EADS, Colo. (AP) – Police officers, firefighters and weeping teenagers in high school letter jackets packed a rural high school gymnasium Friday to remember five foster and adopted children and their father, who were killed in a Colorado highway crash.
More than 800 people observed a casket bearing the body of Howard Mitchell and the cremated remains of four of his children inside the auditorium. More mourners stood outside for the afternoon funeral service. Banks and stores closed and flags flew at half-staff in Eads, a farm town 145 miles southeast of Denver.
Mitchell, a Cheyenne County sheriff’s deputy, was taking 12 of his foster and adopted children to school in Eads when his van slammed into an empty cattle trailer last week. The deaths stunned residents throughout eastern Colorado’s plains towns.
Mitchell and his wife, Melody, ran a state-licensed group home for adopted and foster children in neighboring Kit Carson, where signs and flowers were placed outside the Mitchell home and a Cheyenne County sheriff’s SUV at a fire station was surrounded by flowers and teddy bears.
Relatives suspect that Mitchell suffered a heart attack just before the Oct. 13 accident in a highway construction zone. Investigators have ruled out alcohol, drugs and cellphone use as factors.
The crash killed Mitchell, 57; Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17.
All but Franks were to be buried in Kit Carson, 20 miles north of Eads, said Jimmy Brown, a funeral director. Franks’ family planned to bury his remains at a family plot elsewhere, Brown said.
Six other children — ages 3, 13, 15, 16, and two 17-year-olds — were treated at Denver-area hospitals. A 14-year-old — the only one wearing a seat belt — was treated for minor injuries at a local hospital. The 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat.
Though they lived in Kit Carson, the Mitchells took their children to school in Eads after the Kit Carson school board declined in 2007 to support their application for a group home, Kit Carson schools superintendent Gerald Keefe said. Some residents objected that the group home could have children in trouble with the law and would place a strain on the 115-student district, he said.
Community members described the Mitchells as dedicated to developing citizens with their work with foster children, most of them from difficult backgrounds. Melody Mitchell said her own parents were foster parents to 68 children.
A family friend, pastor Eric Kilborn, said this week that an autopsy on Mitchell showed a major blockage of blood to his heart, leading the family to believe he had a heart-related issue that led to the crash. The Cheyenne County coroner has yet to release autopsy findings.
Friends, family and strangers rallied behind the family this week, holding bake sales where pies brought in $100 apiece. A rancher raised $6,000 by auctioning a cow, said Carl Anderson, who owns The Trading Post restaurant next door to the Mitchell home.
“We’re there for her (Melody Mitchell). We’re all going to chip in, either money or time. Basically anything they need,” Anderson said Friday. “You’ll never meet another friendlier, respectful bunch of kids in the rest of your life.”
By P. Solomon Banda, AP Writer (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)