Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
John Anczarski at last got his day in court, more than six years after his son was struck and killed while bicycling near Laguna.
A Laguna Pueblo Tribal Court jury last month found that a tribal member was solely at fault in the death of Anczarski’s son, John Anczarski Jr., 19, who was struck by a car and killed while riding cross-country for charity.
The six-person jury reached the verdict Oct. 28, assigning 100 percent of the fault to Gilbert Waconda, 62, in the death of Anczarski Jr. of Ringtown, Pa., on N.M. 124, a stretch of Old Route 66 west of Laguna in June 2010.
The jury awarded the Anczarskis $72,310 in damages, for which Waconda is solely responsible, a court order shows.
In 2012, Waconda pleaded guilty in Laguna Pueblo Tribal Court to negligent homicide and admitted “just not paying attention” when he veered out of his lane and fatally struck the cyclist. A judge sentenced Waconda to 182 days in jail in 2013.
The senior Anczarski, who filed the civil lawsuit in 2014, said the verdict gave him some relief, even though he has never received an apology from Waconda.
“At least it is documented in the tribal court that Johnny was zero percent at fault,” Anczarski said of his son. “Nobody could say Johnny was at fault.”
Waconda could not be reached for comment. Several phone messages left with Waconda’s attorney were not returned.
In a phone interview Thursday from his home in Pennsylvania, Anczarski said he “broke down in the courtroom” after a judge read the jury’s finding.
“I sobbed and cried for about 10 minutes,” he said. “When we walked back into the hotel that night, I told my wife that I felt like something had lifted from me.”
Anczarski said he and his wife, Joyce Anczarski, have received many expressions of support and sympathy from people at the Pueblo of Laguna, who maintain Johnny’s “ghost bike” memorial at the site where the cyclist was fatally struck.
“All of the people who contacted us have been very gracious,” he said. “They tell us how sorry they are. They take care of Johnny’s memorial. For All Saints’ Day, they took plates of food out there.”
Anczarski Jr. was one of four bicyclists riding across the country to raise money for breast cancer research on June 21, 2010, when he was fatally injured. He was airlifted to University of New Mexico Hospital, where he remained alive on a ventilator for three days.
Waconda contended in court that the cyclist was driving in the roadway at the time of the collision. A State Police report determined that the right tire of Waconda’s vehicle was outside the white line on the shoulder at the time.
The civil court trial followed a long legal history that involved both tribal and federal officials.
In September 2011 – 15 months after Anczarski’s death – then-U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales announced that his office lacked evidence to pursue felony charges against Waconda.
Laguna Pueblo prosecutors charged Waconda in 2012 with charges of homicide by vehicle and reckless driving. If convicted, he could have faced up to one year in jail – the maximum penalty allowed in tribal courts.
Later that year, a Laguna Pueblo prosecutor obtained a plea agreement, saying it would have been difficult to prove that Waconda had been driving recklessly – a necessary step in obtaining a homicide conviction.
The senior Anczarski said at the time that he would have preferred that Waconda stand trial, which could have divulged details of his son’s death.
Anczarski said he filed the 2014 civil lawsuit himself in Laguna Tribal Court because he couldn’t find an attorney to take his case at that time.
Cynthia Aragon, an Albuquerque attorney who specializes in Indian law, agreed to take the case this year.
The civil suit initially named the Pueblo of Laguna as a co-defendant, but the pueblo successfully claimed sovereign immunity from litigation, Aragon said.
“I was happy with the outcome,” Aragon said of the jury trial verdict. “The Anczarskis were very, very happy. It’s been way too long for them.”