PEPPERELL -- It was a frigid winter night when drunken driver Irving Chapman killed teenage sweethearts Sean Wellington and Elizabeth "Betsie" Hughes. Both were students at North Middlesex Regional High School. They were killed within sight of the school.
On Tuesday Aug. 17, friends and family of Sean Wellington, of Pepperell, gathered at the Sean Wellington Basketball Courts to unveil upgrades to the site and rededicate the courts in Sean's name.
The area now has a new brick walkway, bark mulch and flowers, a granite bench, and refurbished sign. All the materials were donated by Babin Landscaping, and two employees, Brian Cleary and Paul Larrivee, both of Pepperell, gave their time and labor to do the work.
The original memorial was the idea of Allan Wilayto, who coached recreational basketball in Pepperell when Sean was a boy. Sean's best friend, Colin McAlpine, partnered with Wilayto to raise donations from local businesses to build the memorial after Sean's death. The two men unveiled the restored sign and walkway to mark the 10th anniversary of the commemorative site.
Wilayto described Sean as "a great kid who always had a smile on his face." On the day of his death, Wilayto was referee in a game in which Sean scored 29 points. All through childhood, Sean was an avid and talented basketball player, Wilayto said, who made the varsity team at North Middlesex High School in his sophomore year -- an unusual feat for a teen athlete.
Wilayto offered special thanks to those who helped with the memorial, including Derek Ten Broeck, Lynne David, Terry Spaulding and David Priddle of the town's Parks and Recreation Department; Kim Gordon who painted the new sign; and Dorothy "Dodie" Hughes-LaPlante, who has for the past decade visited local schools as an activist against drunken driving. Betsie Hughes was her daughter.
"Dodie is an outstanding example of someone who turned a horrible negative event into positive action," said Wilayto. "She continues to go into classrooms and educate young people about the awful consequences of drunk driving."
McAlpine ran the Sean Wellington Summer Basketball League for six years as a tribute to his departed friend, but had to give up that role due to job and family responsibilities. The league has recently resumed playing, and McAlpine hopes Sean's name will still be used in connection with the league.
"We want to keep Sean's name and memory alive," said McAlpine, "and to see his spirit live on in Pepperell's recreational basketball."
The bench is inscribed with "Sean Michael Wellington" and a description of Sean's life and death:
"On Jan. 2, 1999, Sean scored 29 points in his T.A.P. youth basketball game and earned high honors on his report card. Later that day, he left Pepperell and his life with his girlfriend, Betsie Hughes, within view of his high school. He was 18 years old. Sean spent many happy hours on these courts with his friends. His life reminds us that if you are willing to work hard, you can succeed."
McAlpine and Wilayto hope that the message on the bench and lessons learned about drunken driving will be understood and remembered by all the folks, young and old, who visit the basketball courts.
Sean and his high school sweetheart, Betsie, 19, of Townsend, were killed on Jan. 2, 1999 on Route 119 at the Townsend-Pepperell-Groton town lines by Irving Chapman, 31, of Pepperell. Chapman had previously served a two-year prison sentence for vehicular homicide in the death of classmate Shawn Kinsman in 1988. Chapman lost his driver's license privileges forever after that fatal crash. However, he violated that ruling and was stopped while driving in the fall of 1998, a few months before the January crash that killed Wellington and Hughes. He was subsequently released.
According to published reports, Chapman was seen drinking at a local VFW before the 1999 accident. His large dump truck veered into oncoming traffic on 119 and ran over the car driven by Wellington. Chapman's passenger, Robert Hall, sustained minor injuries. He was also a passenger in the car at the time that Chapman killed Shawn Kinsman 10 years earlier. Chapman's blood alcohol level at the scene of the crime was .17, significantly above the .08 legal limit.
Chapman pleaded innocent to the charges of driving while intoxicated, vehicular homicide and driving without a license. He was convicted of the crimes. After being incarcerated, he appealed his conviction and sentence. The judge dismissed the appeal, and added an extra five years to the original sentence imposed on Chapman, who is now serving 28 to 30 years for the 1999 homicides.
"Chapman didn't just kill three people," said McAlpine. "His drunk driving caused terrible grief for several families, and ruined many lives."