewood officials, Murphy was never charged in connection with Christian's death; according to prosecutors, she didn't violate any laws. The city did charge Nestor with careless driving resulting in Jace's death, but the worst he faces is $1,000 in fines and one year in jail for careless driving -- and jail sentences are rare in such cases. "There is no good outcome," says Pam Russell, spokeswoman for the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office. "These cases are just tragic, because so many families are destroyed."
The LaFores don't want people to feel sorry for them. They just want people to pay attention when they get behind the wheel.
"We'd never wish this on anybody. No family should ever have to have this," says Mike, who still rides a bike.
"I look out there and I see my sons; they're always there with me. Our sons, they grew up to be good men. They had the love and compassion for people that we raised them with. And we couldn't ask for better."
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