After Lilian Verdonkschot died, Nadine Montoya was charged with a hit-and-run. But was hate behind the wheel?
Running through the Burger King parking lot at 2:30 a.m. on May 29, Shala Parker managed to catch the license plate of the green Cadillac DeVille as it zoomed onto Sixth Avenue and took a hard left onto Lincoln. To remember it, she screamed "727RUG! 727RUG!" as she ran back to where her mom, Lilian Verdonkschot, lay crumpled on her side on the asphalt. When Parker rolled her over, Verdonkschot just stared into the dark sky. Parker knew her mother had a tendency to freak out about things, so she tried to stay calm. "It's okay, it's okay," she repeated, like a mantra. "Everything's going to be okay, it's okay."
Paramedics arrived quickly from Denver Health, just one block away. They loaded the 49-year-old Aurora woman into an ambulance while Parker and her friend Jennifer Goodrich had to stay behind and tell their stories to a seemingly endless line of Denver Police Department officers and detectives. Parker and Goodrich explained how two women and a man in a Cadillac had pulled up behind Parker's Honda in the Burger King drive-thru line, and how a dispute over a cigarette request had led to a chaotic altercation in the parking lot. Parker told investigators that the women in the Cadillac had repeatedly referred to themselves as "Mexicans" and said they were going to kill the "stupid white bitches." The last thing she heard them say before the Cadillac plowed into her mother, Parker remembered, was "Let's just fucking hit them."
Verdonkschot died at the hospital several hours later, and the hit-and-run case was officially declared a homicide. Police pulled records that showed the Cadillac was registered to 26-year-old Nadine Montoya, who was living at her mother's house in Westminster. The Cadillac was there, but Montoya wasn't. Then investigators noticed that the car had been stopped two weeks earlier after it had been "reported to have been used in an attempt to run a woman over in an alley," according to a May 30 affidavit. The alleged driver in that incident was listed as Dawn Gonzales, whose photo was tentatively ID'd by Parker. The 23-year-old Gonzales was quickly arrested, only to be released two days later when police pinpointed Montoya as the driver. After three weeks on the run, she turned herself in to Westminster police. On July 29, two months after Verdonkschot's death, a grand jury indicted Montoya on five felony charges, including first-degree murder and leaving the scene of an accident.
Parker says she's relieved that the charges reflect her belief that Montoya intentionally hit her mother, but she wonders why a hate-crime charge wasn't included as well, and why such charges haven't been extended to the Cadillac's other passengers, now identified as Briana Garcia and Damian Saiz. Under Colorado's hate-crime statute, an illegal act becomes a "bias-motivated crime" when the intent is to harass or cause bodily injury to a person because of that person's race, religion, sexual orientation or disability. The law has been applied in similar cases when suspects uttered racial or sexual slurs while assaulting a victim. Both Parker and Goodrich say they told investigators that the trio kept shouting, "We're Mexicans! We'll kill you white bitches!"
In a June 2 warrant, Detective Randy Dennison noted that Goodrich had stated "the two Hispanic females in the second car were shouting at them, calling them white bitches." But in the indictment produced by the grand jury, the phrase was shortened to "bitches." According to Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, prosecutors assigned to the case took note of the racial comments, then decided there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove that Verdonkschot's murder was bias-motivated.
But Parker says you can't extract the "white" from "white bitches" and still understand the dynamics of that traumatic night. "It wasn't about a cigarette," she says. "To me, it felt like they thought they had some advantage to beat us up because we were 'dumb white girls' and they were Mexican. I definitely thought a hate crime should apply."
There are several versions of what happened that night, but everyone agrees it started over a cigarette.
Verdonkschot worked as a baker for Panera Bread, but her real passion was being around her kids. When Parker and her brother were in high school in Centennial, their house was the most popular with their friends. "She would make food for everybody, all my friends," Parker remembers. "She wasn't just like a mom; she was like a friend to everyone."
On Thursday, May 28, Verdonkschot, her daughter and Goodrich had gone to JR's Bar and Grill on 17th Avenue for a friend's birthday party.
While heading home, they decided to stop for food at the Burger King at Sixth and Broadway. With Parker driving, Verdonkschot in the front passenger's seat and Goodrich in the back, they pulled into the drive-thru. A green Cadillac DeVille pulled in behind them. Behind the wheel was Montoya; Briana Garcia was riding shotgun, and Damian Saiz was in the back.
