You can forgive Lauren and Jeremy Wallaert if they decide to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary quietly, safely, tucked away at home.
“Might have dinner in an underground bunker,” Lauren jokes.
Sort of jokes.
It’s not COVID-19 concerns that make them wary. It’s what happened five years ago on their fifth anniversary. And it’s what hasn’t happened that makes them mad.
We connect again on the eve of their anniversary, their wedding a joyous occasion on Aug. 6, 2011.
“Ten years ago, I married the man of my dreams. It was a perfect, small wedding in the backyard of my grandparents’ beach house,” Lauren reminisces. “Five years ago, we were struck by a car while celebrating that day. Left lying in a ditch, without limbs, saying our goodbyes and begging friends to keep us alive for our children.”
That was Aug. 6, 2016, a perfect day for a ride on Jeremy’s motorcycle to Cochiti Lake with friends. They were gliding north on N.M. 22 when a gold Hyundai came rolling toward them at what authorities say was at least 30 mph over the posted 55-mph speed limit, too fast to navigate a curve in the road. The car veered into the motorcyclists, flinging them into a ditch in a heap of bloody bones, severed limbs, crumpled metal, weeds and wheels.
As a result of the crash, Jeremy lost his right leg below the knee. Lauren lost her right leg above the knee. A passerby had packed her severed foot in a bag of ice, but it could not be reattached.
Two of their friends were also severely injured.
The carnage hadn’t stopped there. The Hyundai, driven by Maryann O’Quinn of Peña Blanca, flipped, ejecting its passengers. One of them – O’Quinn’s 15-year-old daughter, Nicole – died. Two teenage boys and another man were critically injured.
O’Quinn walked away without so much as a traffic ticket.
One of the less injured motorcyclists testified under oath that O’Quinn smelled of alcohol at the crash site. Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies, however, said they had not noticed the odor and did not seek a blood sample to test her level of intoxication.
Tests conducted on O’Quinn at the hospital have been sealed, seen only by the judge.
It took more than six months for O’Quinn to be indicted on charges of vehicular homicide, five counts of great bodily injury by vehicle, two counts of child abuse and one of driving with a suspended license.
“From the very beginning, we have been so let down by our justice system,” Lauren says. “We had to ask for charges to be filed.”
Court records show that O’Quinn was previously cited at least three times for driving without a license.
At her arraignment February 2017 in Bernalillo, the prosecutor asked that O’Quinn be held in custody, saying that because she faced 63 years if convicted she was a flight risk. The Wallaerts and the two other injured motorcyclists asked that O’Quinn be held, saying she is a risk to everybody on the road.
“Maryann O’Quinn almost took our lives, injured so many others and killed her own daughter,” Lauren points out. “How can one person cause so much damage and not be arrested and detained immediately?”
Instead, state District Judge Louis McDonald released O’Quinn to the custody of her mother.
O’Quinn, now 38, has remained free – and without incurring any further charges. Her attorney, Leonard Foster, did not return a call.
Lauren, whose story I related in a Feb. 4, 2019, column, contacted me last month to see whether I could find out why the case has stalled for so long. It had been nearly a year since she had heard from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, she said.
“After experiencing such trauma, such pain and having your entire world turned upside down, you are left wanting one thing: justice,” she says. “I am getting so discouraged at this point about any possible justice.”
After a deep dive into the court records, I share her frustration.
Several factors have caused the case to snag, among them a tussle over obtaining O’Quinn’s hospital records to determine her level of intoxication since deputies had not bothered with that, and obtaining information from a 13th Judicial District pretrial services employee that led to the entire 13th Judicial District court recusing itself from the case.
In August 2019, the case was assigned to state District Judge Brett Loveless of the 2nd Judicial District – in Bernalillo County, the busiest court in the state.
The longest delay came over the question of O’Quinn’s competency, an issue raised by her attorney in 2018. An initial evaluation found her incompetent but based the finding on the depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury she suffered as a result of the crash.
Prosecutors fought for an additional evaluation. In July 2020, that report deemed her competent.
Parties met for four minutes in a status hearing by phone on Sept. 1, 2020. On Dec. 28, prosecutor Jeres Rael asked for another status hearing. None was granted.
And there it has sat.
District Attorney Barbara Romo, who took the reins of the 13th Judicial in January after winning her election in November, blames the latest delay on the backlog created when courts shut down because of COVID-19.
“It’s so backed up it’s really ridiculous,” she said.
Romo has instructed the prosecutor in the case to file a third request for a hearing to see whether that will push the case along. She also said her office has secured money from the Legislature to hire two more victim advocates to help keep in better touch with people like the Wallaerts.
As for the Wallaerts, they moved to Oregon to start their life together over. They spend their days in wheelchairs and in painful prosthetics. They go to countless doctor, chiropractor, counseling and physical therapy appointments each week.
And they wait for elusive justice.
“I truly believe if it weren’t for media coverage, this case would be forgotten,” Lauren says. “Five years may have gone by, but we live with the pain this woman caused every second of every day. I see her every time a vehicle passes by when I’m praying not to be hit. I see her when my children run, yet I am trapped in a wheelchair. I see her when I’m walking in a painful prosthetic and can’t take another step. I see her when I’m laying awake at night, thanking God for another day with my family. I see her when my husband and children leave the house, and I’m afraid they won’t make it back alive. Now it’s time for the District Attorney’s Office to see us and help give us the justice and closure we deserve.”
That needs to happen long before another anniversary comes along.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.