By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Her name was Sonja DeVries.
She was the only child of Carolyn and Van DeVries, the light of their lives. And on July 18, 2004, that light was extinguished by a drunk driver, sentencing her parents to a life of almost unbearable darkness.
The driver, Ramon Romero, is serving the maximum sentence for vehicular homicide, 24 years. But you wouldn't know that from the release sent out by the Colorado Republicans on September 12, a release headlined "Eight Strikes and You're Out -- Because Three Was Not Good Enough for 'Plea-Bargain' Bill Ritter." After noting that the crash that killed nineteen-year-old Sonja DeVires (sic) was Romero's eighth offense for driving under the influence, the release continued: "Sonja's mother expressed her anguish and dissatisfaction with the District Attorney's office and Romero, saying, 'This man was a danger to society. What did he have to do, stand in front of police headquarters and wave a sign that said, Stop me before I kill someone?'"
Carolyn DeVries did say that to Westword ("Collision Course," September 9, 2004). She said it while discussing not Bill Ritter, but the peculiarities of Colorado law that created a loophole a nightmare like Romero could slip through -- again and again. And she said much the same thing while lobbying Colorado legislators, pushing for a change in that law, a change fully supported by the Denver DA's office. At Romero's sentencing in June 2005, the courtroom was filled with people who had visited the website set up in Sonja's memory, www.sonjadevries.org, who had read about this brilliant, luminous girl and signed on to push for the creation of a felony DUI in Colorado, one of three states that lack such a charge.
According to current Colorado law, any driver convicted of three alcohol-related driving offenses during a seven-year period loses his license for five years. Before he smashed into Sonja's 1983 Toyota Corolla, Romero had last been arrested for drunk driving in Weld County in 1998, and his previous run-in with the law had been more than a year before that. "His convictions were spaced in such a strange way that he managed to avoid the seven-year grouping," Ritter told Westwordin 2004. And that grouping was created by state law, not Ritter's plea-bargain rate.
But the truth didn't stop the Colorado Republicans from using Sonja's case. From using the tragedy of Carolyn and Van DeVries, who were never even contacted, never asked if they wanted to make their daughter a political pawn.
Six days after that release went out, Beauprez for Governor sent this alert: "It has come to our attention that several cases handled by the Denver District Attorney's office under the watch of now gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter have not been subject to sufficient public examination. Beginning tomorrow, these cases will be unsealed for public review and comment." The announcement came complete with a catchy graphic showing the "Bill Ritter Cold Case File," with this warning: "Do not unseal until 09/19/2006."
But September 19 came and went without any hot revelations from Bob Beauprez's headquarters. Same for September 20. Then last Thursday, Coloradans for Justice -- a new outfit registered with the Colorado Secretary of State by the Trailhead Group, a 527 committee founded by Governor Bill Owens, Bruce Benson and Peter Coors, who knows something about drunk driving himself -- unveiled "Walked Off," an anti-Ritter commercial that repeated over the weekend, through the Sunday news shows and on into the Broncos game.
Coloradans for Justice was doing the dirty work for the Republican gubernatorial candidate -- not that the group admits to talking with the Beauprez campaign, or even to state party officials, about what it was planning. That would be illegal. "We had been working on these ads for weeks, months," says Trailhead's Alan Philp. "We've had the debate over statistics; now we need to move into a discussion of specific cases."
In "Walked Off," September Dixon faces the camera and tells how she was crossing the street with her kids when they got hit, and then an announcer says the convicted drug dealer who killed Dixon's four-year-old served just eight months (after time already served, a printed explanation adds). Sheila Towns ultimately pleaded guilty to the hit-and-run, and she was sentenced to two years in jail for six misdemeanors, as well as twelve years in prison for one felony -- a sentence that was to be suspended if she went into a residential drug-treatment facility for several years after doing her jail time. In the ad, Dixon says she didn't agree to that deal; according to the notes of the deputy DA who arranged it -- after finding problems that might affect the case at trial -- Dixon did agree, then changed her mind after Towns accepted the offer. That isn't mentioned in "Walked Off." And there's more to the story, which Westword chronicled in its April 19, 2001, issue.
On Mother's Day 2000, twenty-year-old September and her three children were heading to a bus stop when a car ran a red light at Colorado Boulevard and Colfax Avenue and drove into the family, knocking Alexis into the intersection. She died the next day. But she stayed in the news: KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles held on an-air fundraiser to cover the costs of the funeral (a tab picked up by the DA's victims' assistance unit in such instances, it turns out). Listeners soon had donated $30,000, which the station planned to put in a trust fund.
Instead, September started taking money out of the account, buying a car and a TV for her boyfriend. Finally, just $3,000 was set aside for each of her two surviving children. "They might not even live to go to college," she told Westword.
In part because of the Dixon debacle, Boyles no longer does on-air fundraisers.
On Tuesday, ProgressNowAction sent a petition with more than a thousand signatures to managers at Denver's television stations, demanding that the ad be pulled because it contains a false statement (the eight-month line). And while technically that line is false, Philp suggests that Ritter supporters won't want to push it: Because of the suspended sentence, Towns actually served no time for Alexis's death, just for the other charges. "If you follow that logic, they should take out any reference to the sentence," counters Evan Dreyer, Ritter's spokesman. "The DA's analysis was that deal was going to be more time off the streets and not behind the wheel of a car. Certainly more than they might get if it went to trial."
But this particular ad has run its course, anyway. "We looked through a lot of different cases, and this isn't the only one we've been working on," Philp says. He won't comment on the next case to get the Coloradans for Justice treatment, but the group would be well advised to steer clear of the DeVries family, who have nothing but kind words for the DA's treatment of victims -- and nothing but scorn for anyone who would use their grief.
And if you insist on using a dead girl as a political tool, at least spell her name right.