Death came for Sonja DeVries with a red blur in her rearview mirror.
At 7:20 p.m. on Sunday, July 18, nineteen-year-old Sonja was driving eastbound on Alameda Avenue in her 1983 Toyota Corolla. The light at Holly Street turned red, and DeVries came to a full stop. The speed limit on that stretch of Alameda is 35 miles per hour. Detectives estimate that the crimson Chevy S-10 pickup that came flying up the hill was doing at least 60 when it slammed into the back of the Corolla, without braking or swerving on the clear, dry road. The force of the collision crushed the old silver hatchback like a beer can in a frat boy's fist.
The laws of physics show no mercy. They have no sense of who deserves to die and who does not.
Denver Fire Department Station 19 is about 200 yards from Alameda and Holly, and the clamor of the crash brought firemen running. They pried Sonja from the wreckage and rushed her to Denver Health Medical Center. She had a pulse, but it was faint and fading. Her skull had ricocheted off the steering wheel, and her brain was swelling. Emergency-room doctors drilled a hole in Sonja's head to relieve the pressure, hoping that bright-red blood would seep out -- an indication that her brain was still receiving plenty of oxygen. Instead, the blood was sickly brown, meaning circulation had been cut off.
Sonja was brain-dead.
The driver of the pickup, 55-year-old Ramon Romero, was not seriously injured. Police arrived at the scene of the accident to find him stumbling outside his pickup, apparently drunk. The officers gave Romero a Breathalyzer test, and he blew a .212, nearly triple the legal driving limit in Colorado.
On July 1, a new law officially lowered this state's DUI blood-alcohol content threshold from .10 to .08. Romero is 5'5" and weighs about 150 pounds. To blow a .212, a man his size would have had to drink between eight and eleven beers, glasses of wine or cocktails in a single hour. The cops arrested Romero at the scene and transported him to Denver City Jail, where he was booked on suspicion of reckless driving, vehicular assault and driving under the influence.
This was not the first time that Romero had been arrested for a DUI in Colorado. Nor was it the second. Or the third. Or the fourth. Or the fifth, sixth or seventh. It was the eighth.
Like the laws of physics, the laws of the State of Colorado failed to protect Sonja DeVries.
The day of the accident, Ramon Romero was driving with a valid driver's license in a vehicle registered in his name.
Despite his eight DUI arrests and six alcohol-related driving convictions, the state had never permanently stripped Romero of his privilege to own and operate a motor vehicle, let alone a two-ton truck. Every time Romero got busted for a DUI, he pleaded it down and got off easy.
But then, every time before the last time, no one got killed.
"This man was a danger to society," says Carolyn DeVries, Sonja's mother. "What did he have to do, stand in front of police headquarters and wave a sign that said 'Stop me before I kill someone?'"
After the crash, while Romero sobered up in a holding cell, Sonja's parents gave Denver Health doctors permission to remove their daughter from life support. Then they watched her die.
Two days later, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter announced he was charging Romero with vehicular homicide. If he's convicted, Romero is looking at 24 years in prison. But for now, he's free. Romero was released from jail on July 26, after he posted a $75,000 bond. His next court appearance, a pre-trial hearing, is scheduled for early October.
In the meantime, Sonja's parents are prisoners of their grief. Their cell is the small house in east Denver where Sonja grew up. There, Sonja's cheery voice still greets callers on the voice-mail message: "You have reached the home of Van, Carolyn and Sonja DeVries ..." The blankets in Sonja's room still smell of her. Carolyn curls up with them some nights, lying on her daughter's bed, telling Sonja how much she misses her.
For an interview, Carolyn and Van sit in the living room of the house, surrounded by poster-sized photo-collages of Sonja at different stages of her life. Van takes his wife's hand when she breaks down in mid-sentence. She does the same for him. Carolyn is 61 years old; Van is 55. They had Sonja late in life. She was their first and only child.
"It's like nineteen years of our life are just gone," says Carolyn. She makes a sharp chopping motion. "Like that. They're wiped out."
