Found and Lost
Three Lakewood police cars and a K-9 unit responded to a call from the Cherry Bomb Lounge at around 1 a.m. on February 8. The cops were tipped off by someone at the West Sixth Avenue bar who said there was a wanted woman inside. She had been eluding Arapahoe County authorities since December.
Bank robber? Desperado? Not really. The woman in question, 21-year-old Jennifer Lynn Wambeke, was wanted for failure to appear in court on a charge that she provided alcohol to teenagers before last June's fatal Ghost Bridge accident east of Aurora. The crash left two teenage girls dead. One of the fatalities was Jennifer's sister, fourteen-year-old Ashley "Megan" DeHerrera. The driver of the car in which the fatally injured girls were riding, sixteen-year-old Jessica Hern, remains paralyzed. Hern had rammed her Toyota into the bridge that crosses Kiowa Creek, tearing off the guardrail; the car plummeted into the dry creek bed. Another carload of kids that was following Hern's car crashed into a tree; several occupants suffered minor injuries.
Authorities admit that Jennifer's connection to the accident is tenuous at best. Although some of the passengers in the cars had alcohol with them, breath tests showed that neither of the two drivers had been drinking. And Jennifer wasn't in either vehicle. Nevertheless, she's the only person who has been charged in connection with the accident ("A Bridge Too Close," January 15).
The search for Jennifer has alternately been comical and tragic. But it's no laughing matter for her father, who is still grieving for Megan and worries about his other daughter's fate.
"I didn't hear about any charges against Jennifer until a month after Megan was buried," says Carlos DeHerrera. "Only then did we start getting phone calls from the state patrol. They said something about a lineup and wanted to talk to Jennifer.
"Well, all this time we were trying to get Megan's stuff together, so we canceled the appointment. They said that was fine, but they never called back. My question is, what does any of this have to do with the accident? There's this Arapahoe County deputy sheriff I know from one of the Burger Kings I used to run, and he told me that since this was a well-known case, they were just looking for a scapegoat. That's what it seems like to me, too."
Just about every part of the case has been a misstep. When the Lakewood cops heard Jennifer was inside the Cherry Bomb, they hustled to the lounge and talked first with some employees outside the bar, not wanting to spook the woman. The bar employees were reluctant to take the cops directly to her, according to police reports, and Jennifer left through the back door.
The cops ran to the back of the bar, where they saw Jennifer slip out an emergency exit and take off on foot. Officer Adrian Alderete shouted, "Police! Stop running!" but Jennifer continued to run. Alderete gave chase and was catching up when Jennifer stopped and gave up.
Jennifer told police that it was stupid to run. But the authorities topped her: When the Lakewood cops ran Jennifer's name through their computers, they came up empty. Turns out there wasn't any warrant for her arrest.
Ted McElroy, an Arapahoe County deputy district attorney, told Westword in January that a warrant had been issued for Jennifer after she failed to appear in court in December on the alcohol charge. McElroy now says that the court clerk was unable to file the warrant after Jennifer's no-show; he blames "inadequate information" on the initial ticket for the delay.
The authorities' information regarding Jennifer and her whereabouts was less than adequate from the start. When state troopers issued her the original ticket two days after the June 21 accident, Jennifer and her family were in the process of moving. Not only did the troopers fail to get a new address for her, but according to McElroy, they also failed to record vital statistics such as her height and weight. The only details they took down were her name and date of birth.
Jennifer's father says the cops also failed to examine what he says is a hazy connection between Jennifer and the alcohol that the two carloads of kids took with them on their ill-fated ride out to Ghost Bridge.
He says that although Jennifer did go to the liquor store with her younger sister to buy alcohol on the night of the accident, she had no intention of letting Megan or her friends get their hands on it. He says the booze was intended for a party being held that night for Jennifer's brother-in-law.
"Megan asked her to buy some liquor for her and her friends," says DeHerrera, "but Jennifer was like, 'No way, Jose. Dad will kill us.'
"When they got back from the store, Jennifer put the beer in the fridge out in the garage, where we normally keep it. Megan was a real social butterfly, and there was always a constant parade of teens coming over to the house. We even had an extra living room downstairs with a Nintendo set up for them. And I guess when nobody was paying attention, some of those teenyboppers took the beer."
Even if some of the passengers in the two cars did have booze with them at the time of the wreck, as was reported by state troopers, DeHerrera places the blame entirely on the dangerous road and the inexperience of the drivers. "My wife and I went out there to the place where the accident happened," says DeHerrera. "Let me tell you, it's scary, pal. If you're not a halfway decent driver, you can easily lose control."
Trooper Edward Gawkoski, the officer who issued the original ticket to Jennifer, still thinks that alcohol played a big part in the wreck, regardless if the drivers were drinking or not. "You've got to ask yourself if those kids would've been out there driving like they were without six forty-ounce Mickeys and a bottle of vodka," says Gawkoski. "The kids were partying." The authorities may be dragging their feet on prosecuting anyone in this case, but Gawkoski says someone should be held responsible, perhaps even the paralyzed driver, Hern. "Is going after Hern too harsh? It's hard to say," he says. "But the fact is that she killed two kids, and if you look at the two families who lost children, you've got to ask yourself, what kind of justice did they get?"
Gawkoski also contends that Jennifer admitted a few days after the accident that she provided the alcohol to the kids. But Arapahoe County prosecutor Michael Rourke says that when he met with Jennifer on September 17, she denied being guilty. DeHerrera has an explanation for this change of heart. He says that by the time she met with Rourke, his older daughter had sorted things out in her mind and realized how the alcohol had mistakenly fallen into the wrong hands.
But now Jennifer has even more things to sort out. McElroy says that enough information about Jennifer's physical description has been gathered to reissue the original failure-to-appear warrant. On top of that, Jennifer has to appear before Lakewood authorities on March 5 to face charges of obstructing a peace officer and disobeying an order of a police officer stemming from the fifty-yard chase outside the Cherry Bomb.
DeHerrera is frustrated that "the whole process has just been so roundabout." He says he doesn't blame Jennifer for the accident and adds that the pending charges against her have only made the healing more difficult. He still has vivid memories of that June evening.
"Right before Megan went out that night," he recalls, "she came into my room and asked me if she could borrow a white dress shirt. I have about thirty of them, since I wear them to work all the time, so I gave her one. That was the last time I saw Megan."
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