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Cellphone use ruled out in CO crash that killed 6

By P. Solomon Banda

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 14 2011 4:53 p.m. MDT

KIT CARSON, Colo. — Cellphone use was ruled out Friday as the reason a van driven by a Colorado sheriff s deputy slammed into a cattle trailer along a rural highway under repair, killing him and five foster and adopted children he and his wife had taken into their home.

Seven other children in the van were injured, and at least one was in critical condition Friday.

The 1999 Dodge Ram van driven by Cheyenne County Deputy Howard Mitchell, 57, crashed into the trailer that had stopped Thursday in a construction zone on U.S. 287 near the town of Kit Carson.

The crash happened about 20 minutes after sunrise, and weather conditions were clear with no wind gusts along the north-south highway heavily used by tractor-trailers.

Mitchell was taking the 12 children to school in the town of Eads, south of Kit Carson.

"Of course he had 12 kids in the van, and there will probably be some distraction, but nothing we can prove," Ortiz said. "We can only make our best educated guess as to why. The main factor is probably going to be speed."

The patrol also ruled out alcohol or drugs as factors in the crash.

The speed limit on the highway is 65 mph but was lower in the construction zone. A final report that would state how fast the van was traveling is not expected for weeks. Only 26 feet of skid marks were found at the accident site, Ortiz said.

The collision killed Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17.

Six children, ages 3, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 18, were being treated at Denver-area hospitals. A 14-year-old was treated for minor injuries and released from a local hospital.

The 14-year-old was the only one in the van wearing a seat belt, while the 3-year-old was properly restrained in a child seat, troopers said.

The driver of the tractor-trailer, Jared Kauffman, 26, of Cheyenne, Wyo., was treated at a hospital and released.

Howard Mitchell and his wife, Melody, operated a state-licensed group home for foster kids in Kit Carson, but their children attended school in Eads, another small farm town.

Gerald Keefe, superintendent of the Kit Carson R-1 School District, said the Mitchells began sending their children to Eads after the Kit Carson school board declined in January 2007 to support the Mitchells' application for a group home.

Keefe said group homes can accept children who have had trouble with the law. The Kit Carson board declined to support the application after residents said it would place a strain on the town's tiny, 115-student district.

"No student was ever presented at our door for enrollment and denied enrollment," Keefe said, adding he and the Mitchells never discussed why they decided to send their children to Eads. "That's a question better posed to the family.'"

Colorado's Department of Human Services was also investigating the crash. Spokeswoman Dee Martinez declined to elaborate, other than to say, "Ultimately, foster kids are under our care and we always work to make sure they are safe and secure."

Glenn Smith, superintendent of Eads School District RE-1, said the Mitchells sent their foster and adopted children to the Eads school because they seemed to thrive with staff and programs there. He and Eads High School principal Betsy Bennett said the Mitchells were dedicated to making their children "developing citizens."

Friends were saddened and perplexed about the accident.

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