HOWARD CITY — John Reniff was in Howard City for his grandmother’s birthday party Sunday.
He and his girlfriend, Melissa Ballard, were leaving the Tour Inn Motel to go to his grandmother’s house just a few blocks away.
Just a mile south, a female driver allegedly on drugs had caused one accident and was about to cause another that would take Reniff’s life.
Nicole Stapleton, 30, of Howard City, plowed into Reniff’s vehicle just as Reniff had pulled out of the Tour Inn Motel driveway at 9:20 a.m. Sunday. The impact forced Reniff’s vehicle to collide with another vehicle drive by Julie Osborne, 43, of Howard City.
The multiple crashes sent car parts and contents flying. Reniff was wearing his seatbelt, but something hit the back of his head, shattering his skull and knocking him out.
The 31-year-old never woke up. He was pronounced dead at 10:20 p.m. Sunday at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Bonnie Kuzee was waiting for her grandson to arrive to celebrate her 67th birthday. A fresh birthday cake was sitting on the table when she received the bad news.
Kuzee had visited with her grandson Saturday night and was looking forward to seeing him again before he returned to Gladstone. The two had formed a close bond over the years.
“He was with me most in and out of his life,” said Kuzee, her voice weary from the emotion of the past few days. “If anything happened, he would call grandma.”
Reniff’s sister, Natasha Whipple of Hopkins, called Kuzee to wish her happy birthday Sunday, not yet knowing her brother had been in an accident. When Kuzee answered the phone, she was weeping.
“I said, ‘Grandma, what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘Your brother’s been in a car accident.’ I said, ‘Oh, he’s going to pull through. He’s strong, he’s going to fight,’” Whipple recalled.
But Reniff lost the fight. Ballard, 30, of Gladstone, survived with a slight concussion and a broken arm.
Whipple made it to the hospital just in time to say goodbye to her brother before he died. She said Reniff had just moved from Howard City to Gladstone three weeks ago to take a job driving semi truck — something he loved to do.
“He was very loving and caring,” she said.
When Whipple learned Stapleton had caused the accident, memories came flooding back. Whipple knew Stapleton from their youth. Stapleton’s mother owns the Crazy Horse bar and restaurant in Cedar Springs and the girls would frequently hang out there after school, according to Whipple.
Today, Reniff’s extended family is grieving while they make funeral arrangements at Heckman Funeral Home in Howard City. They are comforted by the fact that Reniff had previously signed up to be an organ donor and will help others through his death.
Reniff’s aunt Debra Zerlaut of Big Rapids spent Monday sorting through photographs of her nephew and sharing memories with relatives.
“I’m going to miss him calling me and just wanting to talk,” she said tearfully. “We talked about everything and anything. John loved everybody.”