SANTA FE, N.M. — They are powerful images. One is of an anguished young mother lying in a hospital bed holding her lifeless baby. The other is of the father, saying a prayer over the tiny boy just before handing him over to the Office of the Medical Examiner.
It was the only time Zach and Aileen Smith held their son, whom they named Dimitri after Aileen’s grandfather.
The child was born by Caesarean section in a Santa Fe hospital in an effort to save him, just hours after the Smiths were involved in a crash with an alleged drunk driver on June 10 on Interstate 25 in San Miguel County. Aileen was seven months pregnant at the time.
Ramon Hernandez, 43, of Las Vegas — who has at least four prior DWI convictions — appeared in court on Tuesday on charges of multiple offenses.
He was originally charged with felony DWI and causing injury to a pregnant woman. The latter charge was amended a few days later to vehicular homicide.
“That’s the key issue that will have to be dealt with,” said Las Vegas, N.M., District Attorney Richard Flores. “Initially, the charge was injury to a pregnant woman, but subsequent to the accident, the baby was born, lived for about a minute and then died from his injuries.
“The charges were amended after we conducted preliminary research and found case law that we believe allowed us to charge him with vehicular homicide.”
State Motor Vehicle Division records show that Hernandez was convicted of DWI twice in 2000, once in 2003 and again in 2004. His driver’s license was revoked when the June crash took place.
Flores said Hernandez was also being detained over immigration concerns.
Hernandez pleaded innocent to charges in baby Dimitri’s death during the arraignment hearing in district court on Tuesday. He is in jail under a $25,000 cash bond.
His attorney, Ben Andrew Mondragon, was in court Wednesday and did not return phone messages.
The Smiths were devastated by the loss of their child.
“It sets us back as a family in every way — emotionally, physically and financially,” said Aileen Smith during a phone interview Tuesday.
The Smiths were traveling from their home in Colorado Springs to their native San Diego to attend a baby shower.
“It was a big deal,” Aileen said. “This was the first child in my family since I was born, and the first child in Zach’s family. People were coming from all over.”
The trip came to an end when Hernandez merged onto I-25.
“We were going down 25 when a Pontiac came onto the freeway,” Aileen explained. “He merged, and we pulled completely across our lane, but he came in front of us and we T-boned him.”
Although their Suzuki Grand Vitara remained upright, Aileen suffered contusions to her abdomen and a broken sternum. She was taken to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, and doctors decided to perform a C-section in an effort to save the unborn child.
“There was nothing they could do,” Aileen said. “I woke up from surgery and was reaching out asking for my son, and the nurse leaned over and told me that he had passed.”
The coroner determined that baby Dimitri died from massive head injuries and bleeding on the brain.
Naturally, the Smiths are angry — not just over the needless loss of their child, but because of the circumstances.
“I lived in Santa Fe for a year, and I knew the drunken driving laws were lax back then,” said Zach, who attended St. John’s College. “I come from California, where if you have a third DWI, they put you away.”
Aileen finds it hard to understand how — if Hernandez has immigration issues — he “can be in this country for that long … and have so many offenses and still be allowed in the country,” she said. “It’s a terrible failure of the system.”
Both said they would do what they can to advocate that the laws be changed in New Mexico, so the tragedy that hit their family won’t happen to anyone else.
“This is the death of our son,” Aileen said. “We’ll follow this case completely through and do our best to see that justice is brought to Dimitri.”
Flores said he would do the same.
“It’s a tragic event, but we’re prepared to move forward and prosecute this case,” he said.