Heartbroken for a son she never will see grow up. Sad for the brother and sister who’ve lost their best friend. Angry at a system that allowed a drunken driver to be behind the wheel that night. Most of all, just plain grief-stricken and hurt. When a child dies, the hole left in a family’s heart is big enough for an ocean. But when Mitzi Sanders thinks about her son Benjamin and what might have been, that hole seems extraordinarily large, as if it’s not just his presence that has left a gaping hole. It’s what he was becoming, what he made others feel and what the world lost, she says. “It’s a big, big loss. I know he would have done big things,” Sanders says, resting at home with her daughter Ashley. Ben, as much a loved friend as he was a son or brother, died seven months ago. Ashley, his sister, had plans to pursue some graduate studies this summer but instead she’s where she wants to be, beside her mother. Casey, the youngest child, is feeling it, too. He’s in Oregon working for the summer. “This has been such a tough time … to have them away,” Mitzi says. This afternoon, talking about her son Ben and the emptiness that no one in the family can seem to get a hold of, she mostly smiles but sometimes grimaces. “We kind of just planned to put things on hold for a while. It’s just been hard for all of us.” In October last year, Ben Merscher, not yet 26 years old, lost his life when his car and the car driven by 28-year-old Engre Brown collided on U.S. Highway 101. Merscher, who rarely stayed out late, was on his way home early in the morning when it happened. Seven months later, Brown pleaded guilty May 20 to vehicular homicide and was given 12 years in jail. Ben’s family? They’ve got a different kind of sentence altogether. “There’s nothing worse than this,” Sanders says. “I don’t wish this on anyone.”
A bright future Directions, so many directions he could go. To Seattle: Put on a shirt and tie and represent the Sounders or the Mariners. To Europe, for work for the state department. To graduate school. To the Costco corporate office. To anywhere. “His biggest problem was which direction to go,” Sanders says. “His head was buzzing.” Ben Merscher was already an entrepreneur of sorts before he ever approached graduation, raising a pair of pigs — Bart and Bridget — in the back yard of the family’s home on Lost Mountain. “He wanted to raise pigs because they make more money,” Ashley says. The trio even set up a lemonade stand all the way up the long, steep road. Ben learned math early in life by way of counting goldfish crackers. “He was always really bright,” Sanders says. “I’m not just saying that because I’m his mother.” Bright to be sure, but also quite sensitive. When Ashley was just a toddler, Ben, two years older than his sister, would sneak her bites from the table to supplement her baby food. She remembers making a cliché comment when Ben hadn’t eaten all of his food, about how there were starving children in the world. Ben started packaging up his food — and not in a sarcastic way — to send overseas. “He didn’t like people to be sad or sick,” Sanders says. “He’d do anything, if he could to keep everybody happy. We called him ‘Gentle Ben.’” The name was appropriate, for by the end of his high school years, “Gentle Ben” looked like a gentle giant, standing 6 feet, 3 inches tall. The four of them — Ben, Ashley, Casey and Mitzi — became confidants to each other, enjoying camping trips and hikes. In his high school years, Ben played some sports and was interested in computers, and though his grades were solid, he didn’t do as well in school as he’d liked. “That’ll never happen again,” Ben told his mother.
A dedicated learner “I never said, ‘If you go to college.’ I said, ‘When you go to college.’” Sanders is the career counselor at Sequim High School. When Ben changed his mind about his post-high school plans, it wasn’t whether or not to go to school, but which one. He always though he’d go to the University of Washington, growing up a Huskies sports fan, Sanders says, but when his junior year came around, he simply didn’t want to leave his family. In 2001, he earned his high school diploma. In 2003, he earned his associate degree from Peninsula College, then spent another year studying applied arts and computer information technology. After that, despite applying and being accepted at U.W., Merscher went south to become a Duck. He graduated with honors from the University of Oregon in 2007 with degrees in business administration and sports marketing. His siblings followed in line, with Ashley graduating from Colorado College in 2008 and Casey this spring. Three graduation ceremonies in three years. That last one was hardly a celebration. “I’m real proud (that) all three of my kids are college graduates,” Sanders says, “but we said it was bittersweet because Casey wanted his brother there. “It was bittersweet. We said if he had a choice between box seats at the World Series or to be at Casey’s graduation, he’d chose Casey’s graduation.” “We just feel incomplete.” That’s likely because Ben was all about family, Ashley and Mitzi say, even after he traveled to Europe for an international study program. When he returned, he took a job at Sequim Costco Wholesale. “Ben called me every day, even when he was in college, when he was studying abroad,” Sanders says. She talked to her son three times the day he died.
‘Ben would be disappointed in the system’ The man had a strong work ethic, almost to a fault, his family says. While a student of the University of Oregon, Ben, not wanting to miss a day of work because of an illness, once tried to work through stomach pains that hurt so much he eventually collapsed at his Home Depot job. The pains turned out to be complications from a ruptured appendix. A full-time student working 30-40 hours per week, Merscher liked to work and liked earning money more. When he came back from Europe, Ben took a job at Costco while he plotted his next move. Sounders? Mariners? Overseas for the state department? On Oct. 6, he left home at 6:30 p.m. for a friend’s house. The two got food at Albertson’s grocery store and watched a movie. Ben left at 12:30 a.m. but never made it home. The worst loss in the world for a parent is the loss of a child, Sanders says. But worse still is it’s compounded by the sudden, violent, senseless and altogether preventable nature of the death. Brown already had a history of driving problems — Brown’s deferred prosecution for driving under the influence, a prior conviction for driving while her license was suspended and an administrative order revoking her license — before the fatal wreck. A Superior Court judge barred that evidence in May when county prosecutors pursued a first-degree murder charge against Brown. “I thought when people got arrested for a DUI they were sent away,” Sanders says. “They don’t. They get a slap on the wrist. It just isn’t fair. I feel like I need to do something about it. I can’t just not do anything.” That’s why Sanders is talking with family friend and state House of Representatives legislator Lynn Kessler, majority leader from the 24th legislative district, to consider tougher laws for drunken driving. “The whole experience opened my eyes to the fact our laws are just too lenient,” Sanders says. “Ben would be disappointed in the system,” Ashley adds. “I don’t know if I’ll see any changes in my lifetime,” Sanders says. “I’m not counting on it. I feel I need to do something to honor Ben.” Sanders hesitates a second, and then adds, “It’s hard to go forward without him.” Reach Michael Dashiell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Sequim Gazette is located at 147 W. Washington Street in Sequim.
Business hours are Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Phone 360-683-3311, or toll free at 800-829-5810. FAX 360-683-6670.
For a complete company directory with contact information please click HERE.