A Bridge Too Close
The only person charged by police in connection with last summer's "Ghost Bridge" crash in rural Arapahoe County that killed two young girls has become something of a phantom herself. When 21-year-old Jennifer Lynn Wambeke, whose younger sister was one of the two killed in the June 21 accident, failed to appear in Arapahoe County Court on December 17 to face misdemeanor charges that she provided alcohol to minors, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
But the fact that Wambeke was a no-show didn't surprise the Colorado state trooper who investigated the accident. "She was in the process of moving out of her house the day we issued her the court summons," says trooper Edward Gawkoski. The cops didn't get a forwarding address.
Wambeke's disappearance is just the latest twist in the tragedy, which left her sister, fourteen-year-old Ashley "Megan" DeHerrera, and twelve-year-old Tara Moore dead. Sixteen-year-old Jessica Hern, the driver of the Toyota sedan in which the girls were riding, remains paralyzed. Records show that there are still two possible charges of vehicular homicide against her; these have been referred to juvenile court. "The case requires considerable investigation," says Mike Knight, an assistant county attorney in the juvenile division. "At this point, a case has not been filed, but it might be very soon."
Authorities may be treading lightly because Hern, after all, was paralyzed from the accident. "Is going after Hern too harsh?" Gawkoski asks. "It's hard to say. But the fact is that she killed two kids, and if you look at the two families who lost children, you've got to ask yourself, what kind of justice did they get? I think that's more significant than the alcohol charge."
At around 9 p.m. on June 21, fifteen kids ranging in age from eleven to sixteen met at an Aurora recreation center. Around this time, according to police, Jennifer Wambeke bought the youngsters liquor and beer, which they took with them as they piled into two cars.
After leaving the center, the teens drove into a rural area looking for the "Ghost Bridge" that spans Kiowa Creek, a reputed site of an Indian massacre. At the time of the accident, the lead car, driven by Hern and carrying eight youngsters, including Wambeke's sister, was traveling between 65 and 70 miles per hour on a stretch of road on which the speed limit was 25. The vehicle hit the guardrail of the bridge with such force that it tore the barrier away from the bridge's deck, and the car tumbled into the dry creek bed. In addition to Hern and the two girls who were killed, a sixteen-year-old boy suffered critical injuries; he has since recovered. The second car crashed into a nearby tree; several of its occupants suffered minor injuries.
"It was a mess," says Gawkoski, who arrived on the scene a few minutes after the accident. He says the uninjured teens quickly confessed to the investigating officers that after realizing how severe the accident was, they took the booze from both wrecked cars and tossed it into nearby bushes. "They also told us that Wambeke supplied the alcohol," says Gawkoski, "and when we talked to her the next day, she stated that she did it."
Despite Wambeke's confession, however, state patrol investigators admit that her connection to the accident is tenuous. Blood-alcohol tests administered to Hern and the driver of the other car after the accident supported their claims that they hadn't been drinking that night. Still, the state patrol decided to file the misdemeanor charges.
Gawkoski acknowledges that the mere presence of alcohol was "not a factor" in the tragedy. "But you've got to ask yourself," he says, "if those kids would've been out there driving like they were without six forty-ounce Mickeys and a bottle of vodka. Their night could have petered out at the park, but Wambeke bought the alcohol for them at 9 p.m., and the accident occurred at 11 p.m. The kids were partying."
Because of these circumstances, the state patrol felt that the misdemeanor charge (which carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and eighteen months in jail) was warranted. "More than anything, we wanted to make a point to the public," says Gawkoski, "especially since this was a known case. We weren't out to get her, because it was basically a slap on the wrist. But we felt that she needed to take responsibility for buying the alcohol for these kids, especially since her sister died in the accident. We know that, technically, she had no involvement with the crash."
Gawkoski wasn't surprised that Wambeke pulled a disappearing act, but Ted McElroy of the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office says that he expected her to face the music, especially since she showed up at her initial court date on September 17 and pleaded not guilty despite her earlier confession. However, McElroy admits that his office had no idea Wambeke had moved since the accident and didn't ask her for an address at her last court appearance. Asking for an address, says McElroy, "is not something we normally do."
"We're not trying to be Draconian here," says McElroy. "This isn't the Oklahoma City bombing, but there needs to be some accountability."
Gawkoski says he wants the DA's office to seek the same kind of accountability from Hern, considering that she was driving the car. "I'm frustrated," says Gawkoski. "And so is Tara Moore's mother. She's called us numerous times trying to find out what's going on. And in turn, we've called the DA's office, but they've been sitting on it for months. Either crap or get off the pot. Do something either way and let's get it over with.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.