Collision Course
John Johnston

Collision Course

Denise Dixon was dreaming. In her dream, she woke up from a deep sleep, cold and sweating at the same time, and looked around to find her bedroom walls covered with blood. There was a face in the room, but she couldn't make it out. She screamed.

Then the phone rang, and Denise woke up for real. It was her son calling to wish her a happy Mother's Day.

Denise had had premonitions before. She always seemed to know when one of her six kids was sick or getting into mischief. Once she dreamed her son was in trouble, and when she called his middle school later that day to check on him, she learned that some bullies had chased him through the halls. But her visions had never been anything life or death; she'd never seen blood.

Before Denise left for her job at the Colorado Blvd. Laundromat, she heard from all of her children and six grandkids, each wanting to wish her a happy Mother's Day. Denise made sure to ask them if everything was okay. Although they assured her they were fine, she remained off-kilter for the rest of the day. She felt like she was moving in slow motion. "That dream was horrifying," Denise says.

And horrifyingly accurate.

September Dixon, Denise's twenty-year-old daughter, loved kids -- perhaps as much from necessity as desire. She'd had her first child, daughter Erica, at thirteen; in May 2000, her son, Daímon, was just a month old. And in the middle was Alexis, a happy, healthy, talkative four-year-old who would be starting preschool at Stedman Elementary in the fall. Alexis's nickname was "Kisser," because she was so outgoing that she always wanted to kiss people. She was the life of the party, just like her mother.

September enjoyed her job at a local daycare center. She was a happy-go-lucky soul, Denise says, moving through life with no cares except Erica, Daímon and Alexis. They all lived with Denise in Aurora.

On Mother's Day 2000, September took her three kids to a friend's house for a barbecue with plenty of food and lots of children to play with. When she'd talked to her mother earlier that day, Denise had said she'd pick them up at the party after her shift was over at 10 p.m. But by early evening, the kids were getting restless and wanted to go home, so September decided to meet her mom at work instead.

She and the kids caught the No. 15 bus heading east on Colfax Avenue. They planned to catch the 40 at Colorado Boulevard, then head north to 28th Avenue and Denise.

It was nice that evening, sunny and warm. As September's brood got off the Colfax bus and waited to cross Colfax, Alexis asked her mother if they were going home. Then the light turned green, the walk sign appeared -- and that was the last thing September remembers. Seconds later, all four were hit by a car speeding east on Colfax right through the red light. September and Erica were thrown to the curb; September blacked out. Little Daímon was bundled up in a car seat; the car made a tire track on its back. But the baby, who wasn't strapped in, simply rolled out of the seat and out of the street; blankets cushioned his fall.

Alexis was tossed into the intersection.

Denise heard the sirens screaming along Colorado sometime after 7:30 p.m. She remembered her dream and thought about September and the kids. But her shift wouldn't be over for hours, and she didn't think they'd be heading her way that early.

A half-hour later, while she was sweeping up near the doorway, Denise got a call from Denver Health Medical Center. There'd been a car accident, the nurse said; September and the baby had been transported to Denver Health, and Alexis and Erica were at Children's Hospital.

It took Denise a few moments to catch her breath and gather her scattered thoughts. September didn't own a car, she kept thinking. How could they have been in a car accident? Denise called her sister, Debbie, and they decided that Debbie and another sister, Gail Watkins, would go to Denver Health while Denise went to Children's, where she'd be joined by still another sister, Robin Spencer.

As soon as she spotted the blank faces that greeted her at Children's, Denise knew that one of her granddaughters was "seriously damaged." She saw Erica first, playing in a room with a police detective, laughing, talking. Aside from some scrapes and bruises, the six-year-old seemed unharmed.

But Alexis was another story. In the emergency room, Denise saw that the four-year-old was hooked up to a respirator. Alexis's heart had stopped on the way to the hospital, they told her. Paramedics had gotten it going again, but the girl was still unconscious, hooked up to machines. She'd suffered a lot of internal injuries, and blood was seeping from every opening: her eyes, her mouth, her nose.

"There was blood everywhere," says Denise. "The same as my dream."

