Labor Day weekend is regarded as one of the biggest drunk-driving holidays on the calendar, right up there with Memorial Day, New Year's Eve and Thanksgiving. Statistics support it: According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, 1,342 people were arrested over a nineteen-day stretch between August 16 and September 3 of this year for suspected driving under the influence.
One of them was Rebecca Maez.
Shortly before 1 a.m. on September 1, the 27-year-old Maez left a bar in north Denver and got behind the wheel. She made a sharp left turn off of 70th Avenue onto the off-ramp for northbound I-25. No barriers were in her way, no signs to warn her that she was careening in the wrong direction — south toward downtown Denver.
Four miles away, 37-year-old Jeremy DePinto and 34-year-old Jennifer Monson — better known as cannabis activist Jenny Kush — had just left the (hed) p.e. concert at Summit Music Hall. Wary of drunk drivers on Labor Day weekend, they'd skipped drinking themselves that night, and were cautious as they drove through LoDo and headed to the freeway to get back home to Westminster. "Take the HOV lane — it will be safer," Kush told Pinto. Those were the last words he remembers from the woman he loved because she cared so much about other people — and expected them to do the same.
Jenny Kush had moved with her four children to Denver in 2010, driving an old Chevy Suburban through one of Colorado's March blizzards to get away from what friends say was a toxic relationship in Montana. It didn't take long before she was a fixture on the local cannabis scene, blowing glass pipes at the former Street Glass and hanging around a group of people loosely related to iCannabisRadio, an Internet station based out of attorney Warren Edson's office.
Friends have a hard time pinpointing the first time they met Kush. She was just always there, a gregarious, ornery pistol of a woman with a heart of gold. A maternal type, albeit one with a foul mouth, occasionally dirty sense of humor and rainbow-colored hair.
Paul Garrett, owner of the Mad Hatter's Smoke Shop, is one of the rare few who remember their first encounter with Kush. When she walked up, he stuck out his hand and introduced himself. She looked at his hand, gave him a sideways glance — and then hugged him.
"I don't shake hands," she told him. "I hug."
"That set the tone for being her friend," Garrett says. "She loved, completely and deeply, everyone in her life."
Lori Monson remembers her daughter always caring about others and wanting not only to do right by them, but to directly involve herself where she could make a difference. "She was always there to help anybody," she adds. "She worked [in Montana] at a nursing home as a nursing aide. To this day, they are always asking about her and [saying] how much they missed her because she was always so smiling and happy to see them. She was always there for everyone. If someone had a problem, sbe was the one helping them to work on it."
"I feel like Jenny has just always been a part of my world, and so I don't have this great 'the first time I laid eyes on her I knew she was a special person' story," says Georgia Edson, Warren's wife and co-owner of the studio. "It's just that Jenny was always there and always around. The reason why that is, is because Jenny would volunteer for everything and organize and coordinate everything. If there was an event to be done, to be figured out, Jenny was at the heart of it. That is who she was — she was great at coordinating things."
And among Colorado's cannabis activists, she quickly became known as the girl who got shit done. This wasn't a hostile takeover, though; it was a labor of love. Kush was all over: sitting in front of cop cars on Broadway during Occupy Denver; helping found Moms for Marijuana in Colorado; working as an organizer for Mile High NORML and numerous other groups. Kush and DePinto were also frequent fixtures at the cannabis rallies on the final Saturday of every month at the State Capitol.
But where Kush really made her mark was on the radio. Soon after she showed up on the scene, she was frequently co-hosting the John Doe Radio Show. Those appearances gave her the idea of starting her own show, a no-holds-barred session that blended two of her favorite topics: SexPot Radio. Through that show, she connected with hundreds, if not thousands, of people — and in a very real way.
When Kush first approached Georgia Edson in late 2011 with the idea of a show that would discuss both pot and sex, "I thought she meant would the station be open to doing a show about sex," Georgia remembers. "So I said, 'Yeah, tell me more about what you're thinking.' For all intents and purposes, Jenny and I are pretty different. Jenny is very open and honest, and I'm far more conservative. The fact that Jenny wanted to [do the radio program] with me was fantastic. But part of the reason she wanted to do it with me is because she thought it would be really, really funny to see me squirm."
