Delivery alert

There may be an issue with the delivery of your newspaper. This alert will expire at NaN. Click here for more info.

Recover password

Couple who lost legs in crash still awaiting justice

Lauren and Jeremy Wallaert met at a barbecue and fell for each other almost instantly. Their shared love of Fox body Mustangs sealed the deal. They have been married for seven years. (Courtesy of Lauren Wallaert)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the emergency room, they referred to her as the Jane Doe with her severed foot in a bag.

She was numb, unable to move her body or open her eyes, but she could hear nurses talking about her, asking whether she was the one from the crash where someone died.

She just knew it was her husband who was dead.

She could see it all in her mind, feel it in her bones. One minute, Lauren Wallaert was on the back of Jeremy’s motorcycle on that warm August day, her arms around him as they glided north on N.M. 22 toward Cochiti Lake with six friends. It was Aug. 6, 2016, their fifth anniversary. They had met at a barbecue, and she instantly knew he was the one.

“My husband wanted to go on a ride with friends,” she said. “And I said, ‘It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together.’ ”

Jeremy and Lauren Wallaert had enjoyed motorcycles and were on a ride with friends Aug. 6, 2016, to Cochiti Lake when they were struck by a speeding, oncoming vehicle. (Courtesy of Lauren Wallaert)

The next minute was a blur. She saw the speeding gold Hyundai veering out of its lane. She heard the crush of metal and flesh, felt the weeds against her face, the dirt in her mouth. She couldn’t move, couldn’t keep from fading into unconsciousness. Bones were sticking out of her jeans where her foot had been. Blood was everywhere.

“We went from celebrating our wedding anniversary to dying in a ditch, saying goodbye to each other, screaming and begging our friends to keep us alive for our children but knowing that we weren’t going to make it,” she said. “There were bones scattered, limbs severed, people bleeding to death.”

She could hear Jeremy calling out to her to stay awake and that he loved her. “Babe,” he kept saying. “Babe.”

The 2016 crash shattered the bones in Jeremy Wallaert’s right leg. For eight months, doctors attempted to save the leg, surgically installing rods and hardware into the leg and stabilizing it in an external fixation device. But the efforts failed. (Courtesy of Lauren Wallaert)

Jeremy Wallaert did not die in the crash that day, but someone had.

Nicole O’Quinn, 15, was a passenger in the Hyundai driven by her mother, Maryann O’Quinn, both of Peña Blanca. After striking the motorcyclists, Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies say Maryann O’Quinn over-corrected, flipping the car and ejecting both her and her daughter, two teenage nephews and a third male.

O’Quinn had been driving at least 30 miles per hour over the posted speed limit of 55, losing control as the road curved, court records state. Whether she had been driving drunk remains a point of contention. One of the bikers reported smelling alcohol on O’Quinn’s breath, but no field sobriety tests were conducted at the scene because of the chaos and the carnage.

Court documents filed by O’Quinn’s attorney, Leonard Foster, indicate that one of O’Quinn’s passengers was believed to have been drinking but does not specify which one. Tests conducted on O’Quinn at the hospital have so far been sealed, seen only by the judge.

O’Quinn, 36, is charged with vehicular homicide, five counts of great bodily injury by vehicle, two counts of child abuse and driving with a suspended license. Court records show that she had been cited at least three times before the crash for driving without a license since 2002, often incurring warrants until fines were paid.

It has been 2½ years since the crash, and the case has yet to go to trial. O’Quinn has remained free, released to the custody of her mother under pretrial services supervision.

Last July, the case was further delayed when her attorney raised the question of her competency. Lauren Wallaert said she has been told an evaluation has found O’Quinn incompetent, but that could not be confirmed.

Jeremy Wallaert’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle was severely damaged in August 2016 when authorities say Maryann O’Quinn was speeding, veered into Wallaert and other motorcyclists and lost control of the vehicle, injuring four of the motorcyclists and killing O’Quinn’s 15-year-old daughter.

All of which angers the Wallaerts, both of whom lost legs in the crash and whose lives have been forever changed as a result of O’Quinn’s actions and the justice system’s near inaction.

“After almost losing your life and losing limbs, you expect justice,” Lauren Wallaert wrote in an email from her home in Oregon, where she, Jeremy and daughter Hailey, 6, moved in 2017 for a fresh start. “What we received was anything but justice.”

The judge in the case who has allowed O’Quinn to remain free is 13th Judicial District Court Judge Louis McDonald, already under fire for sentencing Christie Noriega last month to just three years in prison for killing two men when she drove drunk last spring. Three legislators have demanded McDonald’s resignation.

“If he thinks someone’s life is worth 1.5 years in jail, what will he think great bodily injury by vehicle is worth?” Wallaert asked. “It’s becoming clear that Judge McDonald doesn’t deliver justice.”

Early on, they had urged McDonald to jail O’Quinn pending trial. They stood before him as best they could, Jeremy’s right leg amputated below the knee, Lauren’s right leg amputated past the knee – her foot had been preserved in a bag of ice by a passer-by at the crash site, impossible to save.

They told McDonald that the crash has left them in extreme pain, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and financial strain since Jeremy could no longer run his auto body and restoration business.

“We weren’t offered an explanation as to why Maryann was placed on pretrial services,” she said.

The Wallaerts have struggled to adapt to the physical and emotional struggles of each losing a leg after a 2016 crash. “To this day, we still feel like every vehicle around us will crash into us,” Lauren Wallaert says. At right is daughter Hailey, 6. (Courtesy of Wild Things Photography)

District Attorney Lemuel Martinez of the 13th Judicial District said his office had argued against pretrial services. Foster did not return messages left for him.

Martinez said the delays in the case are because of multiple requests by the defense for continuances. A hearing date, possibly to discuss the competency issue, is set for April 4.

What is happening in the Wallaerts’ case is horrifyingly familiar in New Mexico, but especially so to two of the other motorcyclists severely injured in the crash. In 2011, Debbie Hill and Mitch Woodall had been on a ride with friends – Hill riding on the back of husband Mark Wolfe’s motorcycle – on the High Road to Taos when an orange truck driven by repeat drunken driver Juan de Dios Cordova veered across the center line and straight into them.

Wolfe, 51, died; Hill nearly lost her leg.

It was a notorious case, rife with accusations of shoddy police work, corruption and mismanaged evidence. Cordova was convicted in 2012, had his conviction overturned in 2015 and was convicted again in 2017. That conviction again is under appeal. Seven years since that crash, and the case may not be over.

Wallaert said she tried hard to forgive O’Quinn. She is not sure she can forgive the justice system for the way it has treated their case.

“It feels like criminals have more rights than the victims in New Mexico,” she said.

One of the hardest aspects of losing a leg is finding comfortable prosthetics. “We have many days when we can’t wear our prosthetics because it’s too painful,” Lauren Wallaert says.

Beyond the courtroom, some 1,300 miles away, the Wallaerts continue to heal, to find their footing in their new reality, aided by stepsons Brody and Blaine, extended family and a motorcycle community whose fundraisers have helped keep them financially afloat.

And then there’s sweet baby Norah, to whom Lauren gave birth Oct. 2.

“We decided that Maryann had taken enough from us,” she said. “She didn’t get to take our hope of having another child, too.”

Norah is their miracle, their fresh start, their reminder that life will get better, if they just take it one step at a time.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

AlertMe

Advertisement

TOP |