Carolyn and Van are in grief counseling, and they're trying to go back to work. She has a part-time sales position, and Van is the building-maintenance supervisor at Belleview Elementary School. They never had a lot of money when Sonja was growing up, and what little they had was invested in her education.
Sonja was home-schooled from the seventh through the twelfth grades. She was an excellent student, and her grade-point average was 3.87 when she graduated in June. She was accepted at Naropa University, where she planned to study early childhood education and psychology. She was going to live at home to save money.
"My academic goals are to seek guidance to support my authentic self and nurture my heart as a foundation from which to teach and service children, to find ways they can freely express their spirits, emotions, joy and creativity," Sonja wrote in her Naropa application essay. "Someday I want to have a Play Therapy Practice. I envision having a room full of art projects, dance space, educational toys, games, and books. I have a long-term goal to achieve my Master's degree in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Spiritual Psychology."
Sonja was deeply spiritual and mature beyond her years, an overachiever with little time for typical teenage distractions. But she was not dull. She was free-spirited and loved being alive. Her passion renewed everyone whose life she touched.
"Sonja was unusual and delightful and smart and fun and cheerful and enthusiastic and giving," says Denver City Councilwoman Marcia Johnson, who met Sonja in 2003 when Sonja volunteered for Johnson's campaign. "Several hundred people came to her memorial service, which demonstrated to me the abundance of beauty she engendered in so many lives. I think maybe most of us live longer than Sonja because we haven't lived up to what Sonja did in her short life."
Those who knew and loved Sonja all say that she would have forgiven Ramon Romero. They say she would not have wanted him to go to prison or be condemned as a bad person. But she would have wanted something good and real to rise from her cremated ashes. She would have wanted her death -- a death that on the face of it seems so random, unfair and preventable -- to serve a greater purpose.
"Sonja had a lot of spiritual juice," her father says. "She believed we are all spirits, and we come down here to Earth, and we get a body, and we're here to do certain things, and then we drop our body and pass on. She believed in a higher game plan. So maybe the plan for her is by dying, she'll make people in power take a good, hard look at this drunk-driving situation and really do something about it."
The same month Sonja DeVries was killed, Men's Health magazine branded Denver "The Most Drunken Big City in America." This finding was based in large part on two statistics: Denver has the greatest number of drunk-driving arrests per capita of any major city in the United States, and Denver also has the most alcohol-related car-accident fatalities per capita, almost half of which are caused by repeat DUI offenders.
"In this state, we're tough on making arrests but weak on what happens once they're in the court system," says Patrice Lloyd, executive director of the Denver chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We're good at catching them, but not so good at keeping them from doing it again. We had a boardmember whose son was killed by a drunk driver who had nineteen previous DUIs and was still driving legally."
The loopholes in Colorado's anti-drunk-driving laws are so large that Ramon Romero powered his big red Chevy right through them.
Romero was convicted of his first DUI in Denver in 1974, eleven years before Sonja DeVries was born. He was arrested again and convicted of drunk driving in 1978, this time in Greeley. His third DUI arrest came in 1980, back in Denver. In that case, Romero pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license and failure to stay in a single lane; he was sentenced to one year of probation. It's not clear why Romero's license had been suspended -- although judging by the multiple non-alcohol-related traffic accidents and moving violations on his driving record, he wasn't a good insurance risk even when sober.
Sonja was six months old when Romero was arrested on a fourth DUI, in January 1986. A Denver cop saw him weaving between lanes near the intersection of Bayaud Avenue and Washington Street and pulled him over. This time Romero was charged with careless driving and operating a vehicle without insurance, as well as DUI. He pleaded the DUI down to driving while under the influence (DWAI), the other charges were dropped, and he was fined $266 and sentenced to 200 days in jail, with 170 days suspended. He served the remaining thirty in a work-release program.
