The Ticket's Sean Bass and His Sobering Stance on Driving Drunk
Sometimes — more often than he'd like, and even though he knows it's not healthy, that it won't change anything — Sean Bass thinks of all the different routes he could've taken to the store.
It was a warm Friday night in late September. Sean had just mowed the lawn. His girlfriend, Heather, was at his house in Garland, cuddling his dog Clementine and waiting on the first pitch of the Rangers-Mariners game. First, though, the Yankees were playing the A's. Oakland made a pitching change, and the whole thing was taking forever. A commercial came on.
"Let's go," Sean told Heather.
Sometimes he thinks about that, too. They could've just sat through the damn commercials.
They left Sean's place and headed to Tom Thumb for groceries. They hopped into his silver Nissan Altima, and he picked one of the three routes at random: a left on Kingsley Road, a right on First Street and another right down West Centerville Road, three busy lanes on each side, bordered with gas stations, strip malls, used-car lots. They'd be back in no time.
Sean Bass is 30 years old, with slightly thinning reddish-brown hair, stubble, and a booming, personable, radio-volume voice. All his life, he's been a Ticket Guy. Before he started working for the massively popular sports radio station at age 19, he was a diehard listener — a "P1," as they're known on-air, an old-timey radio reference that means, depending on whom you ask, "Priority One" or "Preset One." As a young kid, his dad used to let him stay up late to listen on Saturday nights, a time slot Sean ("Seabass" to the P1s) now hosts.
In addition to being his livelihood, the Ticket also brought Sean and Heather together. He's prolific on Twitter, with 12,000 or so followers who check in to banter with him about the Mavs and the Rangers (he hosts the Ticket's post-game shows on both teams), and to argue with him about whether soccer deserves more coverage on the station (that's just one guy, actually).
Heather VanHoozer was active on Twitter, too, using a handle that involved the words "Sports Gal." She was born in Garland; March 31 would have been her 25th birthday. Her closest friend, Stacy Tekstar, describes her as "a fashion queen," with long brown hair, stylish black-and-white framed glasses, and a knack for giving great advice.
"Heather never intentionally had an enemy," Stacy says. "She was kind to anyone she met. She believed in giving a chance to anybody, and even a second chance."
Heather's mother, Debra, says her daughter was that way from the start: an outgoing, chatty, loving child who grew into a woman with an equal passion for sports and taking care of other people. In grade school, she ice-skated and played soccer, then took a spot on the drill team in high school. Six years ago, her father, Alan, started taking her bass fishing, something she took to as easily as she did every other sport. When she wasn't playing them she was watching them, enthusiastically and year-round.
"The other thing that Heather emasculated men with, other than her fishing skills, was her knowledge of sports," her longtime friend, Andy Foster, says with a laugh.
Heather loved the Stars, Mavericks and Rangers. Per recent tradition, she dutifully supported the Cowboys without caring much for Jerry Jones. When they weren't shopping or dissecting each other's potential suitors, Heather and Stacy hopped from football games to basketball games and occasionally over to the horse races, where Heather showed Stacy how to bet.
"She had probably five or six jerseys from any team," Andy says. No matter the sport, he adds, "She could tell you who scored and what their stats were and this and that."
Her head for stats was part of Heather's affinity for science and math; last fall she was accepted into the nursing program at Texas Woman's University, after a few years at community college. She wasn't sure yet what her specialty would be, though she leaned toward surgery or pediatrics. "She pretty much just wanted to take care of people," her mother says.
"She was very nurturing," Sean adds. "She'd have made a great nurse."
It was a little more than a year ago that Heather, a second-generation P1 herself, started tweeting at Sean about sports. That quickly graduated into e-flirting, and the two eventually went for beers in downtown Plano. They took things slowly for a while. Sean had broken off an engagement earlier that year, and Heather was still living at home with her parents, focusing on school. But she fell hard, Stacy says. When she and Sean went to South Padre over the summer to meet his mom, it was the first time she'd ever gone away with a guy. Soon they were inseparable.
