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For Rick Bargholz, the whole wasted decade ended on the roadside that night, with flashing blue lights illuminating his Subaru station wagon.

The dying man lay sprawled on the pavement in front of the car, motionless as Bargholz hovered over him, pleading for another outcome that never came, that didn’t exist.

“Oh, my God. Oh, my God! Is he all right? Sir, talk to me. Roll over,” he cried in disbelief, holding the man in his arms until police and medics arrived.

He’d gone out for a bag of McDonald’s, opting to spend his last $3 on a late-night snack instead of another drink, a final drink to cap the night, or as fate would have it, the decade – the decade of drinking.

He’d driven – of course he had – pulling the older-model Subaru out of a downtown parking lot and onto East Broadway, dispatching the six short blocks and negotiating the half-moon of the drive-through before veering back onto the thoroughfare, the bag of food beside him.

It was midnight and he had only a half-dozen blocks to go, six unremarkable blocks that he’d driven a hundred times before, straight as an arrow into downtown Missoula. He gripped the steering wheel at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and kept his speed at 25 mph, his eyes on the road. Or so he thought. He may have been distracted. After all, he’d been drinking most of the night and he was drunk. But he’d been drunker.

*****

It was Nov. 13, 2005.

He’d come to Missoula from Illinois 10 years earlier as a skinny 20-year-old, drawn by the lifestyle after having obsessively devoted his teenage years to hobby sports like skateboarding and snowboarding, and helping his father, a mechanic, work on cars.

“I grew up under the hood holding the flashlight,” Bargholz says.

He didn’t drink when he came to Montana, but it wasn’t long before the pressures of being young and away from home began to mount. His social circle seemed suddenly to revolve around partying, which held no appeal for Bargholz, until he learned how to drink and keep a buzz.

“I wanted in on the action. I wanted it to be fun,” he says, recalling how in his 20s alcohol eclipsed the passions he’d grown up pursuing so loyally.

He found steady work in construction, and later a cooking job at the local ski mountain, as well as at a downtown Missoula bar. With a full work schedule and a lift pass, he struck a balance of work and play coveted by twentysomething adrenaline junkies trying to find purchase in the mountainous West.

“In the winters I’d open the kitchen at the mountain and ride all day, then go to work in Missoula,” he says. “In the summers I’d shuttle for fishing outfitters and drink at night. I thought I had it pretty dialed in.”

He drank and took drugs with friends, and cracked beers in the car during the ride down the mountain. He had everything under control, he believed, when in reality it was all just beyond his reach.

“Drunk driving was part of my life. I had done it so many times and nothing ever happened. When drunk driving is that much a part of your life, you really start to take not getting caught for granted,” he says.

It’s not the only thing he took for granted. His interest in skateboarding waned, despite his talent for the sport, and eventually he never even picked up the deck. He stopped pursuing his longtime dream of building a vintage hot rod, telling himself that he was grown up now and there wasn’t any point in clinging to those teenage obsessions.

*****

By the age of 31, Bargholz was a veritable barfly and had been through most of his 20s, haunting the same downtown Missoula taverns five nights a week, always thirsty for a stiff drink and some unassuming company.

“I blew a whole decade of my life,” he says now, looking back on those years of self-destruction. “It’s a lifestyle that I adopted at 21 and maintained until I was 31. I was functioning. But bills aside, I was an alcoholic, and if this hadn’t happened to me there was no end in sight.”

Bargholz never saw the older man crossing the street. He heard the impact first, and then suddenly there he was, tumbling over the hood and cracking the windshield in a filigree of blood before flopping back onto the pavement, his body gone slack.

A few young teenagers saw the crash and got there before the first police officers, who happened to be just blocks away responding to a report of a drunken driver at the Taco Bell drive-through.

“Those kids who witnessed the crash were in shock. I still feel bad for them having to watch that,” Bargholz says.

But mostly he feels bad for the man he hit and the family that man left behind – a family who, as it turned out, was familiar in its own way with the scourge of alcoholism in Montana, and the state’s culture of drinking and driving.

*****

William Powell was crossing the street on his way home from a cast party at the Missoula Community Theatre. He and a group of actors had been celebrating the closing weekend of “Paint Your Wagon,” in which Powell had a small but prominent “cameo” role. But Powell had learned to walk home after taking a drink, having seen first-hand the legal ramifications of drinking and driving through the arrests of friends and family members.

Powell’s spirits were high when he called it a night about five minutes after 12, according to MCT director Jim Caron, pleased that the show had gone so well. Cast members patted him on the back as he left the building and extolled his performance.

The jubilant Powell got as far as halfway across the street.

“I didn’t see him at all, I just felt it. My windshield busted and that’s when I saw him and it was like in a movie,” Bargholz says. “I slammed on my brakes and he flew off and I ran out to check on him. I was literally pleading with him to give a response, but I couldn’t get one. He couldn’t give one.”

