By James S. Kunen
Updated January 08, 1990 12:00 PM

The deadliest drunk driver in the history of the United States is headed for prison. So is a hardworking, honest, dedicated father. They are one and the same man: Larry Wayne Mahoney.

On the night of May 14, 1988, Mahoney, 36, a Kentucky factory worker, drove his black Toyota pickup down the wrong side of Interstate 71 head-on into a school bus. The bus, loaded with 63 children returning to Radcliff, Ky., from a church outing, burst into flame. Twenty-four children were trapped inside and died in the fire, screaming for their mothers. Three of the four adults on board perished with them. Among the children who escaped, 12 suffered terrible burns.

Dr. George Nichols, Kentucky’s chief medical examiner, climbed into the bus about two hours later. In the beam of his flashlight he saw incinerated bodies draped over the backs of seats and piled three deep in the foot-wide aisle at the only emergency exit. He retreated in shock and sat for 15 minutes in a police cruiser, he later testified, “blinking my eyes, hoping what I was seeing would go away.” Mahoney, knocked unconscious in the crash and critically injured, was told what he had done when he came to in a hospital bed the next day. He couldn’t believe it, he says. “I kept telling myself, ‘Wake up! This is just a bad nightmare.’ ” But the fatal crash was not a nightmare, and it will never go away.

It fell to the judicial system to take this horror and reduce it to a case that could be processed and disposed of. One Christmas came and went; another was approaching as the jury deliberated. Merchants’ banners proclaiming JOY! JOY! JOY! lined the street outside the Carroll County Courthouse as the six-week trial of the Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Larry Mahoney ground to its inevitably unsatisfying conclusion on Dec. 22.

Perfect justice was never among the possible outcomes. Observes Janey Fair, whose 14-year-old daughter, Shannon, died on the bus: “There’s no balancing the books. He can’t go to prison for 27 lifetimes.” Mahoney could, however, have spent the rest of his life behind bars, since he was charged with 27 counts of murder based on conduct “manifesting extreme indifference to human life.” But after deliberating 11 hours, the six-man, six-woman jury convicted Mahoney only of second-degree manslaughter and other lesser offenses and recommended a sentence of 16 years, which under Kentucky law cannot be increased by the judge. Mahoney would be considered for parole in eight years.

It was a devastating outcome for the families of the dead. They had hoped the trial would signal once and for all that drinking on purpose and killing by accident is just as intolerable as killing on purpose. The prosecutor, Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Paul Richwalsky Jr., had argued, “Plain and simple, this is a murder case…. He killed them just as sure as if he had a gun.” Apparently the jury did not agree. After listening to 17 days of heartwrenching and often grotesquely graphic testimony, most of the jurors closeted themselves for post-stress counseling with state-supplied psychiatrists, and all refused to comment. But they must have been at least partially persuaded by the case for the defense.

State-appointed defense attorneys William L. Summers and Russell Baldani, and volunteer lawyer Jack Hildebrand, conceded that Mahoney drove drunk. But they argued that no one would have died if Ford Motor Co. and the Sheller-Globe Corp. had not built a bus that was an inferno waiting to happen. Indeed, none of the passengers suffered so much as a broken bone in the collision between Mahoney’s 3,400-pound truck and the 11-ton bus. “I didn’t feel the impact,” testified survivor Christy Pearman, 15. “Somebody behind me said, ‘We must’ve hit a deer.’ ” But the bus’s gas tank, located outside the frame just behind the front door, punctured, and burning fuel ignited the highly combustible polyurethane seat cushions. According to defense witness Eugene Sober, a NASA fire-and-safety engineer, burning polyurethane spews dense smoke and lethal gases and is “about as hazardous as anything you can find.” But widely available flame-retardant additives had not been used in the seats. “It looked like someone was standing in the front of the bus with a flame thrower,” Jess Durrance, 17, testified. “The flames just kept coming back at us.”

Prosecutor Richwalsky responded that any safety defects in the bus were irrelevant to Mahoney’s guilt, because the bus “would still be on the highway” if Larry Mahoney had not chosen to drink and drive. But Mahoney insisted that he had taken pains not to drive drunk, though he was depressed and stopped at a couple of bars. A few years ago he had gone bankrupt when faced with several hundred thousand dollars in medical bills for his daughter, Shawna, now 7, who was born with spina bifida. As a result, not long before the day of the accident, he had been turned down for a mortgage, and he was discouraged. He admitted that between 1 P.M. and 9 P.M. he had consoled himself with several beers—the government could prove he drank seven. Even the prosecution’s expert acknowledged that rate of alcohol consumption probably would have left Mahoney sober. But he continued drinking between 9 P.M. and 10 P.M. while hanging out at a friend’s house with some buddies who, ironically, were working on an old school bus.

Mahoney, supported by several witnesses, testified that he drank there only after his pal Taylor Fox promised to drive him on to meet a friend later that night. Otherwise, Mahoney swore, “I would have never drank. This is the God’s honest truth.”

He said the last thing he remembered was drinking some clear liquid that made him gasp—possibly vodka—and some Pepsi that may have been spiked. Witnesses said he asked Fox for his keys back and promised to drive the quarter-mile straight home. Fox gave him the keys, but Mahoney didn’t drive home. Somehow he ended up on I-71. His blood-alcohol content at the time of the wreck was estimated at an astronomical .21, more than twice the legal limit. “I really am sorry,” said Mahoney, addressing the victims’ families. “I know it’s not going to make you feel any different toward me…but that’s all I know to say.”

In the end—after all the legal wrangling and the 124 witnesses and the nearly 200 exhibits—it may have been Mahoney’s obvious anguish that led the jury to tender him a degree of mercy. Three times, while listening to witnesses’ accounts of the carnage, he broke down and wept. “The apologies are too late,” Richwalsky argued. “Now it’s time to pay.” But the jurors may have agreed with Summers that Mahoney will be paying forever, in prison or out.

The victims’ families are less sympathetic. “It’s always ‘Poor Larry Mahoney, he’s got to live with this,’ ” says Army Sgt. Maj. Bill Nichols, whose only child, William Jr., 17, died in the crash. “But he can see his family. They can visit him. If I want to spend Christmas with my child, I’ve got to go to the cemetery and kneel down by a headstone.”

Mahoney, who plans to appeal his conviction, now sits in jail awaiting sentencing on Feb. 23. He says he wishes he had been locked up the first and only other time he was caught driving drunk, back in 1984. “If I’d have stayed 30 days in jail for that first time, I’d have never been back out on that road no more,” he says. Instead he was assessed a small fine.

“Why’d I have to live?” he asks. “I should’ve been the one that’s dead. If I could trade my life right now to bring every one of them back”—he snaps his fingers—”I’d do it just that quick.”