"I told her, he was right for her," Stacy says. "He was kinda what we imagined for her: a sports guy, outdoorsy, loved to have a good time. Very social, like she was." Through his job, Sean got Heather and Stacy box seats to a Mavericks game last season. "We were on cloud nine that night," Stacy says, laughing. "We were both flipping out."
"You're keeping this man," she advised Heather.
As Sean and Heather travelled east along West Centerville Road that September night, 18-year-old Osvaldo Cerda was coming the other way, driving a Ford Expedition. He was shirtless, wearing dark jean shorts. And he was moving fast.
A man and a woman driving behind Cerda watched as the Ford suddenly accelerated and made a sharp left turn. But there was nowhere to turn. The Ford jumped the median and collided with Sean's car, hitting the passenger's side.
Cerda sat in the car for a few moments, the witnesses later told police. Then, he reached to his right, picked up a beer can and put it to his lips. He threw open the driver's side door, tossed the can on the ground and crushed it. He looked around.
Kenneth Golsby got to Sean and Heather first. A 34-year-old flag football coach, he'd been parked at a nearby Quik Trip when he heard the sound of an engine revving. Golsby spun around, and he and his young son watched together as the Ford T-boned the Nissan. Golsby told his son to stay put and ran to the silver car.
When he got there, he saw a man in the driver's seat holding the head of his female passenger. Sean had opened his door, but Heather's was so crushed in, she couldn't have opened it even if she'd been able to try.
"Stay with me, Heather," Golsby heard Sean say. "Stay with me."
Golsby grabbed his phone to call 911, but Sean had already gotten through to a dispatcher. Police received several calls over the next few minutes, as traffic ground to a halt around the accident.
"Keep her right there," Golsby instructed Sean. "Don't move her."
Golsby noticed that Heather was still breathing, gasping for air. Her face was bloody.
For the first time, Golsby also noticed Cerda, who'd gotten out of his car and was approaching them.
"Is she OK?" Cerda asked.
"Have a seat," Golsby replied tersely.
Instead, witnesses say, Cerda attempted to get into several different cars. Golsby says Cerda started with a little black car, trying to get into the back passenger's side door.
"I thought it was his buddy," Golsby says. Only when the driver shouted at Cerda to get out of the car did Golsby realize what was going on.
He stepped up and placed his hands on Cerda's chest. "Have a seat," he said again, directing Cerda toward the median.
"Have you been drinking?" another bystander asked Cerda. "Do you have a license?"
Golsby walked back toward Sean's car to check on him and Heather. Sean was still holding Heather's head up; she was no longer gasping. Golsby looked up to check on Cerda. He was running now, east, toward an overpass bridge along Centerville.
"Stop him!" Golsby shouted. He took off after Cerda, who was ducking and weaving between cars. He had about a 30-yard lead and it was widening fast.
It's a Wednesday morning in January, four months after the accident, and "Call Me Maybe" is playing at a tasteful volume in the blue-walled lobby of Cumulus Media, the Victory Park radio conglomerate that's home to KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket and its sister stations. Sean rushes into the lobby, greets the receptionist hastily and steams full-speed into the break room. He pours a cup of black coffee, hurries down a long hallway and pulls open a heavy soundproof door. He nods hello to two sound engineers, young guys with glasses splayed before an expanse of computer screens and mixing boards.
"How's the a.m. shift?" he asks no one in particular. "You hit a wall yet?" He grabs a list of the day's sponsors from a desk, then takes a blank sheet of paper and starts scribbling down a rough schedule of when he'll announce them. He rushes into the next room, to his own work station, a dim little nest with its own sound board, a microphone and a computer. There's a press conference playing soundlessly on ESPN; he barely glances at it as he pages frenziedly through the sports section of The Dallas Morning News, looking for items for his first news bulletin of the day. He'll do 15 "Ticket Tickers" over the course of his five-hour shift, hyper little bursts of sports news interspersed with the station's commentary, bits, interviews and live sponsor reads.
"This first one is always the hardest," he says, barely glancing up and typing furiously in all caps.
In the weeks after the accident, Sean says, it was as though he had two opposing currents pushing against him. On one side, he felt immense pain and frustration, made worse by his knowledge of how much Heather's family was suffering. On the other side, he felt incredibly, guiltily grateful to be alive. The crash that killed Heather left Sean with only minor bumps and bruises.
