On anniversary of New Year’s Eve triple fatal, memorial bench vandalized, plaque stolen

Crime Watch

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – A year ago, on New Year’s Eve, three young men lost their lives in a tragic accident in northwest Bakersfield. Now, one year later, on the anniversary of their fatal wreck, the pain of their loss has been compounded.

The crash was tragic enough. Four friends, popping over to a nearby friend’s house at 10 minutes till midnight to watch the ball drop in Times Square and see 2020 transition into 2021. They barely made it a quarter-mile before the driver lost control and crashed in a tree, ejecting his three unbelted friends.

The grieving families raised funds for a memorial bench and a bronze plaque at the Park at Riverwalk, right at the spot near the amphitheater where they used to gather almost every night, literally.

And then this – on the anniversary of the deaths of Devin Lee Atha, Timothy “T.J.” Michael Wilson, and Andrew “A.J.” Nicholas Ortiz, all three of them just 20, the Riverwalk memorial bench was desecrated – the bronze plaque pried off. By whom and when is anybody’s guess but the vandalism was discovered one year to the day after the fatal crash on Brimhall Road, in the grassy median between Old Farm Road and Jewetta.

Atha’s mother Alice Hutchings can’t believe it.

“So … just disrespectful,” she said “I know it’s not their gravesite but on the other hand it does show memory of them. And I just think that’s so wrong.”

Wilson’s mother Angela Wilson found out about the stolen plaque when a friend called at 1:30 a.m. New Year’s morning.

“I called her immediately,” she said, nodding toward Hutchings. “We got in the car and drove down here in the middle of the night because she was thinking perhaps it was just a hoax. We walked out here and sure enough it was gone.”

The Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Department made a special accommodation to allow it there in the first place.  City parks employee Race Slayton says the Park at Riverwalk is victimized by vandalism every single night almost without fail. But they’ll do what they can.

“Well, we’ll do our best to fix it,” he said. “Possibly get a bigger plaque to put over this and maybe anchor it a little better. It was actually recessed into the cement. I don’t know how much better we can do.”

Christian Gunn went to high school with Atha and Wilson. He stops by the bench often to remember his friends, and in fact just happened to be walking by when he saw his friends’ mothers. The plaque’s theft hit him hard too.

“It’s nice coming out here knowing that we used to hang out here, that there’s a bench here,” he said. “Well, there was a plaque, but …”

Another tragic element of the crash: The driver of the car, Adam Teasdale, was a close, lifelong friend of Atha and Wilson. He has a scheduled pre=preliminary hearing in Kern County Superior Court on Feb. 8 and faces three counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and a single count of DUI causing bodily injury. 

But today the question is, who damaged the memorial?

Was it a misguided friend? Was it random? The families would like to know. And they’d like their plaque back.

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