Denise was in shock. She couldn't remember Alexis's middle name; she couldn't remember her granddaughter's birthday, either. She recalls asking the doctors why they couldn't stop the bleeding -- but if they gave her an answer, she didn't hear them. She remembers Alexis being taken somewhere for a CAT scan, but to this day, she doesn't know what the results of that test were.

Robin Spencer's memories are clearer. People kept walking around the ICU area where her grandniece lay bloody and naked. She complained to the staff, then started to clean Alexis up, clearing the rocks and debris and dirt from her hair. "It was horrible," Robin says. "It was a freak show."

September regained consciousness in the ambulance on the way to Denver Health. She asked about her kids, but couldn't get any information. So she tried to get up, to get out, but she was strapped to the gurney.

She doesn't remember much of her hours at the hospital. She was given a tetanus shot in her arm and six stitches to close up a gash. Her leg was banged up; months would pass before she'd walk normally. She was reunited with Daímon, whose only problem was that he was hungry. But no one would tell her how her girls were doing.

Finally, after repeated requests, she was released from Denver Health at 3 a.m. A cab took September, Daímon and Harold Dancy, Daímon's father and September's fiancé, to Children's.

The waiting room was crowded and loud. September went to see Alexis, hoping her daughter would regain consciousness. "Once she went there to see Alexis, it was really hard," remembers Gail, September's aunt. "She was very hysterical."

September kept going back and forth between the waiting room and the ICU, and the doctors kept telling her the same thing -- that they would do all they could. But Alexis never regained consciousness.

Alexis died the morning after Mother's Day. But she was as good as dead the moment she was hit by that car, her family says.

Inside the office of the Denver Police Department's traffic division, a squat building in the shadow of the new football stadium, a large laminated map hangs on a wall. Marked on that map are the locations of the 84 traffic fatalities that occurred in Denver in 2000. The Mother's Day accident at the corner of Colorado and Colfax is labeled number 39.

Last year the city suffered an unusually high number of traffic fatalities -- a 58 percent increase over the number of deaths in 1999. There was also a 9 percent increase in the number of auto accidents: 31,879 in 2000 versus 29,233 in 1999. By contrast, there were only 34 homicides in Denver in 2000, a 49 percent decrease from the 1999 murder rate (and far below the rates for 1998 and 1997, as well). Pedestrians accounted for 37 of the 84 deaths; eight of those pedestrians were killed on Colfax.

"When it's more dangerous for you to get in a car and go from A to B than it is for you to walk out of a stickup, that says something," says Jeff Kolts, a Denver police officer assigned to the traffic division. "For a city our size, that's a pretty good chunk of people dying on the road. It's unacceptable."

Unlike the city's other 36 pedestrian fatalities, Alexis stayed in the news. A day or two after her death, KHOW talk-show host Peter Boyles saw a newscast of the tragedy. Saddened by the Dixon family's loss, he decided to hold an on-air fundraiser at the end of the week. He figured the station would raise a few thousand dollars, enough money to bury Alexis.

When they agreed to appear on the show, September and Denise didn't know that Boyles planned to raise money for the family; they were just accepting an invitation to talk about Alexis and the accident. But as September told the story -- with some difficulty, she remembers -- listeners responded with an amazing outpouring of support. Donations came in over the phone, they came by car. Kids dropped off jars full of quarters. Within a few days, the station had raised over $30,000.

That was enough for the funeral and then some. The money would come in handy, because September would be recuperating for some time and wouldn't be able to work.

Boyles contacted his friend Jeff Fard, a well-respected Five Points businessman and activist known as Brother Jeff, and asked him to serve as fiscal agent for the money, which was deposited in an account at the Five Points branch of US Bank. The account was a way of assuring radio listeners who'd made donations that the station would be putting all of the money toward the promised use -- helping September and her children -- and not pocketing any of it. But the account was also a way of encouraging September to use the funds wisely. Boyles and others at the station hoped that she'd set up a trust fund for her two remaining kids.

That's not how it worked out.

"They thought the money should be invested," Fard remembers, "and not just spent."

The station gave September a thousand dollars in cash the day the account was set up. But it was all her money now, September said, and she didn't think any restrictions should be placed on its use. As soon as the deposit cleared, she began to withdraw money. She bought a used Ford Bronco for $14,000. She bought new clothes for herself and her kids. And she paid for Alexis's funeral, she says.

After September bought the car, the station tried to move the rest of the money into a trust -- but it stayed put in September's account. "We gained nothing from it," Boyles says. "The listeners did the right thing, and she misused it. She broke a trust. People gave in a spirit of love. I have no idea in what spirit she took it. She was in grief. Maybe that's how she handled the grief."

"The whole mentality changed to 'This is my money,'" Fard remembers. "It was never about the station trying to take the money back. They were really willing to manage it."

To this day, Clear Channel AM program director Robin Bertolucci says she doesn't know where all the money went. "It's not something we would want to be secretive about," she adds. "I think if people make a donation, they're entitled to know where it went. But at the same time, they made the donation without any strings attached."

September doesn't care what the station thinks about how she spent the money -- and she's certain the people who donated it wouldn't mind that she bought a car. "Why not? I'm sure they wouldn't want to see me back on the bus," she points out. She's set aside $3,000 for each of her two living children; the rest is gone.

She sounds almost fatalistic about the small amount she saved for Erica and Daímon. "They might not even live to go to college," September says.

According to the DPD report of the May 14 accident, witnesses saw a brown Subaru run a red light at Colorado while traveling east on Colfax. The car struck September and the kids, who were starting to cross Colfax south to north. The driver stopped for a moment, then sped off.

When police arrived, they recovered a piece of front molding and a car's right-side mirror. A day later, investigators got a call from a woman who said she'd seen the Subaru at a Clermont Street address just a few blocks from the scene of the accident; its license plates had been removed. After three separate trips to interview the woman, DPD officer Ray Cruz finally had the car impounded.

The cops found its owner, Hector Gonzalez-Espinosa, and questioned him. He told them that his girlfriend, Sheila Towns, had been driving the car; he'd been a passenger.

Gonzalez-Espinosa says he doesn't remember much about the accident. "She stopped," he says of Towns. "The mother was screaming. She was scared, and she left." Towns had drunk at least four beers that evening, he adds.

On May 16, at around 11:20 a.m., police received an anonymous tip that Towns was at the Monroe Tavern on East Colfax, near the accident scene. When they confronted her at the bar, some officers noted that Towns didn't seem too remorseful. DPD officer Jason Moore disagrees. Towns was "really calm," he says. "I think she kind of knew it was coming. She seemed like she had a guilty conscience."

At police headquarters, Towns consented to a videotaped interview and admitted that she'd been driving the Subaru. She also admitted that she'd had two mixed drinks before the accident. She fled the scene because she was scared and didn't want to go to jail.

Towns was charged with seven counts: one felony, for a hit-and-run resulting in death; two traffic misdemeanors, for operating a vehicle without insurance and careless driving; and four misdemeanors -- three third-degree assault charges and driving with a license under restraint. Assuming she was telling the truth about her drinking that night, if she had been arrested immediately and given a blood alcohol test, it's likely she would have been charged with another felony.

During Towns's court appearances, the Dixons thought it looked as if she didn't care what she'd done. But last fall, when Towns pleaded guilty, she tried to have her lawyer read this letter to the court: "I, Sheila Towns, accept full responsibility for my actions. I want to apologize to the family. There is nothing I can do to ease their pain. All I can do is say I am sorry, and I, too, will have to live with this for the rest of my life. I also apologize to my family and to the court."

But Denise didn't want to hear anything unless it came from Towns directly. And for September, even that wouldn't have been enough. "I wouldn't accept her apology," she says. "I hate that woman."

September confronted Towns in the hall outside the courtroom before sentencing. Standing just inches away, she called her a "baby killer." Sheriff's deputies quickly moved Towns away and stood watch for the subsequent court action.

Towns received a twelve-year suspended sentence for the felony. Her sentences for the other crimes run concurrently; minus time already served, they boiled down to less than eighteen months.

Towns is slated for release from jail this August. After that, she will be transferred to an alcohol-rehab facility in Portland, Oregon, near her family, where she will spend between two and five years. She'll be on probation for six years; if she fails the rehab program or otherwise messes up, she'll be extradited to Colorado, where she'll serve twelve years in prison.

Currently in Douglas County Jail, Towns did not respond to Westword's request for comment. After an initial interview, Gonzales-Espinosa refused to discuss the incident again.

But the Dixons are eager to talk about what they regard as a slap-on-the-wrist sentence. "If I was to see her walking the street, I'd run her over... just like she did," September says stonily. "And I'd change my license plates, just like she did, and I'd wipe the blood off, just like she did."

Although she understands the Dixons' sentiments, deputy state public defender Carrie Thompson says the sentence "reflected all the complicating factors that existed" and was fair. "A lot of material was provided to the DA's office," she adds. "Ultimately, it was their decision to enter into this."

"Ms. Towns will be accountable at all times," says Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office. While enrolled in the rehab program, Towns will attend sessions three times a week and work six days a week. "To my understanding," Kimbrough adds, "it's like being incarcerated, only there's the additional level of treatment." In prison, Towns would not have gotten that treatment.

"I'm not gonna say she's super," Al Osendorf says of Towns, who lived with him several years ago, caring for his ailing wife and helping with the housework. "I'm not gonna say she's bad. I'll leave it at that."

September considered filing a civil suit against Towns but changed her mind. "She don't have nothin'," she says. "She don't have no insurance. Her mama's broke. Her boyfriend's broke. She's broke."

As Denver's traffic increases, so does the number of traffic fatalities.

According to traffic engineers, a highway is generally running at capacity when there are 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour. "Virtually all of Interstate 25 -- all lanes, all hours -- are beyond 2,000," says Dan Hopkins, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. "I-25 is well beyond its capacity, and other metro freeways during drive times are as well."

The busiest arterial street in Denver and the state, Colorado Boulevard is designed to carry 55,000 to 60,000 vehicles a day -- but is currently carrying around 70,000. Other major roads at or beyond capacity include stretches of Speer, Federal, Leetsdale, Alameda, Broadway and Lincoln; Colfax is over capacity at the Auraria campus and near capacity from Capitol Hill to Colorado.

"I think the infrastructure of the city is woefully unprepared for the kind of growth we've had," says DPD officer Jeffrey Kolts. "Traffic is always put on the back burner."

Until now. Last year the DPD created the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, a squad of officers who field traffic complaints and try to solve traffic problems in neighborhoods. Starting with just four cops, the program has now grown to include nine officers. That's because city officials have finally "figured out how bad traffic is," Kolts says. "It's no secret we've got an ugly traffic situation out there." At any given moment, the Neighborhood Enforcement Team handles several hundred complaints, most involving speeding, running stop signs and running red lights.

Kolts also helped create a program known as SpeedWatch. Residents worried about traffic in their neighborhoods who join SpeedWatch get an hour and a half of training on a radar gun, a scaled-down version of the training that police officers receive. Then three-member citizen teams return to their neighborhoods: While one watches for approaching cars, another operates the gun and the third fills out paperwork. "Offenders" are sent a courtesy letter urging them to slow down.

The program empowers ordinary people to improve their environment, Kolts says. And sometimes, it makes them realize there was no problem in the first place: People are "notoriously bad" at visually estimating vehicle speed, he notes.

Staying on top of the city's increasing traffic is trickier. The traffic operations section of the Denver Department of Public Works is constantly analyzing traffic patterns and retiming directional arrows and lights. Some intersections have video cameras linked fiber-optically to a facility that can retime signals on the fly. But cars that cheat on arrows and lights can wreck the signal timing. "Those cheaters do more damage to the grid than you can imagine," says Matt Wager, assistant director of traffic operations. "They're making the system work much less effectively."

Many traffic problems stem from a "basic lack of courtesy that society has had in the last five years or so," Kolts says.

