STUART, FLORIDA — Stuart, Florida was a quiet town, where neighbors were friends, until a fatal accident divided their community: Two girls, killed by a teen driver who’d been drinking at a party.
He was sentenced to prison. But for the grieving parents of the dead girls, it wasn’t enough. They said the parents who’d thrown the party also had to pay.
It was a deadly accident that pitted family against family, and parent against parent.
Stephen Bromstrup's Firebird
The Soap Box Derby is a venerable all-American tradition. Kids racing one another in the fancy engineless crates they built with the help of their dads.
Stephen Bromstrup came in eighth in the country in 1996, the year he dashed downhill.
Paul Bromstrup, Stephen Bromstrup's father: He and I built a car when he was 10 years old.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: So you were pretty close as a father-son?
Paul Bromstrup: Oh very. Very.
Paul Bromstrup had good reason to be proud of his little boy. Stephen got straight A’s all through grade school, a solid second baseman in Little League. An all-around happy kid.
Paul Bromstrup: He always seemed to just love life.
When Stephen turned driver’s license age his father had a tantalizing gift waiting for him in the garage: Just as he’d helped build his boy’s soap box derby racer, Paul had restored his wife’s sporty 1988 Pontiac Firebird for Stephen.
Paul Bromstrup: I told him “Here’s the keys to the car” but “This is also a loaded gun. Treat it that way.” And I said it once, I said it a million times.
Paul Bromstrup: The responsibility of it was immense. And I knew it.
Three months after getting his license, there didn’t seem to be any reason to worry on a Monday in June 2002 when 16-year-old Stephen called his parents to ask if he could go over to a backyard barbecue party being thrown by a girl from school.
Murphy: Were those the rules that when he was gonna go out and do something he needed to check in with you?
Paul Bromstrup: Always.
Suzy Bromstrup: Always.
Paul Bromstrup: And he didn’t ever get to take the car on his own. He always had to say, “I’m going to so and so, can I take the car?”
Stephen’s curfew was 11 p.m. He didn’t show. About half an hour later, the phone rang.
Paul Bromstrup: A lady said there had been an accident.
Suzy Bromstrup: I was scared. You know, I had no idea what the intensity of it was and when we were driving towards the accident and it was kind of when we came up on a little bit of a ridge, we saw all the emergency lights. And immediately I just started shaking.
Paul Bromstrup: As soon as we came over that rise, it sort of reminded me of a demilitarized zone that you see in a Vietnam movie. Where you see the helicopters coming. It was very scary.
The smashed-up Firebird had come to rest in the median of a four-lane highway. About two hundred feet away on the far side of the road was a demolished Cadillac. A dazed man was standing by the wreck.
Paul Bromstrup: I saw Ted Wetherbeestanding there. We knew him, we’ve known him for a long time and I walked-up and he looked at me and he looked very, very distraught. And he started yelling, “This car came out of nowhere. This car came out of nowhere.” And I looked at him. And he looked at me, and he said, “Stephen?” and we both collapsed on the ground.
Stephen was still in the driver’s seat of the Firebird, dazed and bleeding.
In the back seat of the shattered Cadillac two teenage girls were dead. A third girl was ejected from the car.
The gravely injured teenager was Jennifer McKinney, the daughter of Paul Bromstrup’s business partner of many years. The girl lying in the roadway had been a childhood playmate of their boy Stephen.
Suzy Bromstrup: We used to get together at Christmas time. And we also vacationed together. I mean, I held her as a baby in my arms.
Stephen had run through the stop sign where the two lane road he’d been on intersected the main highway.
The skids marks and conditions of the cars told a story to trooper Godfrey Koblitz.
Godfrey Koblitz, trooper: The speeds were estimated between 80-90 miles an hour. It was a pretty high-speed for a road that’s posted 25 miles an hour.
Stephen, who had a broken jaw, was brought to the emergency room.
Suzy Bromstrup: Paul and I collapsed to the floor in the hospital. We didn’t know what to do. I mean, here our son was laying there injured and he had no idea of what had happened yet. Just in shock, total total shock.