"I just know it could have been both of us," he says quietly. "I want to live for her too now, in a way."
Sean came back to work a week or so after the accident. He quickly realized that his place on the Ticket gave him a platform — and, as he saw it, a responsibility — that few other victims of drunk driving will ever have. He soon began talking about the accident on-air and on Twitter, where he changed his avatar to an image of Heather snuggling his dog. He wants people to have a constant, small reminder of her, even when he's tweeting about batting averages or knee injuries.
"I can't bring my girlfriend back," he says. "I can't do anything to make her parents feel better. But I have to do whatever I can. I feel like it's my job now to try to raise awareness."
He's also at work in search of some semblance of normalcy. So are Heather's mother and father, Debra and Alan, who lost their only child.
"I needed a distraction from the pain and the frustration," Sean says. "It's good to think about baseball for a few hours instead of thinking about my problems."
But regaining their balance is hard to do, for so many reasons besides their still-raw grief. Cerda is still awaiting trial for intoxication manslaughter, a process that could take months. And the sports world keeps throwing bizarre, tragic incidents in their path to remind them of their loss, forcing Sean to grapple on air with some heavier issues than the sports-and-babes banter that takes up a good deal of the Ticket's airtime.
Three months after the crash, on a Saturday afternoon, Sean was on the air when the news broke that Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent had been arrested for intoxication manslaughter. Brent had been driving with his best friend and teammate Jerry Brown after a late night out at the club. As he headed west on a service road near Highway 114 in Irving, the car flipped and caught fire. Brent failed several field sobriety tests at the scene; his blood alcohol content was later found to be 0.189, more than double the legal limit. Brown died of blunt force injuries to the head and neck.
"That was a very tough day to broadcast," Sean says. A few days later, he went on the air with another Ticket personality — the rarely serious Gordon Keith — to talk about the Brent incident in light of his own accident. He talked first about Heather's parents.
"As much as I'm hurting, I understand my own pain," he said. "I can't even get my head around theirs. I just can't comprehend it."
"Just learn from this," he added, a few moments later. "If anybody's listening to this, learn from this crap. This can happen to you."
"I thought he handled it so well on-air," Keith says now. "Just wonderfully honest and earnest." But he acknowledges that the impact of the show might not be as long-lasting as they wish.
"I'm glad Sean came on the air and moved people with his loss and eloquence," he says. "I bet it prevented quite a bit of drinking and driving that weekend. But I'm not so sure if it did much to the next. I know from listener response that the deaths of Jerry and Heather struck a chord, but we know how quickly moral notes like that decay when the music starts pumping and drink specials are announced."
In fact, just last week, Cowboy Jay Ratliff — who as a fellow nose tackle spent countless hours in meeting rooms and practice groups with Brent over the last three years — was arrested for drunken driving. He crashed his pickup truck along the same stretch of road where Brown died.
Discussing drunken driving on the Ticket also comes with its own unique set of challenges. The station has a number of alcohol sponsors and alcohol-related events; in one five-minute segment, it's possible to hear a promo for their yearly TicketStock festival, sponsored by Bud Light and promising "fun with drunk P1s." That might be followed by a live read for Deep Eddy vodka, followed a minute or two later for an upcoming event called "Guys Night Out," brought to you by Belvedere Vodka and featuring convenient parking in the P1 parking garage. (The Ticket's ad sales department declined to provide a list of their alcohol sponsors.)
"Everything is driven by sales," Sean says, a little gingerly. "And we have a lot of beer and alcohol sponsors. So I have to walk a line there." Gordon Keith sees things differently: "Sponsors don't dictate what we talk about on the air," he says. "They just buy the space between discussions." Sean says, too, that some of the higher-ups at the Ticket have told him that they'd be willing to take part in future initiatives at the station around drunken-driving awareness.
After the crash, Sean says, he told Heather's parents, "I understand if you guys don't want to see me ever again." But they've continued getting together every so often, and Debra says she and Alan, a big Ticket fan, don't mind that Sean has discussed the accident publicly.