But within a few episodes, Jenny Kush had become the real star of the show. "SexPot really encompassed Jenny's view on life," Georgia explains. "You shouldn't be nervous or embarrassed to talk about being a human being. In fact, there are ways to be a human being that make you happier and more satisfied in all aspects of your life. Sex happens to be one of them. It makes for great radio to talk about crazy things, but Jenny did it in a way that also educated people. It wasn't just a show about sex. It wasn't a show to shock people. It was a show to entertain and educate.
"Yes, she had this outward personality of having fun hair colors and those kinds of things, but Jenny was an open book, and people knew what she liked," Georgia continues. "And people cared, and she cared to tell them. It became crystal clear that she was such an authentic person that people — whether they knew her from the radio or knew her personally or whether they knew her from Facebook — they knew her."
Rebecca Maez shouldn't have been on the road on September 1: Her license had been revoked for a drunk-driving-related arrest in Edgewater less than four years earlier. In December 2009, Edgewater cops pulled over Maez for doing 65 mph in a 35 mph zone on Sheridan Boulevard. There were three empty vodka bottles scattered around the 1993 Suburban she was driving, and she had booze on her breath.
According to police records, Maez practically fell out of her vehicle when officers asked her to perform a sobriety test, passed out in the back of the cruiser on the way to the Edgewater police station, then began screaming that she had done nothing wrong while she thrashed around in the holding cell; she was eventually shackled to a bench in the cell. Maez was charged with driving under the influence of drugs, alcohol or both, and operating a motor vehicle with a revoked driver's license because of an unpaid ticket. She was convicted of drunk driving, failed to complete her probation — and a warrant was issued for her arrest.
In 2010, Maez was arrested again after she was stopped in Denver for driving without a license and gave the police a false name, Stephanie Ortiz. She failed to appear at her arraignment that September, and another warrant for her arrest was issued. In April 2012, Maez was jailed in Denver on her failure-to-appear charge; she was still technically a fugitive in Jefferson County.
None of that deterred Maez from driving once she got out of jail. She was behind the wheel of a borrowed Chrysler sedan on Labor Day weekend.
Even Jeremy DePinto can't pinpoint the first time he met Kush, but he's sure it was love at first sight for both of them — though they were too shy to do anything about it right away. He tried to avoid her, DePinto says, but failed. The two started hanging out more and more, bonding over their mutual interest in art, tattooing and cannabis.
One day in September 2010 — neither of them could remember precisely which day, and it didn't really matter — DePinto left Kush after visiting her apartment, then found himself chain-smoking cigarettes in his parked car while he debated whether to go back up the steps and climb into a relationship. "I sat in my car for a good long while, and I remember thinking, 'That's it.' And I went back up and knocked on the door, and she ripped the door open and jumped on me. And that was it."
Aside from the obvious physical attraction between the two, DePinto says he fell in love with many of the things about Kush that drew others to her. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind about major issues, whether it was cannabis rights, Occupy Wall Street or sexual freedom, and he appreciated that. They worked together on the same causes.
"We considered ourselves to be teammates," DePinto says. "Neither was more important, but that allowed us to both be more important. It sounds strange, like turning right to go left. But once you get it, it makes perfect sense."
By that November, DePinto and Kush were inseparable. They decided to take a trip up to Montana to visit Kush's family and friends. While they were in Big Sky Country, an old acquaintance of Kush's called, said she'd heard she was in town and asked Kush if she could find her an eighth-ounce of herb. While medical marijuana is legal in Montana, recreational marijuana is not — but Kush certainly didn't feel it was a crime to help someone in need. She drove over to give the girl some ganja — only to be arrested by undercover cops who'd set up the sting.