The 16-year-old, while old enough to drive, was still five years under age from when he could drink legally.
The test done shortly after the crash would put him just under the legal level for drunk driving.
Paul Bromstrup: I was mad. I had to keep it inside because this was a 16-year old boy who was just in a wreck that killed two young girls.
Stephen went home from the hospital the following morning.
Suzy Bromstrup: We sat Stephen down and explained to him that we have always been the three of us, as one. And what were about to tell him is gonna be all of us in this situation. And when we mentioned to him about the deaths of the two girls and then Jennifer McKinney. He was just...
Paul Bromstrup: He wanted to die.
Suzy : He wanted to die.
Stephen Bromstrup’s crash had resulted in deaths and broken lives. Tests showed he’d been driving after drinking that night. But how did a 16-year-old get that way? And did another set of parents— not even his— share some of the blame for those deaths?
Stuart, Florida is a quiet town on the Atlantic Coast a hundred-miles north of Miami. In that community of 140,000, Tim and Beth Stone were raising their 14-year-old daughter, Sarah.
Beth Stone, Sarah's mother: She was very outgoing, very busy, and always on the move, whether it was gymnastics or dance or piano lessons. Girl scouts. She always had something going on.
Such a little whirlwind that her friends and classmates called her “Sarah Superstar.”
Tim Stone, Sarah's father: She did like the spotlight.
Tim Stone: One of her other nicknames was “Front and center.” But I think more than she liked attention on herself, she liked to give attention to others.
On Monday, June 17, 2002 Sarah asked if she could have a sleepover at her friend’s —14-year-old Jennifer McKinney.
Jennifer’s cousin, 13-year-old Alexandra, was over on her annual summer vacation from Europe where her mother, Marcella, worked for the United Nations.
Even though they lived an ocean apart, Jennifer and Alexandra were like sisters. They traveled together on vacations— Paris, Geneva, Disney World—and visited each other every school break they could.
Marcella, Alexandra Quaroni's mother: We would arrive here in Florida, Alexandra would go directly to Jennifer’s house and they would spend the entire summer together.
And Sarah, who was also always up for anything and everything, fit right in to round out a trio on that sunny Florida summer day.
Beth Stone: They were out playing all day. They went to the pool, they went to the miniature golf. They raced go-carts. It was a full day of activities and fun.
And they were going to end the day with a movie at the mall. Marcella, thinking the day had already been jam-packed, had been reluctant to let Alexandra go that night.
Marcella: My sister said “Let them go Marcella,” with her uncle, my brother Ted, “Let them go.” I didn’t want to be the Wicked Witch of the West or whatever, so I let them go.
The movie didn’t let out until after 11 p.m. Jennifer’s uncle, Ted, piled the girls into the backseat of his rented Cadillac to drive them all home.
Jennifer’s uncle never knew what hit him as the Firebird struck him broadside. The impact was so violent, it spun the Cadillac several times before coming to rest on the other side of the road. The uncle survived.
Jennifer had been thrown from the car, alive, but barely.
In the back seat Jennifer’s cousin Alexandra.
A policeman knocked on the door where Marcella was staying with her other brother.
Marcella: He said there has been an accident with the children. My brother yelled, he screamed. I was like nothing. I just said "There’s a mistake." I said "My kid, my child, my daughter is with my brother." And he said, "Your daughter is dead."
The Stones got that same horrific knock from a chaplain for the sheriff’s office.
Tim Stone: He looked at us and he said, “You know, these are the hardest words for me to tell a parent. And he just simply said, “Your daughter Sarah Stone was killed tonight in a car accident.”
Jennifer McKinney, Alexandra’s cousin, would recover from the painful, almost fatal, injuries inflicted on her by the other driver— a boy, ironically, she and her cousin Alexandra had known most of their lives.
Marcella: Stephen Bromstrup, which is my sister’s best friends’ son. I said, “I can’t believe it.” I said, “I can’t believe it.” They were neighbors. My sister and her husband and the Bromstrups lived right next to each other. They had a business together. And we used to go there. We knew them. We knew them.
And now Marcella would have to tell her husband that their little girl was dead and at the hands of family friends they’d known seemingly forever.
Marcella: I said, “Darling there’s something that’s happened.” “What?” “Alex is dead.” “What?” It was the worst thing, the worst words that came out of my mouth—“Alex is dead.” “What do you mean she’s dead?”
In another home, across town, another set of parents, the Bromstrups, mother and father of Stephen, the teenage driver had also become all but fetal in their despair.
Suzy Bromstrup: All three of us slept together. We stayed together and didn’t leave each other’s side.
Funerals for the young girls were held by their grieving families. But the Bromstrups didn’t attend the services even though their lives with the McKinneys and their niece Alexandra had been intertwined for years. Paul Bromstrup had even introduced the McKinneys.
Paul Bromstrup: We wanted to go to the funeral but we were afraid that we may upset the people and I didn’t want to do that. We’d already crushed these people’s lives and to do anything else to make it any worse, I just didn’t want that to happen.
The local newspaper ran extensive coverage of the tragedy of the families involved.
The community was abuzz with superheated opinions about what punishment Stephen Bromstrup deserved. The parents of the dead and injured girls pushed for a stiff penalty.
Marcella: This was no accident. I can understand, I can understand if you’re driving and your tire explodes and you hit somebody and kill somebody. I can understand that’s an accident. But this was no accident.
A year after the fatal crash, Stephen Bromstrup entered a plea of no contest to two counts of vehicular homicide. In the end, he received a sentence of 7 years in prison. Tougher than some people expected, but it wasn’t the end of things for his mother and father.
They became pariahs— whispered about.
Paul Bromstrup: We were afraid to go out. We didn’t go out unless we had to. We didn’t know what was being said. But there was always words. Like you could see that people were talking and our picture was in the paper so often that it was obvious that we couldn’t hide at all.
Tim and Beth Stone, meanwhile, the parents of Sarah, were starting to focus their anger not only on the Bromstrups and their perceived failure with their boy Stephen but on another set of parents altogether: the O’Briens— John and Barbara— mother and father of the girl who threw the backyard party. It was a teenage get-together the Stones now believed set in motion a sequence of lethal events, ending in their daughter’s death.
Tim Stone: When you lose a child, the first thing you want to know is why. And how did it happen? What could have been done to have prevented it?
They pieced together a rough outline of events.
Jennifer O’Brien, a school friend of Stephen, had given her father a grill for Father’s Day, and the next day, invited 19 friends over for a cookout. The Stones knew that after the wreck Stephen Bromstrup was found to have alcohol in his system.
Had there been underage drinking at the party at the O’Brien’s?
Tim Stone: An interview with the party host had suggested that there was not. We later found out that was not the case.
Were those party-givers, the O’Briens, the teenage girl’s parents, partly responsible for the deaths that followed even though it was Stephen driving the car?
Tim Stone: They had knowledge that there was drinking at their house. They were the only adults that night or the last adults that could have made a difference.
The Stones had settled with Stephen’s parents, the Bromstrups. Now they were taking to court another set of parents altogether.
The Stones were suing John and Barbara O’Brien for, in effect, failing as parents.
Guy Rubin, Stones' attorney: This is not a case of kids flying under the radar screen. This is a case of parents turning off the radar.
If you’re charged with murder, theft or fraud, you can expect to be brought before a jury.
But how about this: a couple, like millions and millions of others, being sued for not being responsible enough parents to someone else’s child.
Tim Stone: What our case was all about was to convey to this community what the consequences are for the various families who get caught up in something so horrific.
What Tim and Beth Stone would ask the jury to do was in effect punish John and Barbara O’Brien, for not acting in a “reasonable” manner when their daughter’s teenage friends were found to be drinking at the poolside barbecue. Potentially millions of dollars in damages were at stake.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: So Jennifer O’Brien’s parents hadn’t put out a tub of beers and spike punch?
