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Paul Smith's College-Grim anniversary — The college and families react to a crash last year that killed a student and guest

February 4, 2006

Staff Writer

PAUL SMITHS — On Monday, one year will have passed since two students died in a snowmobile crash on Lower St. Regis Lake.

Joshua Rau, a sophomore at Paul Smith’s College, had just celebrated his 20th birthday. Kristine Guest, a student at Quinnipiac University, and some friends were visiting Rau for the weekend.

In the early hours of Feb. 6, as a group of friends waited on the frozen lake surface for the sun to rise, Rau took Guest for a snowmobile ride. They never returned.

Moving nearly 50 mph through the darkness, the snowmobile slammed into a jut of land known as Peter’s Rock, became airborne and struck a lean-to. Rau and Guest were thrown from the sled and killed.

Investigators determined Rau’s blood-alcohol content was .113 percent; the threshold for drunken driving is .08. A negligible amount of alcohol was found in Guest’s blood.

Campus devastated

The deaths, which came about a week after another Paul Smith’s student, Stephen Welch, died in a car crash after he had been drinking, devastated the campus, friends and family members.

Web sites set up in memory of Guest and Rau include dozens of testimonials from friends, teachers and relatives, showing that these two people were ambitious, bright and loved by their peers.

In an act of healing last winter, 60 or so volunteers rebuilt the lean-to on Peter’s Rock.

The crashes also shifted the college’s gaze inward.

At an emotional assembly a few days after the snowmobile crash, school officials implored students to think about the consequences of their decisions.

“We must act in a pro-active way to make sure there are no more losses,” College President Dr. John Mills said at the assembly.


Over the year that followed, officials have been meeting with students, establishing safety committees and altering policies, all in an effort to curb underage drinking.

“No matter what we do, we need to do more,” Mills said in an interview last week. “It’s a problem. It’s a national problem, it’s a local problem, and we have to be more proactive in trying more things and hoping some of it sticks.”

It’s a problem the family of Kristine Guest is taking on, too. Her father, Stephen, is now involved in a local substance-abuse council in the Guests’ hometown of West Hartford, Conn. And he is pushing the issue with state legislators as well.

Holding back tears during a recent telephone interview, Mr. Guest spoke of how difficult it has been for his family — his wife and their son and daughter — to endure without Kristine. It has helped, he said, to commit himself to ensuring that people learn from what happened to his daughter a year ago.

“We’re trying to use Kristine’s unfortunate experience as maybe a wake-up call for policymakers, police departments, parents and college administrators that inaction can cause as much harm as action,” he said.


According to a State Police report obtained by the Press-Republican, the pre-dawn gathering on the ice was a remnant of a long night of partying by students.

On the evening of Feb. 5, Rau, Guest and their friends had gone into Saranac Lake for dinner. They returned to Rau’s room on campus and began drinking beer and cocktails.

Much of the alcohol was bought by George Thibeault, an of-age student.

At about 11:30 p.m., the group migrated to the ice covering Lower St. Regis Lake, where a party was already under way.

According to statements made to the State Police, there were anywhere from 40 to 75 people gathered around the fire and riding on as many as eight snowmobiles.

Richard Sterling, a student and resident assistant who was at the party, told police, “Once the lake freezes — this year it wasn’t till after Christmas break — it is customary on Saturday nights for students to build a bonfire out on the lake.”

He said rumors of a party circulate around campus and that underage students “usually find a friend who is over 21 to buy us alcohol.”

Describing the night’s events, he said: “Throughout the party, people were riding around the lake on the snowmobiles; this is normal for the parties on the lake.”


Normal or not, the party that evening was big enough to attract the attention of Toni Marra, the college’s director of residence life, who had received a noise complaint and, later, information that someone may have been injured on the ice.

She and JS, a campus safety officer, walked out to the party and were assured that no one was injured.