Three months later, Romero was arrested in Denver on a fifth DUI. Again, he pleaded the charge down to DWAI. He was sentenced to fifteen days in jail, but the sentence was suspended because he agreed to undergo alcohol counseling.
At that point, Carolyn DeVries believes, Romero should have gone to jail for at least a month and lost his driver's license forever. She realizes that taking away a drunk driver's license or making him do a little time doesn't guarantee that he'll stop driving drunk. "But it would send them a message that what they're doing is considered a serious crime, that it's dangerous," she says. It infuriates her to see the placards on gas pumps bearing the image of a stern-looking state trooper and this warning for petty thieves: "Drive Off, Lose Your License!"
"What's worth more?" she asks. "My daughter's life or a tank of gas?"
Colorado law calls for anyone convicted of a third DUI or DWAI to have his license suspended for a year. That happened to Romero several times, but after the year was up, his license was automatically reinstated. Colorado is also one of only two states without a felony DUI statute. (The other is Pennsylvania.) No matter how many DUIs or DWAIs a frequent flier racks up, he'll just keep being charged with misdemeanors, which are punishable by no more than a year in prison.
In fact, fines of more than $500 and jail sentences longer than a month are rarely imposed on repeat DUI offenders in this state. It's more common for judges to suspend a sentence and reduce a fine in exchange for the repeat offender agreeing to undergo alcohol counseling, as Romero did in 1986.
Six years passed before Romero was caught again. During that time, Sonja attended Montview Community Preschool and began to study tap dance, which became a lifelong passion. She was a first-grader at Montview Elementary School in 1992, when Romero notched his fifth DUI arrest in Greeley, a second-grader when he got his sixth that December, also in Greeley. Again he pleaded the charge down to DWAI and sought alcohol treatment. He was also fined $100 and ordered to perform 48 hours of community service.
By law, any driver in Colorado who is convicted of three alcohol-related driving offenses during a seven-year period loses his license for five years. Romero kept missing the cutoff.
"His convictions were spaced in such a strange way that he always managed to avoid the seven-year grouping," says DA Ritter. "It looks like he always made it through his one-year suspension and kept getting his license back."
In September 1996, Romero was arrested a seventh time for DUI -- the last time he would be charged with drunk driving until the day Sonja died. He again pleaded guilty to DWAI and was sentenced to fifteen days in jail. Earlier that year, Romero had pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and been sentenced to three years in prison, but the sentence was suspended after he agreed to enter a drug-treatment program.
Sonja was eleven in 1996. She'd auditioned for and been accepted by the Denver School of the Arts, where she attended sixth grade. She was also accepted by the International Preparatory magnet program at Hamilton Middle School. Following that school year, she told her parents that she wasn't feeling challenged enough. Her parents withdrew Sonja from public school and began home-schooling her under a rigorous independent-study curriculum developed by the Clonara School, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That year, Sonja began volunteering at her former preschool and working as a babysitter, ultimately developing a clientele of seventeen families in Park Hill. She launched her own college fund with her earnings.
In 1998, Sonja became a volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's Hall of Life. Three years later she was made a volunteer team leader. "She would always dance through the Hall of Life when we were working," says Julia Lowell, a fellow science-museum volunteer who met Sonja five years ago and became one of her best friends. "She was a kindhearted, happy person. I never saw her sad. Whenever we had to work the phones, I did all the dialing and she did the talking, because she was a great talker."
Sonja was also a writer. She kept a journal, and in 2001 she wrote a poem that was published in The Learning Edge, the Clonara School's newsletter, which is distributed to 7,000 students on six continents. "Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer," the poem began. "I have lived these seasons over and over. I have gone from ten to fifteen, and onesies to pedal pushers...I went from a bike with three wheels to a bike with two wheels, and now I know how to drive with four wheels.
"Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer. I will continue these seasons over and over."
When she was sixteen, Sonja started working in the gift shop at the Museum of Nature & Science. She used her wages to buy her own clothes and pay for her share of the family's car insurance; her parents had given her an old Toyota Corolla. She also kept saving for college.
"School will be my next big hurdle," she wrote in her journal on June 21, 2003. She turned eighteen the next day. "I am grateful for this year of being 17. At heart I will always remain a kid and if I live in my heart I will have the support in what I choose to do next in life. I don't really want to be an adult. It would be nice to stay 17 forever. However, it is the simple things in life I love and, well, everyone does get older. I just ask that this year of being 18 be a fantastic, uplifting, bonding, loving experience with my family, friends, and future boyfriend. I do hope I have a boyfriend this year!"
Two weeks later, Sonja met her first true love. He was also her last. Noah Morrison lived in Morton, Texas, a one-stoplight town on the New Mexico border, where he worked as director of technology for a small school district. He was 23. He'd come to Denver to participate in a personal-growth seminar called Insight.
Sonja had recently organized a Teen Insight seminar, and Noah was staying with a friend of hers. This friend told Noah that she knew a young woman he just had to meet. "She's an old soul," the friend told him. Then she showed him a photograph of Sonja at her eighteenth birthday party wearing a bikini. Sonja was 5'9 and weighed 115 pounds; her muscles were toned from dancing. Not only did Noah think that she was too young; he also thought she was too good-looking.
"I thought from looking at her in the photo that she was going to be full of herself," Noah remembers. "Then she came over, and she had a sparkle about her. She was self-confident without being self-centered. Within an hour of meeting her, my attitude had totally changed. I was falling in love."
Sonja and Noah developed a long-distance romance, seeing each other about once a month. At first the age difference made Noah uneasy. "Then I realized her maturity level was much higher than mine," he says. "She was a wise person. She would counsel parents she knew on how to talk to their kids about sex, or on how to deal with their kids' drug problems. And they would listen to her, because she had true insight."
The last time Noah saw Sonja was in early July. His family has a cabin in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and they went there together to celebrate their one-year anniversary. Noah took a lot of photos, including one of Sonja holding a bouquet of flowers, talking on a phone, smiling, full of life. This image graced the cover of the program for Sonja's July 30 memorial service, which was held in the atrium of the Museum of Nature & Science. (A web page has also been set up in her memory at www.sonjadevries.org.)
In August, Noah submitted his resignation to the Texas school district. He plans to work through mid-September and then move home to New Mexico. "My goals in life have changed," he says. "Sonja and I had a lot of plans. I was going to help her pay for school. We were going to get married and have kids. She was really looking forward to that. Now that's gone, and I don't want to be here."
Most nights he dreams about Sonja. In his dreams, he's talking with her. When he wakes up, he wants to call her. "The mornings are the hardest," he says.
Noah does not want Ramon Romero to go to prison. Instead, he thinks that Romero should live in a halfway house and be forced to take Antabuse, a chemical that will make him violently sick if he drinks alcohol. "And he should have to volunteer most of his time to make up for what he took away," he adds. "I hope he feels a huge debt, because he owes the world one."
On the last day of her life, Sonja went to her job at the museum gift shop. After work, her co-workers took her to Gunther Toody's for a belated high school graduation and nineteenth-birthday celebration. Sonja was on her way home when she pulled up to the red light at Alameda and Holly.
Carolyn DeVries was taking care of a friend's house and cats in Aurora that night. Van was at home. He had to get up early for work, so he'd turned off the phone and gone to bed around 8 p.m., but he couldn't sleep. Like a lot of parents with teenagers, he often wouldn't sleep soundly until he heard his daughter come safely through the front door.
Around 9:30, he got up and checked the phone's caller-ID panel. It listed a recent call from Denver Health Medical Center. "I thought, 'Oh, boy, this could be bad,'" he remembers. He turned the phone on and it started ringing. When he picked up, the voice on the other end asked if he was Sonja's father, then told him that she had been hurt but was in stable condition.
"They tell you that so you don't get in a wreck on the way there," he says.
