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Crash Course

Carolyn and Van DeVries with Sonja.

At nineteen, Sonja DeVries had her life mapped out. She was going to go to college, become a psychologist, work with children, have children. The future looked blindingly bright.

Last July 18, Sonja enjoyed a belated birthday celebration with co-workers, then put her party hat on the front seat of her 1983 Toyota Corolla and headed for home. But at the corner of Alameda and Holly, life took a turn that Sonja could never have planned for: 55-year-old Ramon Romero, a man whose drinking-and-driving record stretches back three decades, came roaring down Alameda at 60 miles an hour -- and crashed into the Toyota, which was stopped at a light. While Sonja was rushed to the hospital, Denver police gave Romero a Breathalyzer test. He blew .212, nearly triple the legal limit, which had dropped to .08 just eighteen days before. He was taken to jail and held on suspicion of driving under the influence -- his eighth such arrest.

He wasn't charged with vehicular homicide. Not yet.

The next day, Carolyn and Van DeVries watched as doctors at Denver Health removed Sonja from life support, then watched their only child die.

The courtroom was packed for Romero's sentencing hearing last month, the final stop before prison after his April conviction for killing Sonja DeVries. It hadn't taken the jury long to reach that verdict; in fact, at sentencing the anguished descriptions of all the collateral damage that Romero had caused lasted almost as long. Judge Michael Martinez said he'd "never received so many letters, such an outpouring of love and support and caring."

Romero's sister spoke first, telling how her brother had helped hold the family together, talking about how much her mother -- sitting in the front row in a wheelchair -- needed her son. Romero's attorney, Normando Pacheco, who'd come out of retirement to defend his college friend, talked about Romero's career as a cameraman at Channel 4, about how he thought he'd beaten his drinking problem, and then this "tremendous tragedy."

And then Romero himself, in orange jumpsuit and chains, stood before the judge. "Nothing I can say can console or ease the pain," he said, choking up, as others had before him and others would after. "I have found it hard to forgive myself; I think it would be insurmountable for the family to forgive me."

The courtroom was filled with more than a hundred people whose lives had been touched by Sonja, and many of them addressed the judge, too. Members of the nineteen families she'd babysat for. Marcia Johnson, the city councilwoman on whose campaign she'd volunteered, a race Johnson won by 42 votes -- "and Sonja made the difference in that little adventure." Colleagues she'd worked with at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where Sonja had started as a teen volunteer, then gone on to a paying job she planned to keep through college. As part of her duties in the Hall of Life, she'd warned kids about the dangers of drinking and driving, about how in the hands of a drunk driver, a car became a 3,000 pound weapon.

Sonja's party hat was still inside her own crumpled car, one friend said.

The judge even heard from Sonja herself. Her picture -- snapped by her boyfriend, Noah Morrison, while she was talking on the cell phone to her parents -- stood over all the proceedings that sad afternoon. Morrison played a tape Sonja had made on the one-year anniversary of their relationship, a tape full of energy and promise and light.

Finally, Sonja's parents, who'd had Sonja late in life, then devoted their lives to her. They'd schooled her at home, worked their schedules around their remarkable child. Carolyn read from a statement filled with pride in their daughter, and the anguish of losing her. "Sonja was the most important person in our lives," she said. "We built a relationship with her. We argued and butted heads. We laughed and had fun together as we shared our day's experiences at the evening dinner table. We responded to the questions she asked and we listened to her concerns as she worked through challenges she processed about her life. Her boundless energy filled our home. That energy is no longer present. Our home is empty...."

And then, Carolyn offered Romero these words: "Sonja forgives you. But she also holds you responsible. The choice is in your hands."


Not everyone in the courtroom had known Sonja. Other parents who'd suffered through losses stopped in to show support, and to make plans for stopping such tragedies in the future. In Colorado, any driver convicted of three alcohol-related driving offenses during a seven-year period loses his or her license for five years; Romero's arrests were spaced just beyond that ("Collision Course," September 9, 2004). But closing that loophole isn't the only legal change that could result from Sonja's death.

In February, more than forty supporters met to talk about "what can we do in Sonja's name to prevent this from happening again," says Kristen Thomson, who was working for Marcia Johnson when Sonja volunteered on that campaign. "The idea is to create a felony DUI -- Colorado is one of only three states without it -- and that would mean it's a felony conviction for repeat DUI convictions. The weight that a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, carries, could really make that difference. Spending time in prison forces drug rehabilitation and treatment -- that's where the system is failing everyone."

Thomson hopes to convince the legislature to pass such a bill. In Sonja's memory.


And then, after reading the litany of Romero's previous run-ins with the law, Martinez imposed the maximum sentence: twenty-four years. "Mr. Romero," he said, "you don't know how tragic and sad it is to see your life come to this."

To see all these lives come to this.

The judge excused Romero's friends and family members from the courtroom first. Romero, head down, sat alone, surrounded by the people who'd loved Sonja, who saw her light.


An Incomplete Sentence

"I just had a really good night," Doug Fleischmann said. It was early in the morning of June 22, 2003, and Fleischmann had stopped by Dazzle for a nightcap after closing up the two nearby restaurants he owned with Frank Bonanno. While the two-year-old Mizuna was one of the most well-established restaurants in the city, Luca D'Italia was only four months old, and getting it off the ground had been a lot of work. But now it was all paying off.

A consummate front-of-the-house man, Fleischmann had a big grin that contained enough wattage to power Denver's entire restaurant scene. "A really good night," Fleischmann said, raising a glass and beaming.

Less than an hour later, that light was out. Fleischmann was dead, killed by a driver who ran a stop sign at 17th Avenue and Lafayette, and ran right into Fleischmann's jeep.

The driver, 22-year-old Cassandra Egloff, was originally charged with vehicular homicide, which was dropped to driving while ability impaired and careless driving resulting in death. It took the jury less than an hour to convict her after a three-day trial last October. In December, she was sentenced to a year in jail, with 180 days dismissed, and a year's probation. She was allowed to serve her sentence through in-home detention, with an ankle bracelet keeping her close to home when she wasn't at work.

While the place where Egloff was serving her sentence wasn't Martha Stewart territory, it wasn't bad, either. Gilliane McCune, a single mother and secretary, had bought the house just down the street in the Baker neighborhood as an investment, and rented it to Egloff and her boyfriend last June. They were to get $50 off the rent each month if they mowed McCune's lawn.

This spring, the weeds were growing high and McCune was concerned that her tenant wasn't keeping her end of the bargain. She sent Egloff a letter, reminding her of the deal and asking for the missing rent. And then McCune got a call. It was Egloff's probation officer. Had she written the court a letter asking that Egloff be allowed to go off her monitoring a few hours each week so that she could mow her lawn? No way, McCune said.

And she repeated that in court last month, after the Denver District Attorney's office filed a motion arguing that Egloff had violated her probation by forging a note from her landlord. If she would lie about that, what else might she lie about?

But the judge determined that since money was not involved, the forgery did not constitute a violation. And he even agreed to give Egloff time off from her electronic monitoring while she moved. McCune initiated eviction proceedings after the forgery.

McCune left court steaming. The next day, in that same courthouse, Ramon Romero would receive a 24-year sentence for killing someone while he was driving drunk.

Egloff moved out soon after. "At least I'm rid of her," McCune says. "The worst thing is, she'd shown no remorse. She was more upset about her car than the man who died."