Beth Stone: Absolutely not.
Tim Stone: That was never the case.
Murphy: We’re talking about kids who smuggled in and were drinking surreptitiously.
Beth Stone: Yes.
But even though the O’Briens didn’t serve alcohol, or condone the drinking, the Stones and their attorney would use a Florida law, the open house statute, to say in effect that when 16-year-old Stephen Bromstrup snuck beer into the O’Brien house, drank it, and then drove off in his Firebird, slamming into the car that carried Sarah Stone that they too, the O’Briens, were responsible for the 14-year-old’s death.
The O’Briens, they would argue, simply didn’t do enough to stop the drinking at their daughter’s backyard party for 19 teenagers, all of them under age.
Murphy: Is it your belief that they were surrogate parents when those children were there?
Beth Stone: Yes.
Tim Stone: Absolutely.
It had all started quite innocently enough.
The O’Brien’s 16-year-old daughter Jennifer, you’ll remember, wanted to try out the brand new grill she gave her dad for Father’s Day just the day before.
She invited her friends to her family’s waterfront house.
Stephen Bromstrup got the invite that day, and after getting the okay from his mom, got into the Firebird and picked up two friends. But instead of going straight to the party, they went to a convenience store, where his parents would later be stunned to learn they illicitly bought a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best.
The boys were savvy enough to show the store cashier that they weren’t undercover operatives for the police.
Paul Bromstrup: He pulled right up to the front door, Stephen driving. His buddy, 15 at the time, takes his shirt off, walks inside. The reason he takes his shirt off is so that they know he’s not wearing a wire. No asks for an ID, no fake ID used. Just walked in and bought a 12-pack of beer.
After getting the alcohol, Stephen said he and his friends then detoured to this park to knock back a beer before driving to the O’Brien’s.
By the time they arrived the party was in full swing.
Barbara O’Brien’s husband ended up working late, leaving her in charge of the party for the better part of the night.
Within minutes of the party starting just after 5:30 p.m., Jenny O’Brien would later tell the jury her friends started drinking.
(Court transcript) Jenny O’Brien: A few kids were doing shots.
Attorney: Was it straight gin?
Jenny O’Brien: I believe so.
Attorney: You didn’t tell them to stop?
Jenny O’Brien: No sir.
Attorney: And you didn’t tell them to stop because you didn’t want to be looked at by them to be a loser?
Jenny O’Brien: Right sir.
Jenny’s mother had been working out on a treadmill in another room. But when she walked into the kitchen she saw one of the boys with a bottle of gin.
Jenny O’Brien: I just heard a loud scream and her run outside. And I looked out the window and she was pouring it out. She said, “Why would you boys do this to me?” She just told them “no alcohol, no alcohol” and they all agreed with her.
A little later, a friend of Barbara O’Brien came over to visit. The two went to the upstairs deck to have a glass of wine while Jenny entertained her teenage friends in the backyard below.
To Guy Rubin, the Stones’ attorney, this was just one of the many areas where he says the O’Brien’s failed as parents that night.
Guy Rubin, Stones’ attorney: Why was she upstairs? If she finds it one time and she knows the kids have alcohol on her property, why is she drinking if she’s the chaperone? Why is she upstairs? Why isn’t she in the middle of the kids?
Murphy: Why does she have to be the state trooper?
Rubin: Because it’s her house and the law says so.
Murphy: She has to be a super-parent?
Rubin: No. She needs to be a responsible parent.
The O’Briens were reeling and the courtroom story was about to get worse.
The O’Briens, accused in a law suit of being nothing less than irresponsible parents, heard still more disturbing testimony about their daughter’s backyard barbecue party.
From the upstairs deck, Barbara O’Brien’s friend was saying she could see the drinking hadn’t stopped. She saw one boy by the dock.
(Court transcript) Brogan: He was walking with two long neck bottles of beer.
Attorney: Did you have any conversation with Mrs. O’Brien?
Brogan: She said, “I’m going down there and take it from him.” She went down and took the beer bottles from the boy.
