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A Simple Case

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

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.

"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."

But police records indicate that the case was submitted to the DA's office for review -- and that it was the charging deputy DA, Michelle Amico, who recommended the charges filed against Winkler. When Westword brought these facts to Kimbrough's attention, she made further inquiries and responded that the case had been properly charged after all.

Traffic investigators had not found sufficient evidence to hold Winkler responsible for Cordova's death, Kimbrough explained. He wasn't charged with vehicular homicide, a felony, or even careless driving resulting in death -- a misdemeanor that can result in up to a year in jail -- because the police believed that the Taurus had failed to yield to the oncoming Bronco. Using a linear-momentum formula, a detective concluded that Cordova didn't stop at the stop sign on Alcott and was heading into the intersection at more than twenty miles per hour when her vehicle collided with the Bronco.

The police findings are hotly disputed by the Cordova family, who contend that the investigators never did a full accident reconstruction. "My mother never ran a stop sign in her life," Brian insists. "She hadn't had a ticket since 1974. She might have misjudged it because she didn't realize how fast he was coming."

Brian's brother Matthew also believes that the investigators badly underestimated Winkler's rate of speed. "They tried to tell me the guy was going 35," he says. "Have you seen the pictures of my mother's car? Don't take this wrong, but I live in Highlands Ranch, and had a Mexican-American been driving a junky truck out here and killed somebody's grandmother, I'm pretty sure he would have got more than probation. This was treated like somebody's bumper got scratched."

The charges that were filed, Amico says, reflect what her office could prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. "We had an issue with causation and proximate cause," she says.

Amico isn't sure why the thick file she reviewed didn't end up in the hands of Ken Laff, the deputy DA who offered Winkler a plea bargain. "It appears to me that the detective didn't send over his full case report," she says. But, she adds, it's unlikely that additional information about the case would have resulted in a different outcome.

Laff isn't so sure. "I certainly didn't know at the time I pled this case that Barbara Cordova had died," he says. "I didn't know that anyone had been seriously injured. I would have handled it differently had I known."

The skimpy file Laff received was that of a run-of-the-mill DUI case. A form that would have indicated any injury and the victim's name had been left blank. There were a couple of obscure clues in the file that indicated a fatality was involved, but at the time, Laff was handling dozens of misdemeanor cases a day and wasn't expected to scrutinize every entry on every page.

Still, he says, "I've always felt like I should have known. Volume is never an excuse for not handling a case properly. It haunts me that I didn't figure it out."

For the past two years, Laff has been under the impression that a police detective undercharged the case and he failed to catch it. Co-workers say he was "devastated" by the mishap and intensified his already meticulous approach to his work, putting in late hours to master every scrap of information. "This is the most conscientious guy I've ever known in my life," says Greg Long, Laff's current supervisor. "This is not a guy who's going to let a detail slip by him. Ever."

Learning that Amico did review the case provides some consolation, but Laff still wonders if he could have been tougher in the plea bargain if he'd known about the death. "I still would have liked to have the information, and I would like to have involved the family in the resolution of the case," he says. "I regret that we didn't attempt to provide that comfort to the family."

Victims'-rights laws don't require prosecutors to notify victims' families in every misdemeanor traffic case, but Denver has done so as a matter of policy in any DUI-related fatality. "It should have been done as a courtesy," Kimbrough says. "Our office does take some responsibility for that."

Winkler couldn't be reached for comment, and his attorney did not return phone calls. Brian Cordova says the past two years have been difficult for his family, especially his fifteen-year-old daughter -- the girl his mother was driving to the park to summon home. "She feels responsible because my mom was going to get her," he says. "It's been very hard on her."

On September 11, while others mourned loved ones lost in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or on airplanes, the Cordovas remembered a more private disaster, the kind of everyday loss the world quickly forgets.

Debi Drewes remembered, too. At dusk she stooped in her yard, picking up tiny bits of glass strewn among the grass and sunflowers, remnants of that awful night two years ago.

"There are still pieces here and there," she says. "I've come to look at them as some kind of terrible jewels."