Kush went to jail until DePinto was able to bond her out. Finding humor in the situation, Kush joked that the two were legally bonded and that getting married would have been a much easier way of going about that, DePinto remembers. In lieu of jail time, Kush was given five years' probation and allowed to return to Colorado.
She did so without her children. DePinto says she made the difficult decision to leave her kids with her parents, who'd moved to Montana from North Dakota, where she was raised, so that they could have a settled life while she focused on her work and getting through probation. She was becoming a well-known personality on the Colorado cannabis scene through her activism and radio work with John Doe Radio and SexPot.
But at a court hearing in early 2012, Kush was told she would have to serve out her probation in Montana. Since she'd found a new love and life in Colorado, that wasn't going to work for Kush — or her fans. The cannabis community rallied around her, signing a petition asking the court to let Kush come back to Colorado. Garrett wrote the judge that Kush had a job waiting for her at his head shop.
Their efforts were rewarded. Kush was allowed to return to Colorado to finish out her probation.
This past March, she thanked her thousands of Facebook friends for their efforts on her behalf: "One year ago today on my birthday I sat in Montana not knowing if I would be able to return to Colorado or not, you all banned together, from all over the world, and signed the petition that brought me back home where I belong. For this I am forever grateful. I do not consider you my friends, I consider you my FAMILY, my brothers and sisters in this battle we call life. Each of us struggling in our own ways, each of us more than willing to put aside our battle for another time in order to lend a hand to those in much greater need than ourselves. You all mean the world to me, each and everyone of you in your own way."
The story of what happened after they pulled onto I-25 early on September 1 comes out in fragments from DePinto between heartbroken sobs. What stands out most are flashes of darkness and light.
He remembers that something felt weird as he reached the top of the on-ramp from 20th Street to the HOV lane. Aside from some red taillights ahead of him, the night was black. Black. He looked down to check his speed. Looked up. Red taillights. Looked down again. Looked up. Headlights.
"Wait a minute," he recalls thinking. "What the fuck?" The headlights coming his way didn't really register; they didn't make sense. "And then everything got blurry, and I remember yelling, 'Oh, God, Jenny!'"
DePinto swerved his 2006 Jetta to the left, just as Maez jerked her wheel to the right. The two cars collided at high speed. The impact shot the Jetta through the twenty-foot emergency-vehicle access opening in the HOV lane and out onto the oncoming lanes of southbound traffic.
Finally the car stopped sliding. DePinto never lost consciousness, but his memories are fragmented. Stuff from his trunk was suddenly next to the driver's door. His lungs burned from the airbag that had burst into his chest. He'd lost a shoe; he found himself walking with a bare foot on glass. But then smoke from the car snapped him back to reality: He had to get Jenny out of the car. He stepped over the mangled wreck, reached for Jenny, felt her head with his palms. She was moaning, but the light was gone from her still-open eyes.
Rebecca Maez was charged with vehicular assault and homicide while driving under the influence. She's due in court for her pretrial disposition on October 1.
Given her record, the charges aren't a surprise. But no one expects to see a car going the wrong way on an HOV lane. How did Maez get there?
According to Amy Ford, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, there have been three wrong-way crashes, including the one that killed Kush, in the I-25 HOV lane since that stretch was opened in 2008. Neither of the other accidents were alcohol-related or involved impaired drivers, she says, nor did they result in fatalities. Ford says CDOT was never able to determine exactly where the wrong-way drivers entered the freeway, but she notes that the other two accidents occurred about one mile from the 70th Avenue ramp.
That seems impossible, until you head west over the highway on 70th Avenue. Drivers first pass a dedicated on-ramp for when the HOV lane is open for southbound traffic. If the lane is dedicated to northbound traffic, cones are set out and a gate is lowered further down the ramp. Just past that ramp, about 100 feet or so on the left, is the dedicated off-ramp for northbound HOV traffic. The only things preventing drivers from turning that way are a traffic light and a head-high, two-foot-square sign with an arrow turning right with a red cross through it. There are no full-lane barrier arms that drop when the lane has switched from northbound to southbound traffic. There are no warning lights or even signs on the ramp that would tell drivers they've made a wrong turn. In the dark, even a sober driver could be confused. And a drunk one?
