This Monday, March 11, 2013 photo in Southington, Ohio shows the vehicle where six people died in a crash early Sunday in Warren, Ohio. Two teens who escaped the crash that killed six friends in a swampy pond wriggled out of the wreckage by smashing a rear window and swimming away from the SUV, a state trooper said Monday. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
WARREN, Ohio (AP) — The young folks call them "kick-backs": a small gathering of friends, less than a party but more grown-up than a sleepover. Something to do on weekends after the mall closes and the last movie lets out.
A kick-back may hold the answers this struggling northwestern Ohio industrial city is searching for after six teenagers died when a stolen SUV crashed into a pond near dawn. Two other teens escaped the submerged vehicle after it flipped over the guardrail on what locals call "Dead Man's Curve."
The eight teens were crammed into a five-passenger Honda Passport as it sped down a desolate, 35-mph road early Sunday. On Monday, with authorities releasing no details about where the teens were going or coming from, family and friends struggled to fit the pieces of the tragedy together.
All eight passengers came from the close-knit black community in this small, mostly working-class city of 41,000. So the deaths punched a hole in a part of Warren where everyone seems related by blood or marriage, and the rebellious rituals of youth have played out across generations.
Seven young men — ages 14, 15 and 18 — were in the car driven by a 19-year-old woman. The car was reported stolen on Monday, more than a day after the crash. It was not clear if the passengers knew the car was stolen; several locals who knew the victims said the 19-year-old took it from her mother's boyfriend without permission.
Brandon Murray and Ramone White were 14-year-old best friends who lived a block apart. On Saturday night, Brandon's mother said, they pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book: Each told his mother he was sleeping over at the other's house.
They ended up at a kick-back somewhere and were probably trying to catch a ride home in the stolen SUV, said Brandon's mother, Lisa Williamson. "They were just kids out having fun, not kids into gangs, no drugs involved," Williamson said Monday. "They're just kids doing what we all did at one time."
Brandon and Ramone were close friends with another 14-year-old in the car, Andrique Bennett. He told his father, Andre Bennett Sr., that he was staying overnight at a friend's house.
"It's something they did all the time_go to the mall, go to the movies, then stay over with their friends," the elder Bennett said. He spoke Monday in the kitchen of his comfortable house, which he shares with his wife of 21 years and three surviving sons.
A steady stream of family and friends came through the front door, bringing hugs, tears and love. In the living room, a large television played video of Andrique, known to all as "Butter," trading freestyle raps with Brandon. The Bennetts are a musical family, and Andrique had the gift.
Everyone described Andrique, Brandon and Ramone as typical teens. They weren't into crime or drugs. They were lovers of music, video games and sports.
Their mysterious whereabouts on the deadly night were typical, too, Brandon's mother said.
Sitting in her own living room, surrounded by friends and relatives, Williamson reminisced about her own Saturday nights growing up in Warren: "How many times did we pile into a car, having to get home before Sunday school?"
She wore a rubber bracelet reading "Jesus Loves You," which she had removed from her dead son's wrist. Brandon, Andrique and Ramone attended after-school church programs one or twice a week, she said.
But she still can't understand: "What made them get in that car?"
"We're still trying to find out whose house they were at that let them leave at that late hour," Williamson said.
Authorities were awaiting the results of drug and alcohol tests on the dead teens. Investigators say excessive speed was a key factor in the crash, and that none of the passengers were wearing seat belts.
Five of the dead were trapped inside the SUV when it flipped into about five feet of water. A sixth was thrown from the vehicle and found underneath it, authorities said.
In addition to Andrique, Brandon and Ramone, state police identified the dead as the 19-year-old driver, Alexis Cayson; Kirklan Behner, 15; and Daylan Ray, 15. Three drowned, and autopsies on the others were incomplete, the coroner said.
Brian Henry, 18, and Asher Lewis, 15, smashed a rear window, wriggled out of the wreckage and swam away, then ran a quarter-mile to a home to call 911, authorities said. They suffered only minor injuries.
It has not been easy lately in Warren, a Rust Belt city between Cleveland and Pittsburgh that looks like so many others in its region. Shuttered steel mills and auto plants killed jobs and small businesses. Then, increased poverty and drugs wreaked havoc among families. The Great Recession dealt another cruel blow. A year ago, a smoldering charcoal grill started a house fire that killed six family members.
At a prayer service Monday night, Mayor Doug Franklin told about 200 people that lessons can be learned from the crash. He spoke about teaching young people to make good choices and supporting the families of the dead. He said he had received messages of support from across the country.
"A lot of people are with us," Franklin said. "We have to be with ourselves."
The mayor said he wants people across the country to know one thing about the young people who died in that car:
"They're not unlike any other families and young people throughout our country," he said. "Some bad decisions were made that led to this tragic event."
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