But was that enough, asked the Stones?
Beth Stone: There were no other consequences other than pouring out the alcohol. No parents were called. No keys were taken. The party wasn’t stopped. No one got into trouble.
(Court transcript) Attorney: Did you ever observe Mrs. O’Brien take any keys, car keys away from kids?
Brogan: I did not.
Attorney: Did you ever observe Mrs. O’Brien call any parents?
Brogan: I did not.
Tim Stone: There have to be consequences beyond taking the alcohol away. At some point after the kids continued to consume alcohol even though they supposedly knew the house rule which was no drinking allowed, it seems reasonable that additional steps would have been taken.
But from what the Stone’s learned there weren’t... even Jenny said she would have been surprised if her mother had ended the party.
Attorney: Did you expect your mom to allow the party to continue even though she was finding alcohol?
Jenny O’Brien: Yes, because it was under control.
Attorney: From your vantage point or from your mom’s vantage point?
Jenny O’Brien: From my mom’s.
Attorney: Did your mom come up to you after she was finding all this alcohol, and at any time have any discussion with you about “Enough is enough, I’m thinking about stopping the party?”
Jenny O’Brien: No sir.
And it wasn’t the first time the O’Briens had found signs of Jenny and her friends with alcohol—the most recent incident three months earlier.
Rubin: There had been two incidents with Jennifer and her friends previously sneaking alcohol unbeknownst to the O’Briens into that house. So Mr. O’Brien understanding that, and Jennifer asking for this party said “You know there’s not going to be any of that same funny business?” and she said yes. So the context of just allowing the party has to really be considered here.
And according to Jenny, despite being grounded as punishment for those past violations of “zero tolerance,” her mother let her friends stay that night at the barbecue.
Attorney: You saw other kids with alcohol that evening?
Jenny O’Brien: Yes.
Attorney: You were excited about having a party?
Jenny O’Brien: Yes.
Attorney: You wanted to have a good time?
Jenny O’Brien: Yes sir.
Attorney: You wanted your friends to have a good time?
Jenny O’Brien: Yes sir.
Attorney: Your mom wanted you to have a good time?
Jenny: Yes sir.
The Stones’ lawyer called Stephen Bromstrup to the stand to recount his drinking that night.
Stephen Bromstrup: I didn’t feel as if I was taking a risk bringing beer to the O’Briens’ house.
Attorney: Why not?
Bromstrup: Because I knew that I would not get into trouble if she caught me with it. I consider getting in trouble you know my parents finding out something wrong that I’m doing.
Stephen said after he arrived he saw Mrs. O’Brien dump out one girl’s alcohol.
Stephen Bromstrup: In a sort of lenient manner just, “Give that here.” You know, it wasn’t entirely strict. You know, it wasn’t, “Here, gimme that, I’m calling your parents.” It was just, she took it.
Stephen said he felt so comfortable he barely tried to hide his drinking.
Attorney: How long were you there at the table with this beer out in the open?
Stephen Bromstrup: Probably about 10, 15, 20 minutes.
The kids seemed to be defying the parents— hiding their drinking, according to Stephen in plain sight.
Stephen Bromstrup: I had seen the one clear bottle of hard liquor, I had seen long neck dark beer bottles, and I had seen a few kids walk around with cups, with beer in their cups.
Even as the party was ending, another boy, according to Stephen anyway, defiantly chugged a beer as Barbara O’Brien tried to grab it from his hands.
Attorney: By allowing the party to continue didn’t she allow kids to continue to drink?
Jenny O’Brien: I don’t know. No sir, she didn’t allow people to drink.
Attorney: Did your mom ever express any concern to you that someone might get drunk at the party and do something horrible?
Jenny: No sir, she didn’t think...
No keys were confiscated, no rides home offered.
Tim Stone: That was the point of no return. Had she taken different steps at that point we believe that Sarah would be alive today.
Stephen, who says he drank a little more than three beers that night, was among the last to leave the O’Brien’s.
He got into his car with his two friends.
