I had always liked Lupe, partly because she had always liked me. I found out later that she pretty much liked everybody, but that didn't matter. Other members of the Gutierrez family were skeptical about the basketball player with the wild, curly hair and the soul music on the car stereo. But where others saw "weird," Lupe saw "unique," and we got along great.
She and Steve had moved to Grand Rapids to be closer to his family. That night in December, they were heading home after a meeting at their church, where they were youth-group leaders. Meanwhile, another youth, this one with a blood-alcohol level of what today would be more than three times the legal limit, was hurtling toward them at an estimated 85 mph, on the wrong side of the road.
He may or may not have been drag racing with another car; there were conflicting reports on that account, and no other driver was ever arrested.
The collision all but obliterated the couple's compact car. Steve was impaled on the steering column, and much of the engine ended up in the back seat. Meanwhile, Lupe and the windshield pretty much went through each other. Almost stereotypically, the other driver survived the crash and is still alive today.
When the bodies were shipped to Douglas for burial, the family asked me to view the remains to determine whether the caskets should be open at the funeral. They were closed.
My wife's parents took in the five orphans and raised them as they had raised their own nine children--in a home full of love, good food, high expectations and quiet discipline. But for some reason, the awful act that cut short those two lives echoed through another generation. My wife and all of her siblings earned college degrees (and most of them went on to earn master's degrees), but none of Lupe's kids have done so.
I always think about Lupe around the holidays. This year, around the 20th anniversary of her senseless slaughter, I was reminded of the vulgar nature of this crime and those who would facilitate its occurrence.
In the sports section of the local Sunday paper was a full-page ad from a local law firm, the name of which I won't mention, because I don't want them to get any free publicity, adverse or otherwise. In huge type, the ad read: "'DRINK, DRIVE, GO TO JAIL' ANOTHER GOVERNMENT LIE."
The ad then goes through a laundry list of "government lies" (a phrase guaranteed to get the average Michigan Militia member and black-helicopter crackpot all tingly). Among their assertions are that field sobriety tests don't work, that breathalyzers are only about 60 percent accurate and that some people aren't impaired even with a blood alcohol level of .20--2 1/2 times the legal limit.
It goes on to tell drunk drivers not to cooperate with the police in any way--not to speak, not to answer questions, not to mention any medications you might be taking and not to let them "check your eyes."
The ad features pictures of the firm's two main lawyers. One lists "Former Deputy Pima County Prosecutor" as her main accomplishment. And isn't that a badge of honor! At the bottom of the full-page "Go-ahead-and-drive-drunk-because-(for a fee)-we've-got-your-back" ad is a little disclaimer that reads, "If you feel as if you have had too much to drink to drive safely, don't drive."
Not "If you've been drinking, don't drive." Just determine your own sobriety, and do what you want, and then we'll get you off.
There is an aching hole in my wife's heart where her older sister was irrevocably torn from her life. And the pain is kept fresh by the knowledge that the person who committed this heinous crime never served so much as a day behind bars and was welcomed back by family and society with a shrug and a wink.
Drunk driving is not a mistake, and it's not an accident. It is a calculated act of potential mayhem and manslaughter. The people who commit this crime are a peculiar sub-level of humans who have been coddled by the legal system for far too long. Do drunk drivers deserve a legal defense? Even Scott Peterson deserved one. But I hope that they, like he, get a really lousy one.
I'm not writing this because I, alone, have endured such a tragedy in my extended family. To the contrary, I'm afraid that a majority of Americans have had a similar experience with friends or family in their lives. That amounts to a national disgrace, one that could be eradicated if only we had the collective will to confront this for what it is--a cowardly crime committed by weak-willed and selfish people who deserve neither our respect nor our compassion.