EADS, Colo. — Police officers, firefighters, ranchers and weeping teenagers in high school letter jackets packed a rural Colorado high school gym Friday for the funeral of five foster and adopted children and the sheriff's deputy who took them into his home — all victims of a highway crash.
About 1,000 people attended the service inside Eads High School Gymnasium, including former and current foster children cared for by Cheyenne County Deputy Howard Mitchell. There they observed a single casket bearing Mitchell's body and the cremated remains of four of his children.
More mourners stood outside the gym. Banks and stores closed and flags flew at half-staff in Eads and Mitchell's nearby hometown of Kit Carson, about 120 miles southeast of Denver.
Mitchell, 57, was remembered as a man devoted to the 41 foster children he and his wife, Melody, had taken in over the years in their state-licensed group home.
"No kids in that house, or any person in that house, questioned if they were accepted — because that house is a house filled with love. Absolute, pure, godly love," said Scott Nyman, pastor of Kit Carson's Church of the Redeemer. "I've never seen teenagers transform the way they do, they did, and will in the future in the Mitchell home."
Signs and flowers were placed outside the home Friday. At a nearby fire station, a sheriff's SUV was adorned with flowers and teddy bears.
Mitchell was taking 12 of his foster and adopted children to school in Eads when his van slammed into an empty cattle trailer Oct. 13. The deaths stunned residents throughout eastern Colorado's plains towns.
Relatives suspect that Mitchell suffered a heart attack just before the accident in a highway construction zone. Investigators have ruled out alcohol, drugs and cellphone use as factors.
Also killed were Austyn Atkinson, 11; Tony Mitchell, 10; Tayla Mitchell, 10; Andy Dawson, 13; and Jeremy Franks, 17.
Seven other children were treated at hospitals.
Pastor Russell Parker of First Baptist Church in Eads eulogized Austyn as always helpful. Tony was a child "who never met a stranger," while Tayla "was daddy's little girl," Parker said.
Andy, an Oklahoma Sooners fan, recently won a rodeo buckle at Bible camp and dreamed of becoming a "cowboy preacher," Parker said. "You know when he came out here to the eastern plains he was kind of a city slicker. But over the course of time he sure enough turned into a cowboy," the pastor said.
Nyman told the crowd that Jeremy said he wanted to become a missionary after taking a church-sponsored trip to Guatemala.
All but Jeremy Franks were being 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.
Friends, family and strangers have rallied behind the family, 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."
Eric Kilborn, a family friend and former pastor in Kit Carson, said this week that an autopsy showed a major blockage of blood to Mitchell's heart, leading the family to believe he had a medical crisis that led to the crash. The Cheyenne County coroner has yet to release autopsy findings.
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.
The family never enrolled in Kit Carson schools even though they would have been able to under state law, Keefe said.