"I'm glad he's doing that," Debra says. "Maybe it helps him heal. Maybe it'll help someone think before they do it casually. Maybe they'll see it does happen to good people, you know? They're not immune to it. It can happen to anybody. Maybe it'll change somebody's mind."
Officer Hatfield got a call from dispatch about the accident when he was just a few minutes away, on First Street. As soon as Hatfield turned onto Centerville, though, he immediately got stuck in traffic, still backed up because of the accident. The dispatcher came onto the radio to say that the suspect had fled the scene. Moments later, the officer saw a shirtless guy in dark shorts running across the bridge.
"Stop him!" Hatfield heard someone shouting.
Hatfield jumped out of his cruiser and joined Golsby in his chase of Cerda. He, too, shouted for the man to stop. He took out his Taser, prepared to use it, then put it back in his holster and just tackled Cerda to the ground.
Even face down with his left arm pinned behind his back, Cerda still tried to get away, according to Hatfield's report. He tried several times to push off the ground with his right arm. Finally, Hatfield managed to shove his head down and handcuff him. He frisked him quickly and found a boxcutter. He put Cerda in the back of his cruiser, got him to verbally identify himself, and asked if he was injured. Cerda said no.
By the time Golsby got back to the scene of the accident, the ambulance had arrived and loaded Heather into the back. The EMTs asked Sean to sit up front. They were taken to Baylor University Medical Center. Because he wasn't a relative of Heather's, no one could tell Sean what was happening. Heather's parents quickly arrived at the hospital. They were whisked into a private room and given the news. Somewhere between the crash scene and the hospital, Heather had died.
After the crash, Heather's family and Sean learned that Cerda had a couple of previous misdemeanor charges for marijuana possession. He pleaded guilty to one, and the other is still open. He's from Mexico and is in the country illegally, and has been placed on an immigration hold. He won't be freed even if he could make his $100,000 bond. But Debra worries aloud that someone will make a mistake and allow him to be bonded out, paving the way for him to be deported without having to stand trial.
Even if he stays in jail, which is much more likely, the process of justice is frustratingly slow, she says: "If we go to trial before the end of the year it'll be a miracle. It's ridiculous."
They've been told that the maximum sentence Cerda can get is 20 years. He could be out in half that time, Debra says. "It could be two to five years, depending on his behavior and how crowded the jails are and stuff like that." Ultimately, she adds, "what he gets is not what he deserves. And it's not just us. It's other people in our position also. Just the legal system does not work in favor of the victims."
Debra and Alan run their own business; they haven't been able to take much time off to process or grieve since Heather died. "Honestly, I don't really know," Debra says when asked how they've coped. "We're just trying to get through it as best we can."
Recently, she's busied herself putting together a team to take part in a Mothers Against Drunk Driving fundraising walk, which is planned for April of this year. So far they've raised $3,000 of their $5,000 goal. Of that, more than $1,000 has come from Sean, much of it from Ticket fans who follow him on Twitter and know Heather's story. The team is called Heather's Angels.
Despite that bright spot, though, the past four months, filled with holidays, have been daunting for all of them. Heather's upcoming birthday represents yet another hurdle.
"I've been sort of lost," her friend Andy says. "Heather was my compass when she was still here." To make matters worse, he adds, "Somebody keeps stealing the cross from the accident site. It's pretty emotional for her parents. They keep putting a cross out and somebody in a truck keeps taking it." They don't know who it is, or why they would steal a memorial marker, he says. "We can't really do anything about it but put a new cross out."
Heather is buried out in Garland, in a little cemetery that her parents pass every day on their way to and from work. They recently put up her headstone, a slab of pink-tinted granite. On Christmas Day, Sean and her parents all went out to see it. As they stood there together, it started, very softly, to snow.
"She's everything that a parent could ask for, you know?" Debra says in a recent phone conversation. She pauses for a long time, collecting herself.
"She was a good kid," she adds finally. "She didn't get in any trouble. There aren't many of those around anymore."
She excuses herself politely and hangs up.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Officer Hatfield as "Jason." The Garland Police refuse to identify the officer's first name, which is not noted in police records.
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