According to her statement to police, Marra told the students they were being loud and needed to “wrap it up.” She said she was “assured” people were leaving the lake and said that by the time she got back to her room, she did not hear any snowmobiles in use.

But JS told police he never heard Marra tell anyone to leave. He said that as they approached the party, Marra “told me that we were not going to write anyone up because it would cause a riot.”

When they got to the bonfire, JS said, he found “a lot of commotion, students yelling, and drunk students. Toni and I stayed at the party for about 15 minutes. Before we left the party, we advised the students to be safe, keep the speed down, and call us if there was any problems.”

Eventually the party did wind down, and most of the students went back to their rooms.

At about 4:30 a.m., Rau, Guest and several other friends went back to the ice. They sat around the dying embers of the bonfire with about 10 other students.

There were a few more snowmobile rides. Guest, who had not ridden all night, climbed onto the back of a sled and sat behind Rau. They were not wearing helmets as they drove into the darkness and fog.

Marra and JS no longer work at Paul Smith’s College. Mills would not say under what circumstances they left.

Since last February, the school has changed its snowmobile policy. Students must register their snowmobiles with the college and keep them on trailers in a specific lot on campus. They may not ride their sleds from the campus onto the lake.

And school officials now handle parties on the ice differently, too. In the past, officials had worried whether what students did on the lake — which is state property — was within the school’s jurisdiction. Now, Mills said, they don’t care about jurisdiction.

“We will react,” he said of parties on the ice. “They’re not going to be common anymore.”

Matt Kemberling, a junior and president of the Student Government Association, added that if there’s a party on the ice, State Police will be called.

He said he and his colleagues have visited the dorms and stressed the consequences of irresponsible drinking.


In March, Mills sent a memo throughout the campus announcing the formation of the Committee for Community Responsibility and Campus Health.

Writing that the college is obligated to address problems tied to personal behavior and alcohol and drug use, Mills charged the committee with assessing current behavioral trends in drug and alcohol use, looking to other colleges for policy and enforcement ideas and developing an educational program that will work from year to year.

Susan Delehanty, director of Franklin County Community Services and chairwoman of the committee, said the group has met half a dozen times and will submit its report this spring.

“Alcohol and other drugs can have a detrimental effect not only on them but on the surrounding community, and it can mask some of the positive things that come out of the college experience,” she said.

And then there’s the problem of legal drinkers buying alcohol for underage students, which Mills cited as one of his top concerns.

A few miles up the road from the college, 30-packs of beer sell for less than the same amount of bottled water. Those 30-packs come back to the campus, he said, and the beers disappear.

“If we can convince that 21-year-old, 22-year-old, they’re taking a hell of a lot of risk buying alcohol for that 20-year-old, we’re going to make a huge dent in underage drinking,” he said.


Stephen Guest said the approaching anniversary of his daughter’s death has been terrible.

“The worst part is looking anybody in the eye because you know what they’re thinking,” he said.

He mentioned Jeff Reardon, the former baseball pitcher who was arrested recently for robbing a jewelry story as he struggled to cope with the death of his son.

“I say, ‘At least I haven’t robbed a jewelry store.’”

Mr. Guest, who is considering taking legal action, said the school’s response to the party on Feb. 5 and 6 last year was inexcusable. He faults the college for that and for being what he called an enabler.

Mills said he believes the “individuals involved did what they thought was appropriate,” given the policies that were in place at the time.

He then added, “We all make mistakes.”

As for the changes Paul Smith’s is making to its policies, Mr. Guest said they are too late to help his daughter.

Rau’s mother declined to comment for this story, but Mr. Guest said he is speaking out because he worries that if he doesn’t, what happened on Lower St. Regis Lake nearly a year ago will fade from the school’s collective memory.

“If the circumstances don’t come out, the risk is for the people up there, it’s just a passing event.”


Cut into one of the posts of the new lean-to on Peter’s Rock are the image of a leaning pine tree — Paul Smith’s logo — and 11 words. They read: “Built in memory of friends that have been loved and lost.”

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest