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Harrowing tale of teen party gone wrong

Witnesses say about 80 young revelers were dancing on the deck of a rented vacation home near Guerneville when it collapsed early Sunday morning.

Published: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 8:00 p.m.

Two nights of increasingly chaotic partying came to a crashing halt Sunday morning when the second-floor deck of a Russian River vacation rental house collapsed under the weight of scores of young people dancing.

“There were just so many people, it was just crazy. Wall-to-wall people,” said Stefanie Douglass, 18, of Santa Rosa, who said she had just stepped off the deck when it broke in two.

Though authorities said they were unaware of serious injuries, rumors were flying Monday among those who had attended the event — “I heard someone broke their neck,” said Douglass — and county officials are investigating whether the deck met construction codes.

“It was very dangerous to look back on,” said Tabatha Deas, 18, of Santa Rosa, one of several who described a scene of drug- and alcohol-fueled revelry that culminated in near disaster.

“It was pretty gnarly,” said Sean Thompson, 21, of Graton, one of hundreds of people at the Saturday night party on Sweetwater Springs Road, near Armstrong Redwoods State Preserve.

He said he was under the deck — which also held a disc jockey station — when he saw it starting to buckle overhead.

“There was hella people underneath it, and I was like telling everyone get the hell outta here — this thing's going to go,” Thompson said.

He said he was sprinting to warn the crowd of as many as 100 people dancing on the deck above when it collapsed.

Jenny Lopes, 18, of Santa Rosa, was on the deck.

“We were all just dancing and I just heard screaming and then I looked over and I was falling,” she said. “And then half of it broke and everybody slid to the ground.”

Lopes said she got only bumps and bruises but that a friend suffered a fractured leg.

Russian River firefighters and Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies responded to 911 calls from the house at about 12:35 a.m., said Russian River Fire Capt. Rob Cassady.

He said that no one was transported in ambulances, but that arriving deputies and emergency crews reported difficulties making it up the one-lane road because of the traffic coming down.

Nick Gruber, 20, of Sebastopol, confirmed Monday that he'd rented the home, but denied throwing a party. “I was trying to throw people out,” he said in a brief interview.

“Gruber's mother, Janice Millard of Sebastopol, said her son — a 2009 El Molino High School graudate — is in the U.S. Army and was soon to deploy to Afghanistan. Now she said, he has a spinal injury and, “we don't know what the Army's going to do.”

She blamed the affair on the property owners. “They rented an unsafe house, obviously,” she said.

Cassady, the fire captain, said deputies estimated about 300 people were at the event Saturday — and partygoers said as many as could were leaving as fast as possible once the deck went down.

“People booked it,” said Deas. “The deck collapsed a little after 12 o'clock and I was in my car going down the hill at 12:23.”

The Saturday night party followed one Friday night that was smaller, said people who attended both.

“I was there the night before, it was the perfect amount of people, it was chill,” said Douglass. “I guess the second night, because the DJ was coming from LA, it was supposed to be off the hook and they were expecting like 500 people.”

Deas said: “The night before a lot of people basically went, but then once everyone was like, ‘OK, the cops didn't come,' the next night it was twice as a big.”

Reached at his Forestville home, the property owner, Christopher Coogan, declined to comment. But the owner of the property management company that handles the bookings for the home said the fault lies with the people who threw the party.

“This was outrageous,” said Camille LeGrand of Russian River Getaways. “I don't think any deck would have withstood this. They were having a rave — 80 kids on this small deck and they were all bouncing to the music.”

LeGrand said that her agents are trained to screen prospective renters, with an eye toward avoiding just such incidents — “Oh my God, they almost never get by us,” she said.

She said of Gruber: “He was very credible, very well-spoken, very expensive clothes,” she said.

Gruber told her he was deploying overseas and wanted a nice, quiet place where he could propose to his girlfriend, LeGrand said. “He was very convincing.”

The home rents for $295 a night. Some partygoers said they were being charged a $5 admission price.

The safety of the deck had raised eyebrows among some partygoers. “Everybody was saying that the deck might fall — people were even jumping on it as a joke,” said Lopes.

“Let's just say in the beginning, when I got there, you could tell that the deck was shaky,” said Thompson. “And everyone, including myself was like, ‘Oh man, this is going down tonight, but nobody took it seriously. And then it went down.”

Douglass — who said she was the designated driver for her group of friends — said the party was fraught with perils.

“But every teenage party is when you think about it,” she said. “When there's underage drinking and drugs involved, anything can happen. Anything's possible.”

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