Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Crash Course

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.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun