Justice, sort of, is coming after deadly crash - Albuquerque Journal

Justice, sort of, is coming after deadly crash

Lauren and Jeremy Wallaert celebrated their 10th anniversary Aug. 6, 2021. But it was a bittersweet day as it was also the fifth year since they each lost a leg when a Hyundai veered out of its lane and into them on a motorcycle ride to Cochiti Lake. (Carrie DeBord/All Things Wild Imagery)

It has taken more than five years and five months, but the day of judicial reckoning is almost here for a Peña Blanca motorist accused of slamming into a group of motorcyclists, causing losses of life and limb, and fueling anger and despair over how long this case has languished.

More anger and despair – and perhaps relief – may come Tuesday when Maryann O’Quinn is expected to accept a plea agreement that essentially lets her walk away from the carnage and death wrought that day with little more than a court-ordered slap on the wrist.

O’Quinn, 39, is accused of recklessly hurtling down N.M. 22 near Cochiti Lake on Aug. 6, 2016, exceeding the posted 55 mph speed limit by at least 30 mph when she failed to navigate a curve and veered into the oncoming motorcyclists, hurling them into a ditch, bloodied, broken and bereft of a body part or two.

Motorcyclists Lauren and Jeremy Wallaert, who were celebrating their fifth anniversary by riding with friends to Cochiti Lake, each lost a leg in the crash – and thought they were going to lose their lives.

“Left lying in a ditch, without limbs, saying our goodbyes and begging friends to keep us alive for our children,” Lauren Wallaert said in a previous column.

Two other motorcyclists were also seriously injured in the crash.

The Wallaerts didn’t die, but O’Quinn’s 15-year-old daughter, Nicole, did, after she and four other passengers were ejected from O’Quinn’s gold Hyundai when it rolled.

Three of the other passengers were seriously injured, two of them juveniles.

O’Quinn was indicted on reckless vehicular homicide, five counts of great bodily injury by vehicle, two counts of child abuse and a single count of driving with a suspended license. If convicted on every charge, O’Quinn faced a prison sentence of 63 years.

But under the plea agreement, she may face no prison time at all.

You read that right.

Although the specifics are not public until Tuesday, O’Quinn’s attorney confirmed that under the plea agreement most of the felonies his client faced will be reduced to misdemeanors, with probation as a possible sentence.

“It’s a fair plea agreement,” Leonard Foster said.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Jessica Martinez of the 13th Judicial District said the plea was necessary because of concerns over O’Quinn’s wavering competency and confidence in proving that she drove recklessly, which requires evidence of willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others, as opposed to driving carelessly, in which prosecutors need only prove that O’Quinn drove imprudently and with inattention.

In addition, hospital records do not indicate that O’Quinn was intoxicated at the time of the crash and cellphone records do not show she was on her phone at the time of the crash, Martinez said.

“We did everything we could to get some kind of justice for the victims, but there just wasn’t enough to assure a conviction of reckless or intent,” Martinez said. “We are obviously disappointed.”

Lauren Wallaert, whose horrifying recounting of the crash has been featured in this column, is disappointed, too. But she is also resigned, realistic and weary.

“I wish I had more to say, but we are simply growing tired of being ignored and have known there wouldn’t be justice from the very start of our case,” she said from her home in Oregon, where the couple moved to escape the memories of that horrific day. “If the case was dropped, I would feel so defeated. We felt this was our only option.”

Jeremy Wallaert’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle was severely damaged 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. (Courtesy of Lauren Wallaert)

O’Quinn was indicted six months after the crash and might never have been indicted at all had it not been for the efforts of the Wallaerts and Debbie Hill and Mitchell Woodall, the other two motorcyclists severely injured in the crash.

“From the very beginning, we have been so let down by our justice system,” Wallaert said. “We had to ask for charges to be filed.”

The case has repeatedly snagged over the years. Early on, a delay was caused by an argument over obtaining O’Quinn’s hospital records to determine her level of intoxication since Sandoval County deputies at the scene had not bothered to test that, despite a witness stating he had smelled alcohol on O’Quinn at the crash site.

An attempt to obtain information from a 13th Judicial District pretrial services employee led to more delays and 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 longest delay came over the question of O’Quinn’s competency. 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.

“We believe she was competent at the time of the crash,” Martinez said.

Prosecutors fought for an additional evaluation. In July 2020, that report deemed her competent “in spite of her cognitive shortcomings.”

But concerns about her competency and cognitive issues remained. District Attorney Barbara Romo, who took over the office in January 2021, also said the case and many others were mired in a backlog caused by the courts shutting down because of COVID-19.

Finally, a plea agreement was presented in November, according to court records. Tuesday’s hearing will be held via Zoom.

Wallaert, who lost her right leg above the knee in the crash, said she and the other motorcyclists are hoping to convince the judge to order O’Quinn to refrain from driving as part of her conditions of probation.

It would be a small victory, at least. But it comes at a far too big price.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com


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