February 27, 2011 in City

Free of blame, but impact of tragedy has lasted decades

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photoBuy this photo

Pete Peterson, wrongly blamed for two deaths in a 1964 Hayden Lake boat crash, was found not to be responsible 18 years later.
(Full-size photo)

The boat was a beauty. An early 1960s Tollycraft cruiser. A dashing wooden blade on the waters of Hayden Lake.

It was a teenage boy’s dream.

That dream was Pete Peterson’s in the summer of 1964. The son of a Spokane dentist with a place at Hayden Lake, 15-year-old Peterson lived in the boat, racing around and squiring his friends. The boat could spin on a dime, shoot water 30 feet.

“It threw up a rooster tail, which as a kid was great,” Peterson said. “You could just drench a dock with it.”

It was a sweet ride all around. And if Peterson was having a good time that summer, he was also struggling a bit. His mom had died a couple years before, and he’d gotten into some trouble here and there – vandalism, “stupid stuff,” he said. But he and that boat were developing a reputation.

The night of Aug. 15, 1964, not long before dark, he picked up a girl and took her for a ride. Sometime around 10, as he was piloting the Tollycraft home, there was an explosive crash – Peterson was thrown partway through the boat’s windshield, and the girl knocked her head on the dashboard.

And the boat sank out from under them.

“I remember looking down and the transom light, in the rear of the boat, I could still see it as it was going down,” he said. “Until it disappeared.”

This was bad, he knew. It was very bad.

“All the time I was thinking, No. 1: ‘What happened?’ ” he said. “And No. 2: ‘How am I going to tell Dad the boat’s gone?’ ”

* * * 

But it was worse than a missing boat. Much worse, as Peterson would soon find out. By breakfast, everyone at the lake thought they knew the story: Pete Peterson, out screwing around in his fancy boat, had killed two girls.

“The next morning, Dad walks into the room and said, ‘Well, it looks like you killed two girls,’ ” Peterson said. “That was the hardest thing. I don’t think he meant it like that, but that’s what he said.”

Two 16-year-old girls were missing: Barbara Horne and Carol Thornton. They were visiting the lake with their families from College Place, near Walla Walla. Wreckage of their boat, a simple 13-foot fiberglass outboard, was found floating on the lake. The mystery combined with Peterson’s reputation as a hellion to lead people to one conclusion – which would hang over his head for nearly two decades, making him feel guilty and ashamed, a persona non grata at clubby, well-to-do Hayden Lake.

It hung over him as he went to Vietnam and served heroically, as he returned to Spokane, married and raised a family. Even as the story changed – as a diver’s discovery in 1982 apparently exonerated Peterson – it stayed with him. It stays with him still.

It also stayed with Jack Sheehan, a close friend of Peterson’s from childhood. Sheehan wrote about Peterson’s story in a magazine, then wrote a screenplay that had an on-again, off-again life as a movie project. At one point, actor Patrick Dempsey – now “McDreamy” on “Grey’s Anatomy” – was slated to play Peterson before the project collapsed.

In recent weeks, the movie project has been resurrected. Sheehan and a pair of movie producers from L.A. are preparing to film “Hayden Lake” this summer in the Inland Northwest.

If Sheehan sees it as a story of redemption, though, it’s a redemption that Peterson is reluctant to fully claim.

“The sad thing about this whole story is it doesn’t change anything,” he said. “Because there are still two girls who are dead.”

* * * 

Peterson grew up on Spokane’s South Hill, the son of a dentist who was best friends with Sheehan’s father, also a dentist. The families had homes at Hayden Lake. The two kids seemed destined to be friends from the start.

In 1962, Peterson’s mother, Edith, died of breast cancer – a loss that would affect the family for years, Peterson said.

“It was tough when she passed away,” he said. “I was kind of a hell-raiser anyway, and that didn’t help the situation.”

By eighth grade, Peterson had spent a night in juvy for spray-painting cars. His father – not a hugger, not a talker – worked and stayed busy, and Peterson was often left to his own devices.

In the winter of 1963, Peterson’s dad saw the Tollycraft Star-Fire Jet at the Spokane boat show. Peterson doesn’t remember what his dad paid for it, but it must have been a bundle. There was nothing else like it on the lake – there was barely anything like it anywhere.

“Pete and I and our buddies were racing around on Hayden Lake in the hottest boat on the lake,” Sheehan said. “It was very cool.”

Peterson met a girl one day at the lake, Stephany Lambert. He invited her for a boat ride, picked her up at a dock in Mokins Bay shortly before dark, cruised to the opposite end of the lake and back. His lights were on, he was running straight. He wasn’t drinking or screwing around, he says.

