Investigation pending into fatal crash in NebraskaLynell Morrison-Cash and Waylon, 14, killed on February 23
"It's tough," grieving dad says as he picks up the pieces with injured daughter
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk William Cash drove the yellow school bus back to the garage that afternoon after dropping off the last child. Shortly before 5 p.m., he drove his car back to Pine Ridge High School to catch the last few minutes of his 14-year-old son Waylon’s basketball game. After watching the first half of the next game, William tried to convince his son to go with him to a Subway. Waylon was nervous, as his mom had custody of him that week and was on her way to the school to pick him up to take him and his sister Jessica to see the movie “Black Panther” at a theater in Chadron, Nebraska, just south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. William’s relationship with his wife had become strained several months earlier, and they had begun divorce proceedings. It was their first week of shared custody of Waylon. Eventually, Waylon relented and let his father drive him to Subway, where the teenager ordered his usual: a foot-long sandwich on toasted whole wheat with steak and American cheese coated in parmesan cheese, with two sugar cookies and a Sprite with no ice. “That was his fave,” William said. The two grabbed their sandwiches and raced back to the school, where Waylon met his mother and sister. William hugged his son and watched him leave with his wife and daughter. It was Friday, February 23. William then drove back to the Subway. As he sat there, he couldn’t help but feel lonely without the sociable, energetic boy who was almost always by his side. A woman he knew even stopped to tell William that he looked lonesome. “Are you lost because you don’t have your boy around?” she asked him. “Yeah,” he said, looking up from his food. William then drove home, and fell asleep on his bed briefly before his phone rang. “We found your family,” the man on the other end said.
THE ROAD TO RECOVERYThe 56-year-old grabs his daughter’s leg and shakes her awake. “Get up, my girl,” he tells her. Jessica opens her eyes and rubs them. “Okay,” she says, slowly lifting herself from her bed. It’s been more than six weeks since the car crash that nearly took the 12-year-old girl’s life. She’s been at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska, for nearly three weeks. William sleeps on a couch beside her, not wanting to leave her alone. Jessica suffered a broken leg, lacerated spleen, collapsed lung, fractured pelvis and traumatic brain injury during the February 23 crash that took the lives of her brother and mother. She had been sitting in the back seat of the Chrysler Sebring convertible when it had been struck nearly head-on by the large four-wheel drive pickup truck headed in the opposite direction as it attempted to pass a semi-trailer. Waylon Cash and Lynell Morrison-Cash died immediately.
Jessica and the pickup truck’s driver, William Hilton – a 31-year-old from Rushville who had been drinking that day – were life-flighted to a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota. Jessica’s doctors in Rapid City told her she would need extensive speech, occupational and physical therapy, and suggested she go to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. An ambulance transported her to Lincoln. On a recent afternoon, she played a game of volleyball with a computerized opponent as her occupational therapist, Dani Willey, directed her movements. “You’re probably going to have to move around a little bit to get it in there,” Willey tells her. Standing in front of a green screen, Jessica reaches a little higher this time, and her avatar on the screen before her bounces the ball back to her opponent. “There you go,” Willey says.
Willey says the exercise helps Jessica with her balance and trains her brain to better coordinate with her body. “That is definitely helping her to bridge her cognitive deficits,” she says. Jessica doesn’t smile during the session. It’s been a hard day, her father says. She is anxious to leave Madonna and go home to see her friends. Her therapists have told her she has nearly completed the goals they set for her when she arrived and will get to leave soon. An hour later, Jessica is inside a gymnasium a few miles away from the hospital, working with a physical therapist on her leg. He plays basketball with her, tossing the ball to her as she tries to shoot the ball. Like her brother, Jessica loves basketball, and she finally cracks a smile as her dad motivates her from the sideline. “Three in a row,” William says. “Four in a row.”
SAYING GOODBYEThe March 7 funeral for Waylon Cash drew nearly 200 people from across the Pine Ridge Reservation. They filled the seats inside the Pine Ridge Elementary School gymnasium, where photos of the boy with the big smile were placed alongside star quilts and flowers. During the service, William Cash invited his son’s pallbearers to share stories about Waylon. One by one, they stepped up to the microphone and tried to speak. One by one, they sat back down after failing to get more than a few words out. “I just can’t do it,” one especially tearful member of Waylon’s team said. Later, teary-eyed students and adults held hands and put their arms around each other’s shoulders while standing in a semi-circle as Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory – a matronly figure for many youth on the reservation – led a chant. “Give me a W,” DeCory shouted, starting to spell Waylon’s name. “W,” the crowd yelled back. “Give me an A,” she yelled. “A!” After finishing the last letter, DeCory yelled: “What’s that spell?” “Waylon!” came the emphatic response.
