Ninety minutes before dying in a beer-fueled weekend car crash, Moorestown High School senior Evan M. Welch dropped by a schoolmate's house between parties, acquaintances said yesterday.
Callie Reid and Rebecca Pluckhorn, 15-year-old sophomores at Moorestown High, said Welch, 18, and two companions stopped at the home of a fellow student around 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
"They had left one party and planned to go another that night," said Reid, who was at the home with Pluckhorn.
Welch was killed early Sunday when the car in which he was a passenger ran off a road in Moorestown, rolled over and struck a tree, police said. Welch was crushed in the rear seat.
Police charged the 18-year-old driver, Daniel Friedmann, another Moorestown senior, with drunken driving and reckless driving.
Welch, Friedmann, and the third youth were not drinking at the friend's house, nor did they appear to be intoxicated, Reid and Pluckhorn said. The girls said they did not know where the earlier party had taken place.
The crash site, on Garwood Road about a mile from the high school, was littered with beer cans, police said. Investigators said they found six to 10 empty cans, as well as 25 to 30 unopened cans, and the boxes for two 30-pack cases of beer.
Authorities hope to learn where the teens obtained the alcohol, Moorestown police Sgt. Randolph S. Pugh said yesterday. They would also like to get more details about the trio's "comings and goings," he said.
Investigators were trying to account for all the cans from the two cases to determine who drank them and when, Pugh said.
The mood was somber yesterday as students reported to Moorestown High, known for its outstanding academics and athletics. The 12th graders were especially hard-hit, Superintendent John W. Bach said.
Welch was a member of the soccer, lacrosse and swim teams.
"You could always talk to Evan," Pluckhorn said.
"He was always smiling," Reid added. "The night he died, we didn't talk about much."
"Just, 'Hey, what's up?' " Pluckhorn said.
Grief counselors were on hand when the school opened yesterday. By noon, 35 to 40 students and five staff members had sought counseling, Bach said. About 1,400 students attend the school.
The school's American flag flew at half-staff. After classes, many students gathered at the crash site on Garwood, one-quarter mile north of Westfield Road.
A 35 m.p.h. speed limit sign was tilted at nearly a 90-degree angle near the ditch where the car came to rest. Students had placed candles and a lacrosse stick at the site.
Police said Friedmann lost control of his 1997 Volvo about 12:15 a.m. Police declined to disclose Friedmann's blood-alcohol level.
Pugh said the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office would determine whether Friedmann should face more serious charges, such as vehicular homicide or assault by auto.
Friedmann suffered minor injuries, and a third Moorestown senior, 17, was taken to Cooper Hospital-University Medical Center in Camden with "non-life-threatening" injuries, police said.
All three teens apparently were wearing seat belts.
Welch, who was riding in the back, was pronounced dead at the scene.
"They miss him a lot," said Brad Kenney, youth director at First United Methodist Church of Moorestown, who was on hand to counsel students and keep reporters away from them. "Evan was funny and light-hearted and could always make you smile."
Bach said counselors would also be available throughout the week at First Presbyterian Church.
About 150 students spontaneously gathered in the high school parking lot Sunday afternoon after learning about Welch's death. They were crying and hugging, Bach said. School officials opened the cafeteria for them to meet and console one another, he said.
"It was very comforting to them to come here. They felt school was the place to go and be safe," Bach said this morning.
"There were a lot of tears," said the Rev. Jonathan Miller, pastor of First Presbyterian Church on Bridgeboro Road in Moorestown, which Welch and his family attended and where Welch performed volunteer work. "Kids collapsed in my arms."
Bach had called Miller to the school once the students gathered. On Sunday night, a huge group filled the church for an impromptu service for Welch, Miller said.
"I had never seen anything like that, and it was a sign to me that Evan was deeply loved," Miller said. "He had so much integrity."
Welch was described by a guidance counselor as "sturdy, sensitive and authentic." The athletic teen worked as a lifeguard and planned to attend college next year, intending to study business, Miller said.
Miller said that Welch had sung in the church choir and had been "wrestling with his faith." He had many questions and decided not to be confirmed when he was in the ninth grade, Miller said.
"He was trying to find more answers to give him strength," he added.
Welch's father, Ken, is a physical therapist and his mother, Joan, is a nurse in Camden, Miller said. Welch has an older brother and two older sisters, Miller said.
Hours after learning of their son's death, the Welches attended church on Sunday morning, Miller said. "We needed to be in church," Miller said Welch's father told him.
Services for Welch will be held at First Presbyterian on Friday.
Yesterday morning, Joan Welch invited her son's friends to come to the house and go into his room to take whatever they needed to remember her son by, Miller said.
The students later told Miller that Welch had very few possessions. "He had given many things away to friends," Miller said. "He truly did care about others."
Pugh said the crash was the first alcohol-related auto fatality in Moorestown since 1999. But Miller said it should be a "wake-up call" for the affluent community, where underage drinking has become an increasing problem. Residents last month voted overwhelmingly to prohibit liquor licenses and to keep Moorestown dry.
Last year, Moorestown High was rocked by scandal after a search turned up what police described as significant amounts of cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs. Six students were given drug tests and arrested.
In response, school officials met with middle and high school students to discuss ramped-up drug and alcohol policies.
Asked yesterday what the alcohol-related death means for those efforts, School Board President Don Mishler said, "I think what it says is we can't give up. We have to redouble our efforts as well as continue to draw the community in our efforts. We need help."