According to the indictment, the three had been at a house party in the nearby Baker neighborhood, where Montoya drank shots of vodka and E&J Brandy. While the two cars waited in the drive-thru, Saiz exited the Cadillac and approached Parker's car, a '98 Honda Accord, to ask for a cigarette. Goodrich, who smokes, told him she was out, but he apparently spotted packs in her purse and tried to reach inside. Parker rolled the window up on Saiz's arm; after he freed himself, he returned to the Cadillac, and "they started screaming at us," Parker says. The noise was so great that she had trouble ordering at the speaker. And then, as the Honda crept forward in the U-shaped drive-thru lane, something hit the car and they heard glass shatter. Parker was unsure if it was a bottle breaking or the sound of one of her tail lights getting smashed; the Cadillac was repeatedly lurching forward and stopping within inches of her bumper, she says.
When she finally reached the window, Parker says, she told employees to call the police. The workers declined; one told her to "just be the bigger person and drive away," she recalls. Meanwhile, Garcia had her head out of the Cadillac's window, screaming "You stupid white bitches!" while Montoya raced the engine. Alarmed by the scene, the employees hustled to put together Parker's order and "literally threw" the bag of fast food into the car.
Parker says she pulled her car off to the side of the parking lot, and she and Goodrich jumped out to check for damage. Then the Cadillac came screeching to a stop at the rear right of the Honda. Montoya and Garcia got out, extremely agitated. "They kept screaming that we were 'stupid white bitches' over and over," Parker says. Garcia asserted that her cousin lived nearby and had a gun. "They said they were going to go get his gun and shoot us 'white bitches," she remembers.
But Parker says there was no physical contact until a man named Christopher Malek, whom Parker had met at JR's earlier in the evening and just happened to be driving by, stopped to help them. That's when Saiz got out of the Cadillac and sucker-punched Malek in the face. Verdonkschot got out of the Honda as the two men began fighting, and started yelling that they should leave. When Malek began to get the upper hand in the fight, Garcia ran up to Goodrich and grabbed her hair, pulling hard. Parker tried to help her friend while Verdonkschot kept repeating, "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!"
Once Goodrich got free, she and Parker hurried back to the Honda. As Verdonkschot shepherded her daughter around the rear of the car, Parker heard one of the other women say, "Let's just fucking hit them." She turned her head and saw the Cadillac plow into the right rear of the Honda, then accelerate in one long left turn that seemed to follow Verdonkschot as she tried to run from the rear to the side of the Honda. Parker remembers her mother screaming as the Cadillac was coming toward them, screaming as the front and rear wheels ran over her.
But when she returned from getting the license plate, her mother was silent.
Montoya "clearly saw us standing there," says Parker. "There was plenty of room on both sides for her to drive away without even touching my car. She meant to hit us."
Montoya, who has five kids and had been attending nursing school, is currently awaiting arraignment in Denver County Jail. Her sister, Nezarie Carter, says that Montoya told her that it was Parker, Verdonkschot, Goodrich and "some guy" who attacked them, and displayed several large knots on her head the day after the incident. Carter says her sister was scared and attempting to leave the parking lot when she ran over Verdonkschot. "She was just trying to get out, and those people blocked her in," Carter says. "It was not intentional."
Carter is also skeptical that any "white bitches" comments came from her sister. "I doubt she would say that," Carter says. "She is not the kind of person who would be for a hate crime, like hurt someone just because they're black or just because they're white. That's not her."
Inspired by the assassination of Jewish talk-show host Alan Berg in 1984, Colorado passed its first laws criminalizing "ethnic intimidation" four years later. In 2005 the state legislature added sexual orientation and mental or physical disability to a list that already included race, religion and nationality, prompting a change in the statute to refer to "bias-motivated crimes."
Critics say that hate-crime legislation is redundant, since laws already exist to prosecute the actual crime regardless of motive. This is particularly true in first-degree-murder cases that carry a mandatory life sentence. Allen Andrade, who murdered transgendered teen Angie Zapata ("Who Was Angie Zapata?" May 27), was charged with a hate crime as well as first-degree murder; the murder conviction alone would have locked him up for life. In Denver's most famous hate-crime case, the 1997 slaying of African immigrant Oumar Dia at a downtown bus stop, self-proclaimed white supremacist Nathan Thill called Dia a "nigger" and asked if he was ready to die. But even without a hate-crime charge, Thill would have been sentenced to life in prison. The law did effect Thill's buddy, Jeremiah Barnum. Though he didn't pull the trigger, Barnum was convicted of ethnic intimidation and first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 1999 before a judge, citing tainted testimony, ordered a new trial. (Denver appealed that decision for several years, but in 2002 agreed to a plea deal that sent Barnum away for twelve years.)