He says he didn’t see anything before the crash, and neither did Lambert. Afterward, he thought – in shock, bleeding from the head, as the boat sank – that he must have struck a log, he said. He says he didn’t see the girls’ boat, parts of which were found the next morning.

He and Lambert were picked up by a nearby boater and taken to shore. Peterson remembers walking home, blood on his face, worried about facing his father.

* * * 

Sheehan remembers sitting at the breakfast table at his family’s Hayden Lake home the next morning when a neighbor knocked at the door with the news.

“He was clearly blamed for their deaths,” Sheehan said. “It was just an assumption in the Hayden Lake community that my bad-boy best friend had killed these girls.”

Peterson himself believed it. What else was he supposed to think – everyone thought he’d done it, and he didn’t know any better. All of a sudden, Hayden Lake got a lot less idyllic for Peterson. There was talk of manslaughter charges, though nothing came of it. The girls’ parents filed a lawsuit that eventually was settled by the Petersons’ insurance company for tens of thousands of dollars.

Peterson changed. He turned inward. He moved under a cloud.

“I went to school with Pete and saw the effect that had had on him,” said Ric Clarke, a former journalist and local diver who attended St. George’s School with Peterson. “He went from being a fun-loving, carefree, jovial guy to being a moody, dark guy because of all that.”

Peterson graduated from St. George’s and enrolled at the University of Washington. He spent a year and a half not really taking to college, while his dad got tired of wasting the tuition money.

This was 1969. Vietnam was raging. Peterson thought that, since the draft was looming anyway, he ought to enlist. He was gung-ho. He believed in the cause. Unlike the kids protesting the war, he said, he was a “bit of a square.”

He went to officer candidate school, was commissioned as a lieutenant and shipped out to Vietnam in September 1970.

His year in Vietnam put him in harm’s way repeatedly. He started as a forward observer in the infantry – “about as high risk a position as you can have,” Peterson told Sheehan for a magazine piece published in 1986.

Peterson was promoted to first lieutenant, and flew as a helicopter observer with an artillery unit, then later was made executive officer at a fire base. He saw a lot of the action he’d been looking for – and found that it was often surreal, disturbing. Enemy fire. Death and destruction. Making decisions about whether to kill or capture Vietnamese people.

“I look back on some of this stuff now and can’t believe it was me,” he told Sheehan in the article. “You get in a state where you’re kind of numb to it all. After I saw my first person killed, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ Then, after a while, it got so ludicrous that I didn’t know what to think.”

Toward the end of his one-year tour, something happened that broke through the numbness. Peterson and his infantry unit were getting ready to make camp when they triggered a pair of booby traps. Peterson had bent over to pick up a radio and most of the shrapnel missed him. He was hit in the arm.

One man was hit in the carotid artery; he’d lost a foot and was surely dying. Peterson can’t remember his name, but he remembers what he did for the boy, all of 18: He found his foot so he could be buried intact. Another soldier had a belly full of shrapnel; Peterson helped get him to safety, and he survived.

He came home shortly thereafter, awakened to how precious his life was. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

* * * 

One day in December 1982, an amateur diver named Tom Michalski found a sonar blip on his fish finder, scanning the bottom of Hayden Lake. He didn’t know what it was, but he was familiar with the 1964 crash and the unsolved mystery surrounding it.

Michalski was well-known for his ability to find and retrieve boats and other objects from the bottom of the regional lakes’ inky black depths.

In the next several days, Michalski would discover Peterson’s boat and two bodies, more than 170 feet down. Clarke, Peterson’s old high school friend, was along for most of the dives; at the time, he was diving regularly with Michalski on weekends. A reporter for the Coeur d’Alene Press, he also covered the story extensively.

Over the next few days, with law enforcement officials, Michalski led the team that brought up both bodies and the boat. He also brought up what he considers incontrovertible evidence that Peterson wasn’t to blame for the crash.

Michalski, who now lives in Brennan, Wash., said the bow deck of the girls’ boat was buried in the side of the Tollycraft. On top of that, the throttle was pinned wide-open by an improperly placed replacement screw. Peterson was never charged with anything, so there was no official vindication, but Michalski said he believes the evidence makes it clear that the girls, caught in a boat with a stuck throttle, ran into Peterson.

“They hit him,” Michalski said. “In my mind, without a shadow of a doubt, he couldn’t have done it.”

The family members of the girls were reluctant to believe Peterson wasn’t to blame. At the time of Michalski’s dives, Barbara Horne’s father, Robert Horne, told the Spokane Chronicle, “I just wish the whole thing could be left alone. It’s driving us crazy. … As a family, it’s over with. It was an accident.”