"I attribute a lot of it to the economy, that whole mindset of 'As long as we're making money, who cares what's going on?'" adds Officer Jerry Thomas, a member of the Neighborhood Enforcement Team. "I think people have lost respect for law enforcement and law and order. Now it's 'Hey, just give me the ticket and let me get out of here.'"

In the wake of last year's record number of traffic deaths, and at the DPD's urging, Mayor Wellington Webb has proposed raising fines for traffic offenses. Under the new proposal, the fine for zero-point violations (which include driving one to four miles per hour over the speed limit) would increase from $20 to $30; one- or two-point violations (which include operating a vehicle with defective headlamps or driving five or more miles per hour over the limit) would increase from $26 to $40; three-point violations (such as an improper turn, or driving in the wrong lane or in the wrong direction on a one-way street) would increase from $39 to $70; and four-point violations (following too closely, improper passing) would increase from $52 to $100. Anyone clocked at fifteen to nineteen miles per hour over the speed limit would be hit with a $125 fine. Denver City Council is slated to discuss the proposed fines at its April 23 meeting.

"The median cost of a house is $230,000, $250,000," Thomas points out. "The average cost of a vehicle is $20,000. When somebody gets a $40 ticket, they just mail it in. The unit came up with the idea of raising tickets. We don't feel that people were taking them seriously."

While raising fines might increase the city treasury (last year the city collected $5.8 million in traffic fines), Kolts says that's not the point of the proposal. Not only will increasing traffic fines bring Denver in line with other counties, but it might make drivers more cautious. "By the time it's over and done with," he says, "people will take notice."

Over the past year, the Dixons have become all too familiar with the hazards of Denver's traffic. In the frantic days after the accident, Denise's sister Robin was ticketed twice for speeding. Because she'd gotten a speeding ticket earlier in the year, she's now driving with a probationary license, meaning she can only drive to and from work -- and at work: Ironically, she drives an armored car for a living.

Another one of September's aunts, Gail Watkins, was in an accident herself as she was driving home from the hospital the day that Alexis died. It was snowing, and as she turned off Martin Luther King Boulevard, the car was clipped from behind -- causing it to spin out of control, slam through a fence and into a yard, where it collided with a tree. Watkins, who'd rolled down the passenger window just moments before to help defog the glass, was ejected through that open window. She spent the next four days in intensive care, unconscious. Today she still complains of head and neck pain.

A few months after Alexis's death, September and her two living children moved out of Denise's home and into an apartment with Dancy in northeast Denver.

The place is comfortable, filled with nice furniture and a massive Phillips television set -- which Dancy says he paid for himself. But it's also one of the low-income apartments just south of the Dahlia Shopping Center that's slated to be torn down and relocated a few blocks north, making way for a new grocery store.

The family is already looking for somewhere to move.

After the accident, September couldn't hold Daímon for several months. "Every time I held him, he just screamed," she says. "He knew something was wrong. He would just cry and cry, just like me."

Although Daímon still whimpers in his sleep, today he's a happy baby. He turned one over Easter weekend. His name is tattooed on his mother's shoulder, just above three roses.

Erica, who is now seven, has grown moody. She doesn't eat much, doesn't sleep much, and she's become outspoken -- more like her dead sister.

September suffers from headaches, memory loss, loss of appetite, lack of sleep. When she does sleep, she has nightmares. She's engaged to Dancy -- who's working at a convenience store while studying computer science at college -- but doesn't think she'll get married until next year. She returned to work as a stock supplier at a nearby Kmart, but lost the job just last week. Her leg has begun bothering her again. Her knee buckles and threatens to give out whenever she walks, and she says she'll need surgery. But September's in no hurry to go under the knife or to go back to work.

The Bronco was in an accident last month; its shiny fender sits outside the apartment. September is still waiting to get it reattached.

The Mother's Day accident changed her profoundly. "Mentally, she isn't the same person she was before the accident," says Denise. "Her attitude toward life, her outlook, has changed."

Denise told her daughter that time heals wounds -- but so far, it hasn't.

"It's a big piece of me still missing," September says. "I don't really go anywhere."


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