Jeremy McSpadden Jr. was eager to begin his first night depicting a zombie at the Incredible Corn Maze near Hauser Lake.
The tall, athletic West Valley High School senior was there Friday with his cousins and friends – among the teens paid to portray the horror-show creatures for visitors to shoot with paintball guns from a converted school bus rolling through the cornfield.
“It was a way for them to earn a little bit of extra money and to have fun,” said Robin Moritz, McSpadden’s aunt. “They were so excited. It was Jeremy’s first night out there. He hadn’t been out there yet; all the other boys had.”
The night turned tragic when McSpadden, 18, lost his footing and fell under the slow-moving bus. His head was caught under a rear wheel and he was killed instantly.
Anthony Burkhart, another of Moritz’s nephews, heard someone yell there had been an emergency and to call 911. He ran through the corn to where his cousin had been stationed.
“He saw him in the road … and he knew he was gone,” she said Tuesday.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death at the Halloween attraction along North Beck Road to identify potential safety hazards for workers there.
“We’re going to be conducting interviews and doing a thorough investigation,” Dave Kearns, Idaho area director for OSHA, said Tuesday.
The agency first will determine what employment relationship McSpadden had with the corn maze, operated by Greenacres resident Suzie Dunn under the Spokane-based company name NW Creative Solutions LLC.
“This is an odd situation. So we need to determine whether or not there was some sort of payment or compensation that was associated or if this was a volunteer effort,” Kearns said.
Moritz said McSpadden, her son Josh Foster and other teens recruited to play zombies at the corn maze were told they would be paid $50 for each night they worked and would receive the money on a Visa gift card at the end of the season, she said.
Dunn has not returned multiple calls for comment. The Incredible Corn Maze’s Facebook page announced Tuesday that the maze will reopen Saturday at 11 a.m., but the zombie bus attraction will remain closed out of respect for McSpadden.
“We are sending constant loving thoughts and prayers to Jeremy’s family and everyone who has been affected,” the attraction’s Facebook post said. “All of our volunteers are like family to us. We are all grieving and trying our very best to care for one another during this indescribably difficult time.”
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office is awaiting autopsy and toxicology reports before closing its investigation, said Lt. Stu Miller, spokesman for the sheriff.
“We have found nothing that would rise to a criminal nature; simply a tragic incident,” Miller said Tuesday.
Moritz said her nephew Anthony, who is 17, also fell under the bus a few nights before Friday’s accident but was unharmed. “He had told us … ‘I tripped and I went right under the bus, and it went right over me,’ ” she said.
Moritz said she had intended to remind the group on Friday to be especially careful because of that earlier incident.
“And I didn’t have that opportunity to tell them because I wasn’t off work yet,” Moritz said. “And this is what happened – he did exactly what Anthony did. … He fell and he didn’t have time to react one bit before the bus ran his head over.”
She cried as she recalled her sister’s reaction to McSpadden being on the zombie cast.
“His mom was so worried. ‘You’re going to get welts.’ That was her concern. ‘You’re going to get welts on you from the paintballs,’ ” Moritz said.
She described her nephew as intelligent, talented and big-hearted.
“It didn’t matter what kind of day you were having. If it was bad, he made it better. If it was good, he made it phenomenal,” Moritz said.
“He was the kid that everybody loved,” she said. “He was not involved with one special clique at school. He got along with everybody. He never had a mean word to say, ever.”
McSpadden and his twin sister turned 18 last month.
“He couldn’t wait to get his ID showing he was 18 years old,” his aunt said.
Sports were a big part of his life. He played hockey since he was a young boy and also participated in football, wrestling, basketball and baseball.
And he was starting to think about college. A few days before the accident, McSpadden and Burkhart were talking about possibly attending The Art Institute of Seattle together, Moritz said.
Her house near the high school had been a hangout for McSpadden and his friends and cousins, and they’ve been gathering there each day since Friday to remember him and share their grief.
“We’re just sticking together and being around each other, just kind of being there for one another,” said senior Destiny Vaught, West Valley High’s student body president.
Vaught said she’ll remember McSpadden for his kindness and wisdom.
“You know that saying, you’re old beyond your years?” she said. “You just kind of get life … and have the words (others) need to hear? That’s kind of like how he was.”
Some of his friends who were working with him at the corn maze Friday night got light-saber tattoos on their index fingers in a tribute to McSpadden, who was a big fan of the “Star Wars” films.
The family is planning a public memorial service later this month, Moritz said.
“This family will get through this,” she said. “We’re a big, strong family. But we really do need the time to be able to get through it together.”
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