Van called his wife. "Get dressed," he told her. "Sonja's in the hospital." Carolyn sped home, and they drove to Denver Health together. When they walked into the emergency room, they were told that their daughter was in the Intensive Care Unit. "That's when we knew it was really serious," Carolyn remembers.
They went to the ICU. Sonja was on a ventilator and hooked up to a heart monitor. Some of her hair had been shaved so that doctors could stitch up the gash in her scalp where she'd hit the steering wheel; there were tubes coming out of her head. Her eyes were closed. Her normally willowy frame was puffed up from all the saline solution that doctors were pumping into her system.
"She looked like a blow-up doll," Carolyn says. "I wish we had a video of her to show to Romero and anyone else who's ever driving drunk."
A doctor pulled them aside and explained that Sonja had suffered massive brain trauma and was brain-dead. Her chances of survival were slim, at best. Carolyn hugged him. "I started hugging everybody that night for some reason," she remembers. And then she prayed. She gave thanks for the efforts the doctors were making, and she told God, "If you're willing to give us a miracle, we need it now. Right now."
No miracle came. Sonja's parents signed the required forms. By now, family friends had gathered in the ICU, and they joined Carolyn and Van to form a circle around Sonja when the machines were turned off. Carolyn told Sonja's spirit, "You have permission to go." They chanted an ancient blessing in Sanskrit, and Carolyn sang a Native American lullaby. Sonja's heartbeat quickly dropped to thirty beats per minute, then to nothing.
Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer would not continue after all.
"We weren't hysterical; we were in shock," says Carolyn. "It was like our minds had been blown apart."
Sonja was a registered organ donor, and the doctors whisked away her mortal shell to harvest her corneas and bone marrow for transplant. Her internal organs had suffered too much damage to be of use.
The death of Sonja DeVries and the charging of Ramon Romero with vehicular homicide was noted in one-paragraph items in both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
Channel 4 took more of an interest.
Three days after Sonja died, Emmy Award-winning reporter Kathy Walsh contacted Van and Carolyn. On July 21, Walsh and a camera crew went to their house and filmed an interview for a three-minute story that ran a few hours later on KCNC's 6 p.m. newscast. At the end of the segment, the anchorman announced, "Romero is a KCNC-TV employee. He was not on duty at the time of the accident."
According to court records, Romero had worked as a technical engineer at KCNC since at least 1996. "She didn't mention that Romero worked for them," Carolyn says of Walsh.
Romero resigned from Channel 4 shortly after the newscast.
"His being an employee did not affect the decision to cover the news," says KCNC spokeswoman Danielle Dascalos.
The assistant Denver DA assigned to Romero's case has met twice with Van and Carolyn DeVries and has asked them to decide whether they want him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law or offered another plea bargain. If he is tried and convicted of vehicular homicide, he would likely be sentenced to prison for 24 years and be eligible for parole in twelve.
Through his longtime attorney, Normando Pacheco, who has brokered plea bargains for his client in the past, Romero has indicated his willingness to plead guilty to vehicular assault in exchange for a sentence of twelve years, out in six.
Neither possibility gives Sonja's parents much consolation.
"The only good I see that putting him in prison for as long as possible would do is preventing him from killing anyone else," says Carolyn. "I don't want revenge. I want to watch my daughter go to college and have a child. I want to see what great things she would have done with her life. I want to see what she would have done with her unlimited potential. Putting this man in prison doesn't give me that. It's too late."
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Romero and Pacheco both declined to be interviewed.
Romero showed up for an August 25 preliminary hearing dressed in a sharp gray suit. He said nothing while the prosecutor and his attorney went through the formality of delaying his next hearing until early October. While Pacheco conferred with a court clerk, Romero retreated to a rear corner of the courtroom. When a reporter approached, he said, "No, no, I can't talk to you." The reporter pushed a photo of Sonja DeVries into Romero's line of sight. He recoiled and began to cry.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This never should have happened."
Last month, a silver plaque was installed on the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's Sky Terrace. It bears a shooting star graphic and the message "Sonja DeVries, Heaven's New Star."