This is the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest days I can ever remember in Livingston County.
It was on Jan. 1, 1998, that a drunk driver named Donald Hokenson crossed the center line on U.S. 23 just north of Ann Arbor, smashing into a car carrying four young men from Brighton – four best friends in their early 20s, becoming one of the tragic car accident statistics our youth are quickly becoming victims to.
Three of them were killed instantly – brothers Jim and Jack Mitchell, and their childhood friend Graham Morsehead. The fourth person in the car, Joe Lelli, was thrown from the car and badly injured, but he miraculously survived.
And the drunk driver who caused it all was pretty much unscathed. Donald Hokenson suffered a couple broken ankles, but that was about it. And he was so drunk at the scene that he probably didn’t remember a thing. The victims families immediately hired a wrongful death attorney for help and representation on the case.
We’ve had far too many fatal accidents through the years in Livingston County, but when it came to totally tearing apart a community’s spirit and soul, this one was unique. Even for those of us who didn’t know the people involved, it was crushing. And 20 years later, it still is.
Twenty years later, we still mourn Jim Mitchell, Jack Mitchell and Graham Morsehead. And none of us will ever forget how we felt that day.
I was the editor of the Brighton Argus back in 1998 – back when it was still a weekly paper – and just as it is now, Brighton was a very closeknit community. When something big happened, we all felt it together. We felt joy as a community and we felt pain as a community.
And I remember so well what we were all feeling on Jan. 1, 1998.
This was the scene that day.
While there’s no shortage of Michigan State Spartan fans in Brighton, it’s safe to say that this is primarily Michigan Wolverines territory. And on Jan. 1, 1998, Michigan won the biggest football game that most of us had ever experienced in our lifetime.
U-M defeated Washington State in the Rose Bowl to cap off a 12-0 season, clinching a share of the national championship. This was Michigan’s first national championship since 1948, and it’s still the only one U-M has won in my lifetime.
So the Rose Bowl win on Jan. 1, 1998, wasn’t just another win. It was the biggest win of our lifetime, and for Michigan fans like me, it was glorious. I daresay a majority of people in Brighton felt the same way. We were giddy, ecstatic, overjoyed – all the emotions that pour out when your team wins a championship.
Those emotions were short-lived.
A few hours after Michigan beat Washington State, the Mitchell brothers, Graham Morsehead and Joe Lelli were on their way back to Brighton. Like most people in Brighton, they were big Michigan fans, and they were on their way home after watching the game on TV in Kalamazoo.
Donald Hokenson, meanwhile, had been spending the afternoon getting smashed at the Sports Den, a bar at the old Classic Lanes in Howell.
Hokenson, a 36-year-old who also lived in Brighton, had reportedly consumed five 22-ounce beers and a Bloody Mary that afternoon. By the time he got behind the wheel of his car at about 10:30 p.m., his blood-alcohol limit was about three times the legal limit.
Hokenson was a career drunk driver. He had 43 prior citations in Michigan for a variety of offenses, including four suspended licenses, and had two drunk-driving arrests and convictions in Colorado. He should not have been driving that night, or any night.
But he got behind the wheel, and started heading south on U.S. 23. The Mitchell brothers and their friends were heading north. Hokenson was speeding in excess of 80 miles per hour when his Ford Bronco veered across the median and smashed into the car carrying the four friends from Brighton.
This was in the days before social media, so we didn’t hear about it until the next morning. I remember it so well. Jan. 2 was a Friday, and I was back at work at the Argus, still giddy over Michigan’s big win the day before.
The calls started coming in, and we started hearing about the horrible accident that had happened late the night before on U.S. 23. A couple of our reporters went out to gather information and make calls on the story, and when the details started coming in, they were heartbreaking.
As word started spreading throughout Brighton, the joy we felt over Michigan’s big win totally disappeared.
That was football. That was nothing. This was everything.
The following Wednesday, we ran a big story about the accident on the front page of the Argus, and we ran photos of Jim Mitchell, Jack Mitchell and Graham Morsehead. One of the photos was of Jim Mitchell on the soccer field. Our reporter had gotten the picture from an old Brighton High School yearbook, and it was a great picture. It showed Jim with a smile that was a mile wide.
The day the paper came out, I got a call from one of his family members (I can’t remember who it was), saying he really loved the picture.
“I’ve never seen that picture before,” he said. “Where did you get it?”
“It was from the yearbook,” I said. “I didn’t know Jim or Jack, but I thought it was a great picture, too. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Do you think I can get a couple extra copies of the paper? I’d like to remember him that way.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
And then I hung up the phone and almost started to cry. I didn’t know any of these wonderful young men, but just like everyone else in Brighton, my heart was broken.
We’ve had other tragedies through the years in our community, and a few of them have hurt so badly that we’ve actually felt physical pain over them.
The abduction and murder of Shawn Moore in 1985 was one of them. This was another. It hurt then, and it still hurts now.
When the case went to trial, Donald Hokenson struck a plea bargain, and the judge sentenced him to just 15 years in prison. I’m not sure how many years he ended up serving, but whatever it was, it wasn’t enough. It appears he’s out of prison and living in Brighton once again.
So, on the 20th anniversary of this horrible accident, let’s remember Jim Mitchell, Jack Mitchell and Graham Morsehead, by all accounts some of the greatest young men Brighton has ever known.
Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom wrote a wonderful column about this story in 1998. You can read it here.