Despite the trio of accidents, "no consideration at this point in time has been given to changing those mechanisms," Ford says in an e-mail.
That's unacceptable to DePinto. While he's not about to excuse Maez for her role in the tragedy, CDOT has created a "fucking death trap," he says, adding that he's surprised more accidents haven't occurred there. He'd like to see not just drawbars and signs, but retractable steel gates timed with the lights.
"Because right now it has cost somebody's life," he says. "And not just a somebody, a huge source of light for a lot of people."
The sad irony of a cannabis activist being killed by a drunk driver is not lost on her friends. While local law enforcement agencies made 1,342 arrests for driving under the influence over the Labor Day period, the statistics do not distinguish between drivers arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. But anecdotal evidence suggests that by far the majority involved alcohol.
Kush wasn't against alcohol as much as she was for making responsible choices, they say. "Right now what I think is happening is people are vilifying alcohol and drinkers, and that is not what she stands for," Georgia Edson says. "Jeremy and I had a conversation about it. It is about responsible use in whatever substance you choose to use; your personal choices should not get in the way of someone else's personal choices. And that is the crux of what Jenny fought for in all of her activism, particularly being a cannabis activist. It's a personal-freedoms issue. It's all about the fact that adults should be able to make decisions that are right for them. That ends when it becomes wrong for someone else. That is clearly what happened."
DePinto puts it more succinctly: "She always said that if everyone would care about everybody else, you wouldn't have to worry about yourself, because someone would automatically be caring for you."
And judging from the outpouring of grief for Kush and support for her children and DePinto, she was successful in delivering that message.
Since the accident, thousands of people have offered their condolences through e-mail, through Facebook and in person. A celebration of Jenny Kush's life at the HoodLab gallery a few days after her death was packed with people — many of whom said they had never met Kush in person, but that she'd touched their lives in very meaningful ways.
"I think that it is really obvious that she was loved and that she was a magnetic force," says Georgia Edson. "Wednesday night at HoodLab, hundreds of people came. People that Jenny had never met. Jeremy said that 50 percent of the people he hugged he didn't know personally. But it was that important to them to celebrate her."
Numerous other tributes over the past few weeks have remembered Kush. There was a moment of loudness for her at the High Times Seattle Cannabis Cup — because Kush would have liked it better than silence. And the main stage of the Boston Freedom Rally last weekend was named in Kush's honor. Even more appropriate is a soon-to-be-released line of Jenny Kush Kush seeds. Rare Dankness Seeds founder Scott Reach and his wife were good friends of Kush's; Reach says the cross of Amnesia Haze and Kush is his way of keeping her cannabis spirit alive while raising money for her children.
Even without the Jenny Kush Kush, a Fundrazr.com campaign that Reach's wife set up for Kush's children had raised $12,348 as of September 13.
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Kush's children are with their grandmother. Lori Monson says they've been going through a rough patch since the accident, but all four have gone back to school and are trying to return to as much of a normal life as possible.
Jenny was buried near where she grew up in Bottineaux, North Dakota, in the Turtle Mountains. When her parents went back to the gravesite the day after the funeral, a moose was chewing up the flowers left on Kush's grave. Kush's mother chuckles as she recalls the sight: "Jenny would have really loved that."
ButDePinto says that Kush's funeral in North Dakota was sad and depressing, like most funerals for people killed way too young. He'd like to have her remembered in a brighter light. And so he wants to have a big sendoff for SexPot Radio, probably on Tuesday, September 24, when anyone who wants to say something about Jenny Kush for posterity will be given a few minutes of airtime. More important, he plans to hold a candlelight vigil at the Capitol on September 30, with Kush's parents and children in attendance. But rather than make this memorial a somber event, he hopes it will have a joyous, boisterous vibe that truly captures Jenny Kush.
"I want her parents and family to witness what true love — " DePinto says, pausing to choose the right words — "what unconditional love looks like."