SANTA FE, N.M. — More than 3½ years after a drunken driver killed two teenage sisters in Santa Fe, the bar that served the driver has been fined $10,000 by the state Alcohol and Gaming Division.
Jennifer Anderson, director of the division, also ordered that the liquor license of Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery be suspended for 15 days.
And in a resolution to another long-pending case resulting from a drunken driving death, El Alto Bar & Station, just off Interstate 25 in rural San Miguel County, agreed to a $2,500 fine and an eight-day license suspension.
El Alto was accused of over-serving a driver who killed an 18-year-old woman.
The Department of Regulation and Licensing, the parent agency of the Alcohol and Gaming Division, has blamed the delays in the cases on defense lawyers and job vacancies and employee turnover at the division.
Blue Corn was accused of over-serving James Ruiz, who in March 2010 crashed his pickup into a car not far from the bar, killing Del Lynn Peshlakai, 19, and sister Deshauna, 17, of San Juan County, who were in Santa Fe for a high school basketball tournament.
According to a report on an Alcohol and Gaming Division hearing for Blue Corn in October, Ruiz had three beers and three shots of Crown Royal whiskey at the bar in south Santa Fe just before the crash. He and friends skipped out on their bill after receiving another round of drinks on condition they order food.
Ruiz had decided to go drinking with friends as a last celebration before being sentenced the following week for a DWI conviction, according to the report.
Ruiz, of Santa Fe, was out on bail on his fifth drunken-driving arrest at the time of the crash and had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.30 percent, nearly four times the level at which a driver is presumed to be guilty of DWI. He pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and other charges and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
In March, Ruiz filed a lawsuit blaming the crash on Blue Corn, a second bar that served him the night of the crash and a drinking buddy. The case is pending.
At the Alcohol and Gaming Division hearing, Blue Corn didn’t contest the over-serving citation but argued it shouldn’t be fined or have its license suspended because of the steps it and its affiliated restaurants have taken since the accident to prevent over-serving of customers. Blue Corn is part of Santa Fe Dining, the restaurant group of art dealer Jerry Peters.
The group now has what it calls the Responsible Alcohol Server Program for employees, which includes a presentation featuring photographs of the Peshlakai sisters and the crash. Santa Fe Dining also adopted a policy that a customer can be served a maximum of three drinks if not eating and a limit of four with food.
Alcohol and Gaming Director Anderson imposed the fine and license suspension for Blue Corn in an order dated Dec. 4.
“While (Blue Corn’s) efforts to improve its practices are commendable and have proved effective, it remains clear that over-service which occurred on Friday, March 5, 2010, at (Blue Corn’s) licensed premises resulted in the loss of two young lives,” Anderson wrote.
She said she could have significantly enhanced the penalty for Blue Corn but declined to do so because of the steps it has taken to prevent another such tragedy.
Anderson’s order gave Blue Corn a 60-day window to suspend liquor sales for 15 consecutive days. A news release issued Tuesday by Blue Corn didn’t say when the suspension would be served but said the restaurant will donate 10 percent of all food sales during the suspension to Mothers Against Drunk Driving in memory of the Peshlakai sisters.
“The restaurant is gratified that the matter has been addressed and will comply with the decision of the director,” the news release said.
Brenda Castillo-Arias, a Blue Corn server cited separately, pleaded no contest and agreed to a $250 fine.
In the case involving El Alto, the bar was accused of over-serving Cecilio Jaramillo, who in March 2010 drove his car the wrong way on I-25 and crashed into a vehicle driven by Mariah Arguello of Las Vegas, N.M., killing both of them. Arguello was headed home from college in Albuquerque.
Jaramillo, of Santa Fe, who had been arrested twice for drunken driving, had a blood alcohol reading of a staggering 0.44.
El Alto agreed to settle the case by paying a $2,500 fine and having its license suspended for eight days.
Its stipulated agreement with the Alcohol and Gaming Division says the bar settled because of the financial, personal and professional risks of challenging the citation.
The agreement says El Alto would have disputed that there was substantial evidence to support a finding that Jaramillo was at El Alto and was intoxicated while there.
Kenneth Aringdale an El Alto server who was cited separately, agreed to pay a $250 fine. He also disputed the evidence in the case.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.