Stephen Bromstrup: I proceeded to gain speed in my car, sped down the road at considerable speeds over the speed limit. My friend Danny had told me to floor it and I considered it cool, you know, for a car with a big engine to go fast.
He hit this curve in the road.
Stephen Bromstrup: I didn’t have time to stop. I sped through the intersection, and remember a loud noise and hitting another car.
The car carrying the girls was hit with such force that two of them died instantly.
Attorney: Do you have any regrets about that night?
Stephen Bromstrup: Absolutely.
That Stephen Bromstrup recklessly drove the car that killed the Stone’s daughter was not in dispute— but now they wanted a jury to say the O’Brien’s had also contributed to that fatal crash by not cracking down harder on teenage drinking at their house.
Every storm that howled through south Florida in the last decade may have terrified their neighbors, but nasty weather only made life more secure for John and Barbara O’Brien.
The one-time Chicago couple had set-up a now thriving hurricane shutter company.
Successful business people, active in their ocean side community and most of all, Barbara O’Brien would tell the jury, devoted to raising Jennifer, their only child.
(In court) Barbara O’Brien, Jenny's mother: When she was a little girl, of course it was Brownies. From there we went to Girl Scouts, and I was the cookie mom. And then the kids loved to take trips with me so I always was the mom that did the trips.
Bill Reese, O'Briens' attorney: She called herself “Mrs. Mom.” She was involved in every school function for kids. Her life was centered around her child and doing things with the kids.
But now, according to their lawyer Bill Reese, those same child-centered priorities, that willingness to let their teenage daughter have 19 friends over for a pool-side party, could cost them everything— their business, their savings, their reputations.
If the jury decided in favor of the Stones, it would be as though the O’Briens had contributed to Sara Stone’s death even though it was Stephen Bromstrup behind the wheel.
Reese: It would have meant that Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien didn’t do what they should have done that night and therefore were part of the cause of the accident.
The O’Brien’s lawyer told their version of the night, explaining first how the house was an important part of their family glue.
Reese: They wanted Jennifer to feel like whenever she wanted to bring children around and kids and friends of hers, their house was always open.
And what a great place for entertaining the O’Brien home was: a couple-acres on the water, two docks, a boat, a backyard pool and the gracious home itself with upper and lower water-view decks.
For John and Barbara O’Brien the house was everything they’d worked so hard for.
Attorney: Did you have gatherings at your home?
Barbara O’Brien: All the time.
Attorney: And how many gatherings have had at your house since Jenny let’s say, turned the age of 12?
Hundreds of get-togethers Barbara O’Brien told the jury, and at each one she felt good knowing that her daughter and her friends had a safe place to gather.
Attorney: In Jenny’s 17 years, have you ever permitted any minors to continue drinking alcohol once you found it?
Barbara O’Brien: Absolutely not.
Attorney: Have you ever served minors alcohol at your home at any time?
Barbara: Absolutely not. It’s not tolerated, it’s underage drinking. It’s illegal. It’s wrong.
In fact, the O’Brien’s lawyer said a few months before, when the couple discovered some empties in their yard after one of their daughter’s sleep-over parties, the consequences for Jennifer were serious.
Reese: Jennifer was grounded for three weeks and told never to do it again, and they believed that she would never do it again.
But she did.
And when Barbara O’Brien got her first clear sign of trouble early on that the kids were sneaking drinks, she didn’t laugh it off, she didn’t play hip mom. As her lawyer describes it— she was decisive and emphatic.
Bill Reese, O'Briens' attorney: She literally looked out the window from her kitchen and saw a boy take a backpack and pull out a bottle of clear liquid and put it on the table. She immediately ran out, yelled what are you doing? Grabbed it from the table, poured it out and said, “Is there any more?” “No, Mrs. O’Brien.” then she yelled to everybody, “There will be no alcohol at this party. Does anybody have any? If anybody does you better give it to me now.”
Believing the problem was solved, Barbara O’Brien went upstairs to share a glass of wine with a friend.
