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Collision Course

Colorado's lax drunk-driving laws sentenced Sonja DeVries to death.

Death came for Sonja DeVries with a red blur in her rearview mirror.

At 7:20 p.m. on Sunday, July 18, nineteen-year-old Sonja was driving eastbound on Alameda Avenue in her 1983 Toyota Corolla. The light at Holly Street turned red, and DeVries came to a full stop. The speed limit on that stretch of Alameda is 35 miles per hour. Detectives estimate that the crimson Chevy S-10 pickup that came flying up the hill was doing at least 60 when it slammed into the back of the Corolla, without braking or swerving on the clear, dry road. The force of the collision crushed the old silver hatchback like a beer can in a frat boy's fist.

The laws of physics show no mercy. They have no sense of who deserves to die and who does not.

 
 
Little girl lost: Sonja DeVries was a sunny infant.
Little girl lost: Sonja DeVries was a sunny infant.

Denver Fire Department Station 19 is about 200 yards from Alameda and Holly, and the clamor of the crash brought firemen running. They pried Sonja from the wreckage and rushed her to Denver Health Medical Center. She had a pulse, but it was faint and fading. Her skull had ricocheted off the steering wheel, and her brain was swelling. Emergency-room doctors drilled a hole in Sonja's head to relieve the pressure, hoping that bright-red blood would seep out -- an indication that her brain was still receiving plenty of oxygen. Instead, the blood was sickly brown, meaning circulation had been cut off.

Sonja was brain-dead.

The driver of the pickup, 55-year-old Ramon Romero, was not seriously injured. Police arrived at the scene of the accident to find him stumbling outside his pickup, apparently drunk. The officers gave Romero a Breathalyzer test, and he blew a .212, nearly triple the legal driving limit in Colorado.

On July 1, a new law officially lowered this state's DUI blood-alcohol content threshold from .10 to .08. Romero is 5'5" and weighs about 150 pounds. To blow a .212, a man his size would have had to drink between eight and eleven beers, glasses of wine or cocktails in a single hour. The cops arrested Romero at the scene and transported him to Denver City Jail, where he was booked on suspicion of reckless driving, vehicular assault and driving under the influence.

This was not the first time that Romero had been arrested for a DUI in Colorado. Nor was it the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. Or the fifth, sixth or seventh. It was the eighth.

Like the laws of physics, the laws of the State of Colorado failed to protect Sonja DeVries.


The day of the accident, Ramon Romero was driving with a valid driver's license in a vehicle registered in his name.

Despite his eight DUI arrests and six alcohol-related driving convictions, the state had never permanently stripped Romero of his privilege to own and operate a motor vehicle, let alone a two-ton truck. Every time Romero got busted for a DUI, he pleaded it down and got off easy.

But then, every time before the last time, no one got killed.

"This man was a danger to society," says Carolyn DeVries, Sonja's mother. "What did he have to do, stand in front of police headquarters and wave a sign that said 'Stop me before I kill someone?'"

After the crash, while Romero sobered up in a holding cell, Sonja's parents gave Denver Health doctors permission to remove their daughter from life support. Then they watched her die.

Two days later, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter announced he was charging Romero with vehicular homicide. If he's convicted, Romero is looking at 24 years in prison. But for now, he's free. Romero was released from jail on July 26, after he posted a $75,000 bond. His next court appearance, a pre-trial hearing, is scheduled for early October.

In the meantime, Sonja's parents are prisoners of their grief. Their cell is the small house in east Denver where Sonja grew up. There, Sonja's cheery voice still greets callers on the voice-mail message: "You have reached the home of Van, Carolyn and Sonja DeVries ..." The blankets in Sonja's room still smell of her. Carolyn curls up with them some nights, lying on her daughter's bed, telling Sonja how much she misses her.

For an interview, Carolyn and Van sit in the living room of the house, surrounded by poster-sized photo-collages of Sonja at different stages of her life. Van takes his wife's hand when she breaks down in mid-sentence. She does the same for him. Carolyn is 61 years old; Van is 55. They had Sonja late in life. She was their first and only child.

"It's like nineteen years of our life are just gone," says Carolyn. She makes a sharp chopping motion. "Like that. They're wiped out."

Carolyn and Van are in grief counseling, and they're trying to go back to work. She has a part-time sales position, and Van is the building-maintenance supervisor at Belleview Elementary School. They never had a lot of money when Sonja was growing up, and what little they had was invested in her education.

Sonja was home-schooled from the seventh through the twelfth grades. She was an excellent student, and her grade-point average was 3.87 when she graduated in June. She was accepted at Naropa University, where she planned to study early childhood education and psychology. She was going to live at home to save money.

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