A few minutes later, Caron and the cast members saw the red-and-blue flashing lights, then spotted Powell’s Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation baseball cap on the ground.

Powell died the next afternoon at the age of 63, and Bargholz went to jail, where he found out about the man’s death after calling a friend who had read the newspaper report. He was devastated.

Bargholz was initially charged with vehicular homicide while under the influence – a breath test showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.176, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 – but he later pleaded guilty to negligent vehicular homicide, a felony, and failure to carry liability insurance, a misdemeanor.

The lesser charge was born of a plea agreement reached before sentencing, during an emotionally charged meeting with the Powell family.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, by far – to look those folks in the eyes and tell them that I am sorry for what I’ve done,” Bargholz says.

*****

About a dozen members of the Powell family were in the room with Bargholz and his attorney, and a conversation that began as a profusion of apologies and tears soon turned into one about alcohol abuse and drunken driving.

“A young man like that, Bill would have felt terrible for the guy who hit him,” said Powell’s younger brother, Gary Powell, in an interview shortly after the accident.

Several members of the Powell family had struggled with alcoholism through the years, including both Bill and Gary.

“It almost felt like our lives were paralleling each other and it was powerful,” Bargholz says. “I want them to feel that they made the right choice. I owe it to them. I need to succeed because they have given me a chance.”

That chance came in the form of a 20-year commitment to the Department of Corrections, with 18 years suspended. He went to Intensive Outpatient Treatment at Turning Point in Missoula and served time in a pre-release center. The treatment took, and he hasn’t touched alcohol or drugs since. As part of the sentence, the judge also imposed a host of stringent, and in some cases unique, circumstances.

In addition to the standard conditions of probation – no alcohol, bars or casinos – Bargholz is ordered to donate $25 each month to Mothers Against Drunk Driving or another similar organization for the entire term. He also must complete 100 hours of community service “geared toward the prevention of deaths and injuries from impaired drivers.”

To that end, he spends an hour every week sharing his story with a rotating cast of University of Montana students who are required to attend the Self Over Substance program, and he also speaks to high school students. Sometimes his story has an effect on the groups, he says, and he recently saw one of the UM students during a skateboarding session at the skatepark.

“Some of them see me and they think, ‘Hey, this guy seems totally normal, but look at what happened to him,’ ” Bargholz says.

Gary Powell checked in with Bargholz’s probation officer for the first few years to follow his progress, and was pleased recently when he heard the man was still on the straight and narrow.

“It just kind of confirms that we made the right decision,” says Gary Powell. “We didn’t want to see him serve any hard time. He took responsibility for his role in the accident. His remorse was written on his sleeve. But we never knew. We could have been wrong.”

“I’ll be honest,” Bargholz continues. “When I went to meet with the family, I knew they held a certain amount of my future in their hands and that was running through my mind. But when I looked into their eyes all of that went out the window. It is the lowest I’ve ever felt. It’s something that I’ll never forget.”

“He didn’t just walk away from this without any consequences. I know how my brother would feel about this. He wouldn’t have wanted this kid to serve any jail,” says Gary Powell, adding that he, too, identified with Bargholz.

“I never did understand how they treat alcoholism and drunk driving,” Powell continued. “I’m 67 and over my life I’ve had two DUIs myself and all I got was a slap on the wrist. They don’t take it seriously. I put myself through treatment after my second time. But if I hadn’t done that and started realizing that I need to change, it’s hard to say that I would not be in Richard’s shoes, or behind bars.”

These days, Bargholz, now 36, is on his way to becoming an electrician and spends most of his time trying to complete an apprenticeship. He is beholden to the Powell family and that, coupled with his interminable guilt, has helped him forbear alcohol.

As a teetotaler, his passions for skateboarding and building hot rods have been reignited in a big way, and so has his work ethic. He’s a fixture at the Missoula Skatepark, where he sometimes sees skaters in their 20s downing beers in between tricks, and he knows that at the end of the session they climb into their cars and drive home. Sometimes he talks to them about it. If it’s someone who knows his history, a look is all it takes. He’s nearly finished building a hot rod from scratch, and spends his Friday nights in his garage or at a friend’s, working on cars.

“Sometimes on First Fridays I’ll peek through a window at one of my old haunts just to see if I recognize anyone, and honestly it looks exactly the same,” he says. “And it’s kind of sad, but if this hadn’t happened to me, I’d probably still be bellied up to the bar.”

He’s kept the lion’s share of his freedoms, and drives an old Volkswagen bus to get around town, although the engine won’t start until he blows into an interlock device.

Bargholz has commitments that he must keep up the rest of his life, and he wears them like a millstone. He says he’s indebted to too many people to even consider failing them.

“It’s just not an option for me. I owe a lot of people. I’ve been given an opportunity to keep some of my freedom and I need to make good on that. Failure is not an option,” he says.

“I’ll be on probation until the year 2026. I’ll be 52. It’s something I don’t want to say out loud very often,” he says. “But still, I’m lucky.”

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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