DeCory has spent many years fighting youth suicide and delinquency on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and runs an after-school mentoring program. Along with her close friend Eileen Janis, DeCory often must meet with grief-stricken parents whose children have either committed or attempted suicide. So DeCory’s Facebook post the day after Waylon’s and Lynell’s deaths carried an especially heavy weight knowing the tragedy she’s seen in a place where youth suicide and alcohol-related traffic deaths outpace most other places in America. Between December 2014 and June 2015 alone, more than 100 reservation youth attempted or committed suicide. “My heart is heavy and I wanted to denounce the creator, my tears wouldn’t stop, I asked why?” DeCory wrote. “I learned so much from him and when I needed to be energized he was there to do that. He taught us to love honestly, to forgive with no conditions, to model compassion and to hug while empowering your soul.” Janis, who fights youth suicide alongside DeCory, said Waylon could sit and talk about basketball for hours. He loved being a Thorpe and inspired people every time he donned his jersey and walked onto the court. “He wore that jersey with pride and loyalty, and the people cheered for him,” she said. “I have a lump in my throat thinking of him.”
A FATHER AND SON’S STORYWaylon Cash started life with many challenges. He spent the first few days of his life in an intensive care unit, having been born with a hole in his heart. He was also born with mild autism and a speech impediment and struggled to learn to do things other children his age seemed to do naturally. At age 10, he underwent heart surgery at a children’s hospital in Seattle. Afterward, his doctor told him he could finally play basketball, something he had wanted to do since he was a toddler. He immediately suited up when he got back to Pine Ridge. When he was 12, however, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Still, he stuck with basketball, though he struggled with it at times and every so often questioned his fortune. “Dad, why does everything bad always have to happen to me?” he once asked his father. “You know, my boy, the only answer I can give you is God must have known you could handle it and you would handle it gracefully,” William told him. “Ok dad, I’m good now,” the boy responded. “He was that way,” William said recently, crying as he recalled the memory. “He was so profound in how he thought of things. He didn’t think of things that were petty.” But his many challenges gave Waylon an empathy for others that few people demonstrate, his father said. He would tell his father nearly every day he loved him, behavior not typical for most teenagers. “His heart, his mind, everything, was pure,” William said.
William isn’t Native himself, though he says he believes he has some Native blood in him. But he’s spent his entire around Native people, growing up on the nearby Rosebud Reservation. His teachers spoke fluent Lakota and would offer lessons in only Lakota. He now speaks nearly fluent Lakota, and friends who address him by his nickname often ask, “Cash, how come you can speak Lakota?” He tells them, “Have you ever seen the movie ‘Tarzan and the Apes’? I was the only wasichu hoksila (white boy) that grew up in Rosebud, so wainsh (Lakota interjection), I had no choice.” On a recent morning, the former tribal police officer wore a bright red Pine Ridge High School basketball jacket and a black hat as he told his son’s story at a café table at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. Unlike most children with autism, Waylon had no problem meeting new people and would talk to anyone. He would especially go out of his way to talk to people who seemed lonely, his father said. He loved listening to music by his namesake, Waylon Jennings, and loved the television series “Longmire” and would even join his father each summer for an event in Buffalo, Wyoming, in which members of the show’s cast would play softball with their fans. He and his father had been planning his 15th birthday, which would have taken place March 13.
Waylon planned to have a birthday cake emblazoned with a 5- by 7-inch photo made of frosting of New York Liberty professional basketball player Shoni Schimmel. He was an avid fan of Schimmel, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation of Oregon and subject of the 2011 documentary “Off the Rez,” which chronicled her journey to earn an NCAA scholarship. Waylon had been able to meet Schimmel twice when she visited Pine Ridge. About four years ago, he and his dad traveled to Minneapolis to see Schimmel play her first game for the Atlanta Dream. After the game, Waylon ran onto the court, past security, past other fans waiting to talk to Schimmel. She handed him the microphone, and to a crowd of nearly 6,000 people, Waylon proudly expressed his affection for Schimmel. “Shoni, I just want to know when you’re going to come back to Pine Ridge, and I just want you to know I really love you,” he said. Grabbing the microphone back, Shoni told him she loved him, too, but that he would have to talk to her dad about scheduling another trip to Pine Ridge. Waylon gleamed as he walked away.
THE LONG ROAD HOMEOn Easter Sunday, William and Jessica Cash sat together inside her room at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. Jessica, whose traumatic brain injury had prevented her from understanding the impact of the crash, finally asked her dad where he brother and mother were. “Dad, is Waylon gone? Is momma gone?” she said. “What makes you think that?” William responded. “Because dad, they would be here by now.”