Reese: They were upstairs where they could still look out a window at the kids. And they each had a couple sips of wine. I mean they, they really didn’t even drink a whole glass.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: How is she doing so far as a chaperone of a teenage party?
Reese: I mean I’m the father of two daughters that were teenagers and they don’t want you out at the parties sitting with them. They want to have their own privacy.
But even from that upstairs perch, when the friend spotted a teenager down at the dock two beers in hand, Barbara O’Brien sprang into action.
Reese: Barbara sees it. Runs downstairs, runs down to the dock, goes “What on earth are you doing again?” pours that out, then sees another boy kind of sticking something underneath a bench, which is another bottle of alcohol. This is a full bottle. She grabs that, pours all of that out and then once again, yelling at everybody, “There better not be any more of this. There’s going to be no alcohol at this party.” And she thought she got it all.
Murphy: Should Barbara O’Brien have known at that point that she’d lost control?
Reese: Barbara believed that what she had done was totally appropriate which was to immediately pour everything out and tell everybody, “There better not be any more of this or this party is going to be over.”
Barbara O’Brien (court transcript): Every time I saw something I poured it out.
Attorney: You had the power and the control, as the adult supervising the kids to take action.
Barbara O’Brien: I did take action.
Attorney: Were there options available to you other than just taking away the alcohol and letting the party continue?
Barbara O’Brien: I poured it out. I didn’t tolerate it. I did the best I could do.
And her husband John O’Brien testified that by the time he got home from work around nine he saw nothing but sober, well-behaved teenagers.
Attorney: Did you see any of the young people who appeared to you to be intoxicated, drunk, under the influence?
John O’Brien: Absolutely not.
When smuggled in alcohol was spotted it was disposed of every time. That was the story told by some of the kids who attended the party as they spoke-up on behalf of the O’Brien’s.
Drew Mclean: She had the bottle in her hand and made an announcement that there was no alcohol to be at this party and asked if anyone had anymore alcohol.
Jordan Green: She made it a point to make sure that everyone had no alcohol. She said, “No drinking, no alcohol.”
Christina Jones: Everything that they saw they dumped out, so I think they did everything they could.
But Stephen Bromstrup— the boy who drove the car that caused the fatal crash— had a different account of the party than those other teenage guests.
He testified that when he arrived at the party, after Mrs. O’Brien says she dumped the alcohol in dramatic-fashion, he and other kids were still drinking throughout the night and not even being sly about it.
Attorney: Were you trying to conceal the beer?
Stephen Bromstrup: No sir.
So why would Stephen testify so readily about drinking illegally?
Did he have something to gain by helping the Stones make their case against the O’Briens as irresponsible parents?
Their lawyer thought that he did.
Attorney: Have you tried to have your sentence lightened?
Bromstrup: I’ve gone back on a few appeals, yes sir.
Reese: I said, “Are you aware of the fact that if Mr. and Mrs. Stone sign an affidavit, they may be able to help get you a lessened sentence?” And he denied that. But I wanted the jury to at least think there could be a motivation for him, out of all the people at the party, testifying as he did against the O’Briens.
But keep in mind, a central question the Stones were asking the jury to answer was this: If dumping the alcohol didn’t stop the drinking, why didn’t Barbara O’Brien up the ante— call their parents, stop the party, take the car keys?
But Barbara O’Brien pleaded with the jury to see it from her perspective—that without 20/20 hindsight she did everything she thought she could at the time to stop the drinking.
Barbara O’Brien: I didn’t know that this accident was going to happen. But I really felt at the time it was the right thing to do as a parent you guys. I stopped everything early. Honestly believe me.
To the O’Briens it was as clear as it was tragic: 16-year-old Stephen Bromstrup made the decision to drink and drive that night. He was responsible for the horrible collision that killed two teenage girls.
Reese: He and he alone was the cause of the accident.
A teenage boy with more beer and more car than he could handle?
Or were the O’Briens all but with Stephen in that speeding car? Did they fuel a fatal accident by not doing enough to stop the drinking at their home by underage teens?
It was up to a jury to decide.