* * * 

That December, Peterson was working at the downtown J.C. Penney store.

After returning from Vietnam, he’d enrolled at Eastern Washington University with his old friend Sheehan – who was then studying for a master’s degree in English. Peterson studied business, and while attending EWU he met his wife, Gayle. They married, graduated from college and started a family, and he entered Penney’s management training program.

The bad old days – the accident, the guilt – had faded, but still came back to him at times. Then, one day while he was drinking a cup of coffee in the Penney’s break room, he got a phone call from Clarke, his old schoolmate.

“He said, ‘We found your boat and you didn’t do it,’ ” Peterson said.

At first, he couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Over the next several days, though, he felt relieved of a great burden. TV footage from the time shows him on a Mokins Bay dock, struggling with his emotions – glad to be seemingly vindicated, he said, but still reliving a tragic night in his mind.

The dives and the discoveries were covered on the TV news and in the newspapers. But whereas the accident garnered big headlines, the follow-up wasn’t played as dramatically, especially in the Spokane newspapers, Sheehan said.

“All the bad headlines that had appeared in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane in 1964 didn’t make the front page in 1982,” he said. “It got very small play.”

What Sheehan saw as the unfairness of that coverage gnawed at him for a few years. A former sportswriter at The Spokesman-Review who had moved to Las Vegas and become a magazine publisher, Sheehan decided to try to correct this injustice by writing an article about the accident, the diving discovery and his lifelong friendship with Peterson.

That article, titled “Buddies,” became the seed for the next stage of Peterson’s story – its journey to the screen. The first nibble came when Sheehan got a call shortly after the article appeared. It was the actor Jon Voight, and he wanted to buy the film rights.

Sheehan, who didn’t even know what that meant, said no. He’s still not even sure why. A few more years passed. The story still stuck in his head. Another friend told him he ought to write it as a screenplay – so Sheehan bought a how-to book and wrote one.

Over his years in Las Vegas – as a writer and a skilled golfer – Sheehan had developed some celebrity connections. He gave his screenplay to a friend, pro golfer Peter Jacobsen, who said he was going to pass it on to actor Jack Lemmon.

Before long, Sheehan was on the phone with Lemmon, and then the movie was on the fast track at Warner Bros. The studio saw it as a vehicle for Dempsey, then a rising young star. But in a series of discussions with a studio executive, Sheehan discovered that they wanted to change the story in ways that made him uncomfortable – making it less a story about two friends, adding sex and drugs, making it unrecognizable as the story that was so personal and important to him.

So he said no. A few years later, he went through the same cycle with ABC over a television movie project. When that one fell through in 1992, the script went back into a box in his office.

Where it sat for 18 years.

* * * 

Jim Page, an old friend from Hayden Lake, got in touch with Sheehan several months ago. An attorney who was interested in doing some writing, Page eventually discussed Sheehan’s screenplay with him. He thought he knew someone who might be able to make the movie.

His son.

Ryan Page grew up with the story of Pete Peterson’s accident – as well as the tales of idyllic Hayden Lake. He’s now a movie producer with several credits as a producer and director, primarily on documentaries. He and his partner, Christopher Pomerenke, have made several films, including the documentary “Blood Into Wine,” about former Tool lead singer Maynard James Keenan making wine in an Arizona ghost town; and the narrative film “Queens of Country,” scheduled for release this year.

Ryan Page was attracted to the story’s redemptive arc. He was interested in telling another kind of story on film than he has so far. His production company, Twinkle Cash, agreed to put up half the film’s $10 million budget, and he says filming is set to begin this summer in Spokane and Hayden Lake.

Casting hasn’t begun, and there are details to be worked out and investors are still needed. But Page said the movie is “100 percent” being made.

A group of people with ties to Peterson, Sheehan and Hayden Lake gathered last week at the Davenport Hotel to get a preview of the movie proposal, and maybe invest in the project. The gathering had the air of a class reunion – drinks, laughter, memories of youthful mischief, tales of who dated whom.

There was also a lot of emotion, not least from Peterson himself. Following a short video summary of the movie project, Peterson spoke to the group. It was clear that, whatever answers Michalski’s dive might have produced, the pain from that August night lingers, nearly half a century later.

“Was it bittersweet? Yeah,” he told the crowd. “I mean, watching this was pretty tough.”

Peterson – father of three and grandfather of five, who recently welcomed twin grandchildren – knows that his piece of the story, for all its twists and turns, for all its interest to storytellers and friends, was never the most tragic element of that night.

“There’s still two girls that are dead,” he said. “Whether I hit them or they hit me, it doesn’t change anything.

“The end hasn’t changed here.”

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