For the father and daughter, the road home is long and uncertain. For Jessica, going home means many hours in the car each week to receive continued therapy in Rapid City and having to face the sad reality of her mother’s and brother’s deaths. For William, going home means continuing to question those in authority about why the man who hit his wife’s car hasn’t been charged with a crime and having to fight to keep custody of his daughter. The two left Lincoln for Pine Ridge on Tuesday. William said he doesn’t know why the Sheridan County Attorney’s Office has not filed charges against William Hilton, the man who hit his wife’s car with his pickup and who had alcohol in his blood shortly after the crash. “That just kind of blew me away,” he said. Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons said she still has not decided whether to file criminal charges against Hilton. She said his blood-alcohol level was 0.023, well under Nebraska’s legal limit of 0.08. However, Simmons said, she hasn’t yet received the Nebraska State Patrol’s accident reconstruction report and is still trying to contact a potential witness to the accident. “I have in no way decided against charging Mr. Hilton with a crime, nor have I ever suggested to anyone that was the case,” Simmons said. “I will make the determination of what charges it may be necessary to file once I have received all the necessary evidence to assist in that determination.” William said he doesn’t want revenge against Hilton, but he thinks Hilton needs to be held accountable for what he did, for his recklessness. More than anything, he wants an apology from the man who took nearly everything from him. “If I had done something like that, I would not even be able to lay my head on a pillow at night until I had least sent some kind of condolences to the family,” he said. “We haven’t heard nothing, absolutely nothing.” For William Cash, each day seems to bring a new injustice. As they loaded boxes into their car last Friday afternoon, he and Jessica were stopped by staff at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. The hospital had received an order the day before from an associate judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court who granted custody of Jessica to her aunt, Lynell’s sister, as well as control of Lynell’s estate to the aunt. The hospital’s staff attempted to keep the father and daughter from leaving, but eventually relented. And William and Jessica drove away and spent the weekend with friends in Lincoln. William said he doesn’t know why his wife’s family is trying to take custody of Jessica. He can only assume it’s because they fear he will keep his daughter from them, something he never planned to do. And he doesn’t know why a tribal court judge would take custody of his daughter from him without even giving him a chance to defend himself. He said he fears it has something to do with him being non-Indian. Last Friday afternoon, however, William got some sorely needed good news when he learned the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s chief judge signed an order reversing the associate judge’s orders and requiring William’s sister-in-law to pursue custody of Jessica in the tribe’s youth and family court. However, just a few days later, his sister-in-law managed to get a different associate tribal court judge in Kyle – another community on the Pine Ridge Reservation – to sign an order granting to her custody of Jessica and control of Lynell’s estate. Again, William said, the judge granted the order without giving him a chance to defend himself. He said he’s hopeful the most recent order also will be reversed, but he said he fears returning home now. “This is all I have left and they want to take that from me,” he said of his daughter.
When they get home, William and Jessica also must decide what to do with Waylon’s remains. William said he had his son cremated, even though it went against his own preference to have his son buried, because he wanted to give his daughter a chance to grieve as well. Jessica didn’t get to attend her brother’s or mother’s funerals after the crash because she was unable to leave the hospital due to her traumatic brain injury. Now she and her father must decide how to honor Waylon’s memory. “I got to put on this façade of being strong for my daughter. I haven’t had time to take my son home yet,” he says through tears.
‘IT’S TOUGH’William Cash regrets not telling his son how much he loved him the last time he saw him. How could he have known it would be his last chance to do so? He regrets his differences with his wife during their final months. He says he thinks, with a little more time, they might have reconciled. They had reconciled before. But he doesn’t regret the 14 years he had with his son, his kind, caring and inspiring boy, the one who would lift his spirits with each smile, the one who would tease people he barely knew in his own gentle, humorous way.
Cecelia Big Crow, who helps run a fitness center in Pine Ridge named after her sister, the legendary Oglala Sioux basketball player SuAnne Big Crow who died in 1992, shared a story about Waylon. She described seeing him play basketball two nights before he died. At one point, Waylon tried to steal the ball from an opposing player, but the player turned toward Waylon just as he tried to do so, causing Waylon to pick both his opponent and the ball off the ground. “Aww, does someone need a hug?” Waylon told his opponent, leading the entire gymnasium to erupt in laughter. “That's the kind of sweet, gentleness that he was,” Big Crow said. “I knew Waylon for a short amount of time, yet, he taught me so much about living a sweet existence.” William Cash shares another story that demonstrates how respected his son was. After Waylon and his mom died, a 75-year-old neighbor of William’s left his sick wife at home with a caretaker so he could drive 90 minutes to Rapid City alone to see William in the emergency room where he was sitting beside his daughter’s bed. He put his hand on the grieving father’s shoulder and told him his son was an honorable young man. Then the man turned around, walked out of the hospital and drove home. “That’s just how my son was,” William said. “It’s been a month and half, and if you can imagine having somebody that bright with you every day that would encourage you and be there for you and saw things not as they were but as they could be and then lose that.” “It’s tough.”
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