Now a jury of six would decide if the O’Briens, the parents who hosted the backyard barbecue, should pay for the fatal crash.
If the jury found them at fault they could lose everything they’d worked so hard to build.
And a verdict against the O’Briens would send the signal that you’re not only responsible for your own kids but their friends too.
Among the jurors they were the foreman, a general contractor, a retiree, a nursing student...
After several days of testimony, they were finally allowed to compare notes about the trial.
Denny, juror: It was a real tough case. Let me tell you, I went back and forth in this trial. I would go from one to the other.
The key question they had to answer was did the O’Brien’s do “enough” to prevent that tragedy by stopping the underage drinking at their home that night.
Denny: I wanted them so much to take some responsibility for what happened, I really did. I think they made a lot of mistakes.
The jurors could understand what Barbara O’Brien did the first time she caught one of the teenagers drinking... dumping the gin, lecturing the kids. But they wondered why she didn’t crack down harder when she found even more alcohol later that evening.
Sandy, juror: By the second or third time she probably should have called the party off.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: The lawyer for the stones would say, “Kids aren’t paying any attention. This isn’t a reasonable action. This is a failed action.” Was it the right do you think?
Sandy: To a degree. They wanted their child to be popular.
Murphy: And not embarrass her by calling the parents?
Sandy:Right and they paid a price for it.
Murphy: What do you think she should have done at that point?
Jennifer: Probably start calling parents. Say, “Come get your kid cause this party is not going as I planned.”
Murphy: Call parents, take keys?
Denny: I probably would have wanted a phone call. There’s a million things they could have done.
And the jurors were troubled by one thing she did do after discovering the first teenager drinking.
Instead of keeping a closer watch on the party she had a glass of wine with a friend.
Jennifer, juror: If the kids were already drinking and then you come over with a friend and start drinking yourself, it’s a negative message.
And the jurors did believe that the O’Briens were the last chance to stop Stephen Bromstrup from getting into his Firebird that night.
Murphy: Can you say had the O’Briens called the parents, pulled the car keys that those two little girls would be alive? The accident wouldn’t have happened?
Denny: Probably so.
The trial, according to the jurors, would change how they would act even in their own personal lives.
Sandy: If it was me, I wouldn’t have any parties because I would be terrified to have kids in my house if they didn’t belong to me. I have children and nieces and nephews so I know what they’re capable of.
The law stated broadly that if the O’Brien’s took reasonable steps to stop the underage drinking at their house, that was enough.
Denny: You know the term “reasonable.” I mean really what is reasonable?
After almost three hours of deliberating that very question, the reading of the verdict was at hand.
The O’Brien’s were cleared of any charges. They would not pay for the death of Tim and Beth Stone’s daughter, Sarah.
Denny: Had that statue been written differently we very well could have found differently in this case. We felt they took reasonable steps.
But even though the jury didn’t rule for them, the Stones insist it was never money they were looking: it was for the apology they say that never came.
Beth Stone: They continued to say that they would have done nothing differently.
Tim Stone: They never accepted responsibility. They refused to be held accountable.
After Sarah died the Stones divorced. The Quaronis also separated.
It was as though the grief from the two girls’ sudden, violent deaths also shattered both families.
Marcella: There will never be closure. Never. And people say, “It gets better with time.” It gets worse. It just gets worse.
Tim Stone still tends to the the site where his daughter Sarah died.
Suzy Bromstrup says she, too, thinks of Sarah and Alexandra every day, often visiting the site where they’re memorialized.
Suzy Bromstrup: I just hope that they are in a better place and I am so sorry that we were part of what happened to them.
And all the remorseful “if onlys” and “Why didn’t Is?” are only echoes in Stuart, Florida homes that can never alter the awful intersection of lives.
Since the accident that took their daughter’s life, Tim and Beth Stone have become activists, speaking to teens about the dangers of drunk driving. They’re also behind an effort to get families to sign something they call a “driving contract,” in which a teen promises never to drive drunk or ride with a driver under the influence of alcohol. Click here to visit their Web site.
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