A Simple Case

How a drunk-driving fatality got lost in the system.

Debi Drewes was in the kitchen of her Athmar Park home when she heard the crash. It was shortly after seven in the evening on September 11, 2001 -- a day already overburdened with tragedy and grief.

Drewes grabbed her portable phone and headed outside. A Taurus sat on her front lawn, its rear bumper practically on her porch. The windshield was shattered. Most of the left side -- the driver's side -- of the car was crumpled like a wet tissue.

As she dialed 911, Drewes peered into the car. An elderly woman was slumped toward the passenger's seat, blood flowing from her mouth and ears. Across Exposition Avenue, a man emerged from a battered Bronco that sat pointed at an odd angle away from the curb.

No notice: Brian Cordova, holding eighteen-month-old 
Brian Jr., stands at the intersection where his mother 
was fatally injured.
Mark Manger
No notice: Brian Cordova, holding eighteen-month-old Brian Jr., stands at the intersection where his mother was fatally injured.

"He got out of the car on his cell phone while I was calling 911," Drewes recalls. "I heard him say something like, 'I'm going to be late. I'm in deep shit. I guess I shouldn't have had those last couple of beers.'"

Soon police, paramedics and neighbors surrounded Drewes's house. The driver of the Taurus, 66-year-old Barbara Cordova, was taken away in an ambulance. Cordova had been driving south on Alcott Street, on her way to Huston Lake Park to tell her thirteen-year-old granddaughter to come home for dinner. The park was four blocks from her home; she only made it three. She died a few hours later of the injuries suffered in the crash.

The driver of the Bronco, 29-year-old Christopher Winkler, sat on Drewes's lawn and talked to the police. "He never asked me how the other driver was," Drewes says. "He never looked in the car."

According to three witnesses, the Bronco was heading west on Exposition at a high rate of speed and didn't stop at the four-way-stop at Zuni before broadsiding the Taurus at the Alcott intersection, one block away. A police officer eyed the damage to the Taurus and told Drewes that the Bronco had to be doing at least fifty.

Winkler told police he'd consumed three bottles of beer that evening. A sobriety examination conducted later that night described him as staggering and swaying, with slurred speech and a "cocky" attitude. A blood test yielded results of .188 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters, well above the legal limit.

A tow truck hauled the Taurus from Drewes's yard. The police took detailed measurements and left. Drewes tried to patch up her lawn and get on with her life. No police investigator ever came to talk to her. Working as a paralegal at the Regional Transportation District, she knew enough about the daily mayhem on Denver's streets to recognize that this was a simple case to prosecute -- sad, but simple -- and she figured her part in it was over.

She was wrong. The case was more complicated than it appeared. And a year later, it landed on her doorstep again.

On the first anniversary of the accident, while much of the nation was engaged in memorial events related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Drewes looked out her window to see a memorial service unfolding in her yard. Barbara Cordova had left behind three sons and six grandchildren, and several family members had decided to come to the scene of the accident with candles and prayers.

Drewes went out to talk to them. She was curious about how the family was doing and what had happened to the other driver. What she learned left her bewildered and angry.

Christopher Winkler had been charged with a DUI, speeding (less than ten miles over the posted limit), driving without proof of insurance and two other alcohol-related misdemeanors. He'd pleaded guilty to careless driving and driving while ability impaired, two lesser infractions that cost him his license for one year. (Winkler's driving record lists several speeding tickets, two prior accidents, a previous DWAI charge that was dismissed and a previous license revocation.) He was put on probation for one year, ordered to perform 24 hours of community service, pay $400 in court costs and participate in an alcohol treatment program. A thirty-day jail sentence was suspended; so was the fine for the DUI.

No one from the Cordova family had been notified of Winkler's plea arrangement. In fact, the prosecutor who handled the case hadn't even known that there was a death involved until Brian Cordova, the victim's oldest son, called him, weeks after the guilty plea, to find out what was going on.

"I found out the case had already been settled," Cordova says. "They said they were sorry and there wasn't anything else they could do."

"How the hell does this happen?" Drewes asks. "How does a woman get killed and that never gets mentioned in court? How many other times has it happened? To me, this is pretty flipping scary."

For several months after her encounter with the Cordova family, Drewes tried to forget about the whole mess. But as the second anniversary approached, she resolved to make some phone calls and pose some hard questions about the accident. The answers she got were conflicting.

When first contacted about the Cordova case, officials at the Denver District Attorney's Office maintained that Winkler had been "undercharged" because of a police error. "When there's a fatality involved, it comes to our office for review," says Lynn Kimbrough, the office's spokeswoman. "We work with the detective to determine what the charges should be. Apparently, that wasn't done in this case; the detective simply wrote out a summons for the charges."

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