Supporters of hate-crime laws say the charge sends a message that criminal acts motivated by racism, homophobia and bigotry will not be tolerated. Even if the victim is white.
"Hate-crimes laws apply to every single person in this country," says Joyce Rubin of the Anti-Defamation League's regional office. "It shouldn't make a difference if I'm walking down a dark alley and I'm jumped because I'm black, white, gay, Muslim, Christian or whatever. The same rules ought to apply." According to FBI statistics compiled by the ADL, there were 13,804 "anti-white" hate crimes committed in the U.S. between 1991 and 2004. And while this pales beside the 38,727 "anti-black" hate crimes reported in the same period, crimes against Caucasians still account for about 13 percent of all hate crimes each year.
Since 2005, the bias-motivated crime statue has been applied at least thirteen times in Denver, according to court records. Six of these were felony charges, as opposed to misdemeanors, and nearly all were dropped in the plea-bargaining process when the suspect pleaded guilty to other charges. None of the cases involved minorities accused of anti-white crimes. Two involved Caucasian suspects and African-American victims; four involved Hispanic suspects and black victims; one involved a black suspect and a Hispanic victim; one accused Hispanic youths of harassing Jewish victims; two were anti-gay; and one case dealt with an assault on a disabled man.
The DPD has a unit of detectives who work on hate-crime cases. "They look at what was the motivation for the crime, was it sexual orientation, was it your sexuality, any of those types of things," DPD spokesman Sonny Jackson explains. "We have to take all that into consideration in any case, whether it was a simple assault or a hit-and-run: Was there any bias motivation?"
Did this detective unit look into the Burger King hit-and-run case? Jackson says he can't comment on an investigation before the case has gone through the courts. "It's in the DA's hands," he notes. "The DA can look at a case and say, 'Does this warrant a bias-motivated charge?'"
According to Kimbrough, the deputy DAs did discuss whether it would be appropriate to file a bias-motivated count against Montoya. "But in reviewing the totality of the facts and the information, the decision was to not pursue that particular count," she says. "It was based on some doubt about whether or not it could be proven unanimously to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt."
And that doubt is a much larger hole to fill in hate-crime cases.
Just because a bigoted slur is uttered during an assault doesn't mean the crime was motivated by a prejudiced sentiment, Rubin notes, adding, "If two people had a traffic altercation and one of them started yelling at the other and then they started calling each other names, then simply adding names to an otherwise non-racially motivated incident doesn't otherwise make it racially motivated."
In other words, in order to make a hate-crime charge stick, prosecutors would need to show that the reason that Montoya became so agitated with the people in the Honda was specifically because they were white women rather than women of a different race. But the difficulty of presenting such motives hasn't prevented the Denver DA's office from filing hate-crime charges in several recent assault cases. Last September, for example, a severely intoxicated man was being arrested on the 16th Street Mall when he spit on and punched an officer in the face while uttering, "You ain't shit, nigger, fuck you." A bias-motivated crime was added to the charges, to which the man pleaded down to several months in jail. But did the drunk man, who was Hispanic, spit on the officer because he was black — or was the derogatory phrase merely incidental to the assault?
Because grand jury cases are confidential, the DA's office cannot disclose whether the grand jurors were presented with evidence that Montoya's crime could have been bias-motivated. At Westword's request, Kimbrough asked prosecutors why the "white" part of the "white bitches" comment was left off the indictment; they were unsure of why it was omitted, but "it wasn't intentional," she says.
"This was a tragic death. What this woman is accused of strikes us all as something horrible, that this could happen in a parking lot on a normal day," Kimbrough adds. "Could we or should we have included some other lesser counts? That's a discussion we'll save for another day. The focus at this point in the case is on the most serious charges that the grand jury returned." After all, she points out, Montoya is already facing life in prison without parole and the possibility of the death penalty.
Parker says she'll never know for sure what triggered the "insane altercation" that night a Cadillac happened to pull behind her in the drive-thru, but in her eyes, "the situation seemed to arise because of race."
And that's a situation, and a sentiment, she'll never forget.
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