With the support of family and friends, a grief-stricken father is struggling to make sense of a tragic accident that claimed the life of his 4-year-old son on Sunday afternoon.
"The first thing I could think of was to try to get him to the hospital as fast as I could," Gardnerville Ranchos resident Robert Geist said Monday. "I think when I picked him up, he was already gone. There was too much damage done."
Mason Geist, 4, was pronounced dead at Carson Valley Medical Center after being transported from 980 Cavelti Road near Spring Valley, where the accident occurred around 3:45 p.m.
According to relatives who witnessed the incident, Mason was in the cab of a U-Haul truck stopped in the driveway of "uncle" Chad Lathrop, who was moving that day with the help of Robert, his cousin, and the young boy. Witnesses said the truck was placed in park, but at some point, it began rolling down the sloped driveway. Mason was ejected and struck by the vehicle.
Robert, 31, remembers his boy as the ultimate sidekick.
"He was a pretty easygoing kid. He always helped me working on cars, whatever I was doing," he said. "I felt like I probably was a bad dad, but everyone said I was a good dad. I was always spending time with him and doing stuff. Like going to the playground, riding his quad, watching Batman movies over and over."
Robert said his son was intelligent but had a hearing disability that he'd been fighting his whole life. He said Mason lived with his mother at Lake Tahoe during the week and with him in Gardnerville on the weekends. The young boy attended a Kingsbury Grade preschool and was starting an early intervention program at Zephyr Cove Elementary.
"He could hear a man's voice, but not a woman's voice," Robert said.
Reflecting upon the accident, he expressed guilt.
"I'm in shock about the whole thing," he said. "The police came and impounded the U-Haul to see if it's faulty... I just felt I never should have left him in the U-Haul by himself and with it running."
Robert's family, however, many who witnessed the incident, have jumped to his defense.
"They were helping us," Lathrop said Monday. "Robert is feeling so bad. He feels he needs to be punished. But he didn't do anything wrong. It should have never gone into gear like that."
Lathrop said Robert was backing up the truck to his house, when he put the vehicle in park and jumped out to check the clearance. Lathrop said Mason was still in the cab when Robert exited, leaving the driver-side door open. He described a terrible scene as the truck started rolling down the driveway.
"Robert didn't want Mason outside when they were backing up," Lathrop said. "He jumped out for a second, and all of a sudden the U-Haul took off."
Lathrop said they all were chasing the truck down the hill trying to reach Mason.
"The U-Haul hit a bump," he said, referring to the moment Mason fell out of the vehicle. "My son tried grabbing him, but at that time the wheel ran him over."
Lathrop maintains that the U-Haul's automatic transmission gearshift was defective and should not have engaged without pressure on the brake.
"Mason must have bumped the gearshift. It took off," he said. "But he was so little, there was no way he could have hit the brake."
On Monday, the family released video they'd taken of the U-Haul before it was impounded by police. The video shows a man shifting the gear lever up and down without applying pressure to the brake.
In a press release issued the same day, Douglas County Undersheriff Paul Howell said the investigation into the incident is ongoing and that further details couldn't be released.
In an email to The Record-Courier, U-Haul Company of East Sacramento President Aaron Anderson said the company is cooperating with the investigation.
"First and foremost, U-Haul expresses our heartfelt condolences to the Geist Family," Anderson said. "U-Haul is cooperating fully with those investigating this tragedy. Accordingly, until the appropriate experts have had an opportunity to examine the facts and determine findings, any comment from U-Haul would be premature and not helpful."
But Lathrop and other family members don't want Robert Geist to blame himself.
"It was a horrible accident, but it wasn't neglect on Robert's part," Lathrop said. "That kid was his life."
Anyone wishing to assist the family can make donations to the Mason Allen Geist account at any El Dorado Savings Bank branch. The account No. is 5000423.