BLOOMINGTON — The host of a party attended by an underage drinker who later crashed his car, killing a passenger, was acquitted Wednesday of providing alcohol to the driver because the location did not meet the legal definition of a residence.
Cody Helton, 20, was charged last year with providing alcohol to guests at his family residence in the 2200 block of West Oakland Avenue in Bloomington.
One of those guests was Garrett Peterson, 20, of Normal, who is serving eight years for aggravated driving under the influence in the death of Peyton Scheuermann, 18, of Somonauk.
Judge Casey Costigan ruled Wednesday that a large outbuilding on Helton's property where the party took place did not meet the legal standard for a residence. The building, described by some witnesses as a shed, did not contain bedrooms, a bathroom or household amenities, the judge noted.
"The only issue to be resolved is, was this building a residence as defined in the state of Illinois," said the judge. No specific definition for a residence exists and a determination is made on "a case-by-case basis," he said.
Costigan heard testimony at a bench trial Wednesday from several party guests, including Peterson, who admitted that he drank beer and smoked marijuana before driving on Nov. 10, 2013. He said he left the party around midnight with Scheuermann and Anthony Hoffmann as passengers.
Peterson estimated he was traveling 80 mph when he lost control of his car near the intersection of Raab and Parkside roads in Normal.
Hoffmann was seriously injured and has filed a lawsuit against the driver.
The judge found that Helton knew Peterson was under 21 and that he was drinking beer from the keg purchased by an adult.
The court's decision was limited to the accusations against Helton, said Costigan. But it is not outside the bounds of reason to conclude that Peterson's access to alcohol contributed to the fatal crash, said the judge.
After the acquittal, defense lawyer Steve Skelton said he was pleased that the case is over for his client but cautioned that the matter comes with a serious message for parents about the dangers of underage drinking.
"For any parent, if they think this may be a green light to do identical or similar actions would be a very warped view of what the message is in this case," said Skelton.
Assistant State's Attorney Kristin Alferink said she was disappointed with the verdict but "I do hope that this situation will deter others from having parties with underage party-goers."