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Friends, family remember DUI driver's struggles to battle alcoholism

Mark Church with his fiancee, Andrea Smith, in December 2012.

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Published: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 3:21 p.m.

The words were scrawled in black marker on the back of the white Dodge Durango found crashed one week ago today at the bottom of the Covey Road hill: “Pull me over I'm drunk.”

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Mark Church with his fiancee, Andrea Smith, in December 2012.

PHOTO PROVIDED

Just moments earlier, Mark Church, 23, had been alive with friends, some he'd known for years. They were out drinking as Friday night spilled into Saturday at the Forestville Club about a mile away.

But the night careened into tragedy when Church drove away in the Durango he'd borrowed from his fiancee, leaving his friends to walk home from the bar. He left against their protests, his friends later told officers.

He never turned at the bottom of the hill, driving straight through a guardrail and slamming into the hillside where Covey Road dead-ends at Trenton Road.

Whether it was a plea or a prank, the message scrawled on the back of the Durango did not help the young man.

Until that night, Church had been slowly winning a battle against alcohol-fueled decisions that brought him repeated arrests over the last several years, said those who knew him.

But one night, one decision, took that away.

Each day, about 88 people die in drunken driving crashes across the United States, according to the most recent figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Sonoma County, at least four people were killed in such crashes last year, according to Press Democrat archives. And although the circumstances in each case are different, they all hinge on a decision to get behind the wheel.

“There truly and honestly was more to Mark than that moment,” said his fiancee Andrea Smith of Santa Rosa.

Church had been more or less sober for months, his family and friends said. He and Smith were recently engaged and Church was a month into a new job, saving up for an apartment and filling a notebook with recipes for a bakery he hoped to open one day.

“I loved that boy,” said the grandmother who raised him, Marjorie Konrad, 82, of Santa Rosa. “When he was not drinking, he was extremely bright. But when he drinks he blacks out.”

Sitting at a dining room table at the home Church's grandfather built in Santa Rosa's Skyhawk neighborhood, Konrad opened up a scrapbook.

The pages were filled with Church's childhood drawings, a piece of his baptism shawl and endless photographs of a ruddy-cheeked Church as a boy playing accordion, at which he excelled.

The book also was filled with sterling report cards noting the 3.86 grade point average he earned while at the Hanna Boys Center for troubled youth, certificates of completion for anger management classes and a letter of encouragement from staff.

She turned to a page with a newspaper clipping from 2002 when Church won the top prize at the Sonoma County Fair for the best steer, a 1,164-pound black Maine Anjou called Taz, earning $3.75 a pound.

Church's young life had not been easy when he showed up at his grandmother's doorstep at age 7, holding his 3-year-old brother's hand, his grandmother said.

But he was a sweet boy with a knack for the accordion his grandmother taught all the children. Church doted on his little brother, Keith, pulling him in a red wagon filled with vegetables door-to-door to sell vegetables to earn an allowance.

Konrad said she wanted to talk about her grandson's struggles with the hope that others might learn from the tragic end to his life.

“If it saves one person, it's worth it,” Konrad said. “If I can wake one person up ...”

Ever since Church began experimenting with alcohol as a teen, a different person would emerge, she said.

A sparkling personality when sober, Church got into trouble when not, besieged by blackouts that led the young man to do things his family and friends adamantly said he would never do sober.

He stole his grandmother's wedding rings. He threw a rock through the window of a Guerneville Road business and took a display figure.

His record includes arrests for petty theft, vandalism, battery and disorderly conduct involving alcohol. He failed to make probation appointments or show up for drug tests. Church spent a year in Sonoma County Jail for burglarizing his grandmother's home, according to Konrad and court records.

Judges sent him to a batterer's program, sobriety meetings and ordered him to enter a residential treatment program.

Despite his troubles, Church carried a genuine sweetness with him into adulthood, said many who knew him.

“He knew — he wanted to be clean and sober,” Konrad said.

Adam Peacocke, pastor at City Life Fellowship on Pacific Avenue in Santa Rosa, said Church was “the funny bone of the family.”

“He had a great smile, a good sense of humor,” Peacocke said.

Church recently began attending services at City Life with his younger siblings and mother Darlene Lynch, with whom he'd recently reconnected.

“He was the type to pin you down and lick your face,” said his mother Darlene Lynch. “He had been sober for six months prior. He was a good, good man.”

Church was in his element dancing around the house with the younger children, covered in glitter from helping them with art projects or at the stove cooking.

“He was the one who would rile up all the kids and get them all crazy,” Smith said. “He'd sit on the couch with them when they weren't feeling good.”

Church had many people who tried to help him. A family from City Life housed and counseled him for a time.

About a year ago, Church was taken in by two friends, Anna Vincent and Desiree Ramirez, who said he quickly became part of their and their children's lives, helping get everyone up and fed before school and fixing things around the house.

“He was turning his life around. He was living the way he was supposed to be living, and we would not have tolerated anything less,” Vincent said. “He was our family.”

And most recently he wasn't drinking and certainly not spending time in bars, she and others said.

But one week ago, on Feb. 8, Church left Smith's home to see friends. His friends couldn't be reached to give their accounts of what took place.

They stumbled across the accident scene while walking home from the bar that night, arriving moments after paramedics pronounced Church dead, neighbors said.

They told CHP officers at the scene that they had a designated driver, but they couldn't stop Church before he drove away. Church's family, friends and fiancee said they didn't know who wrote the message on the back of the Dodge on the night he died.

“The hardest part to absorb is that the way he passed away isn't what he was trying to do, it wasn't where he wanted to go,” Smith said.

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