A tragedy like the car crash that killed four Santa Fe teenagers on June 28 leaves even strangers reeling with grief. But few in our community are strangers to the victims and their families. At SFR, the events of June 28 hit particularly close to home. The sole survivor and driver from the teenagers' car, Avree Koffman, is the daughter of one of our staff members, Dan Koffman. Several of our contributors also had personal relationships with the victims who did not survive.
This week, in print, we focus on those victims. Scott Owens, who is accused of causing a drunk-driving accident that resulted in the teenagers' deaths, was scheduled for arraignment on June 30 and an investigation of the case is ongoing, according to law enforcement. The latest reporting on Owens and his arraignment can be found here.
It's lunchtime the Monday after the Old Las Vegas Highway crash. A KRQE reporter is recording video testimony from a pack of teenagers in Cathedral Park. Occasionally the teens whoop before the camera.
"These little guys last night were talking about violence and I told them, 'Just don't ever do any violence in my daughter's name,'" John Simmons says, motioning at the kids. But some of them have sworn off drinking and driving, too, he says, and that makes him hopeful.
Simmons' dreadlocks, as always, are piled in a tower under a hat and his eyes are hidden behind large sunglasses. Sorrow is reflected in the shudder of his voice.
His cell phone rings.
"Rose, killed dead instantly in a car crash…15 years old," he says into the phone, a simple summary of the known facts.
He listens and answers, "I want your prayers; that's all I need. That's about it at this point."
John's daughter, Rose Simmons, always rode shotgun in her best friend Avree Koffman's '92 Subaru, Simmons tells SFR. Early Sunday morning, they were hit by Owens' Jeep Cherokee. Rose and three other teens in the car died.
Simmons says it's still unbelievable, even though he saw it with his own eyes—on a sheriff deputy's camera.
"I didn't want to look at the picture, but I didn't want Gwyn [Rose's mother] to look at the picture either," Simmons says. "…My body was quivering like I can't even remember. It was like I was freezing my ass off, even though I was totally warm."
Rose's mother, Gwyn Madeen, soon arrives and sits beside John. They beam with pride when they talk about Rose, and also Avree, who had been living in Rose's room for at least three months.
Both girls were active in Earth Care International's Youth Allies program, which encourages environmental leadership and advocacy. Their interests ranged from animal rights to sustainability to water rights, as well as the Youth Media Project.
Simmons and Madeen remember the girls' campaign to end car idling, particularly in fast-food drive-throughs. There's a public service video for this campaign on YouTube featuring Koffman's dark red Subaru, with its Obama "Hope" decal and "Love Animals Don't Eat Them" bumper sticker.
There was also the late-night "guerilla planting."
"She would be sneaky, but sneaky about really interesting, bizarre stuff. They would be out there sneaking around planting flowers," Simmons says.
One by one, teenagers shuffle up to express their condolences. So does a group of joggers. Madeen says she doesn't know whether she'll be following the case in the news.
"I looked at the girls' pictures in the paper this morning, but I didn't look at the [picture of the crushed] car or anything," she says. "It felt like I couldn't go there yet, but maybe in a week or something I'll be better prepared."
People wishing to make donations in Rose's name should send contributions to Earth Care International.
SFR columnist Robert Wilder, a teacher at Santa Fe Preparatory School, is in Walla Walla, Wash. this week, teaching at Whitman College's College Horizons program for Native students. He learned of the accident by phone.
Both Kate Klein and Alyssa Trouw were 16-year-old rising seniors at Prep and students with whom Wilder had close relationships.
Klein was both a creative writing and English student of Wilder's, and worked with him on a community service project at Wood Gormley Elementary School.
"When she was working with the 5th or 6th graders, Kate never did anything but be kind to them, Wilder says. "She never raised her voice, never lost her patience. She was an amazing kid."
Wilder recalls learning that Klein played the piano. "I really bugged her to play [for us], so one time we dragged her to the auditorium and it was unbelievably moving. We were all shocked by how heartfelt it was, technically brilliant, but also so heartfelt."
Klein also taught piano to Wilder's son, London. "When he found out…He doesn't get it; he wrote her a little note that said, 'Kate I don't know what happened, but you were the best piano teacher.' He's really sad he's not going to see her."
Perhaps most notable to Wilder was Klein's kindness. "Kate was the kind of kid who literally was friends with every walk of life, from the guys who are incredible in calculus to the kids who went to other schools. I remember having conversations with her when she was a sophomore about how she just couldn't get involved with the drama of being unkind to people."
And her talent as a student and a writer, Wilder says, was formidable. Her last essay, he says, was a beautiful piece about driving across the George Washington Bridge, back to her father's hometown.
"She was a highly reflective kid," Wilder says. "She really wanted to create beauty in a way that was sort of rare, with her writing, with her piano."
In lieu of flowers for Kate, donations can be made as a memorial gift to the Natural Resources Defense Council or to Doctors Without Borders.
Like Klein, Alyssa Trouw also was a talented reader and writer. "Alyssa didn't have an easy go of it," Wilder says. "But she was the best reader of novels and fiction of anyone at the school. She would come in after reading Hemingway or Leslie Marmon Silko and really would nail whatever I wanted to talk about. She had this unbelievable eye. She could figure out what was happening at a graduate-school level."
Her prose, Wilder says, "was sharp and polished and intuitive."
Wilder says he was particularly impressed by Trouw's turnaround during her most recent quarter. "She really wanted to show us she could do it," he says. "She aced my class, so I went to her in the library and said, 'Alyssa, you went from being one of the lowest grades to one of the highest,' and she said, 'Rob, I don't want to have a heart-to-heart with you.'"
Instead, Wilder says, he began giving her books to read and they would talk about them, and "that was the way we communicated."
Two very different students, Wilder says, "That was what was so neat about them being friends: They were very different but had some real similarities in the way they looked out at the world. They both looked at life as joy." And both, he says, "had incredibly bright futures, for different reasons. It tears me up that they aren't going to have a chance for that future."
Julian Martinez joined the 10th grade class at Monte del Sol Charter School midway through the year and immediately became "a character on campus," Lisa Otero, a history teacher at the school who was Martinez' adviser, says. "He was very well-liked by his peers immediately."
Like many teenagers, Otero says, Martinez came to the school "struggling to find his way, to find a place in the world."
During the 10th grade camping trip at the beginning of June, Otero guided the students in a group exercise in which they sat around a campfire, wrote down their regrets for the year and then went around the circle talking about "something they were grateful for," before throwing their regrets into the fire.
"It got to be Julian's turn and he was so excited, he stood straight up tall on one of the picnic tables and told us all in that circle that he was grateful he had finally gotten into Monte del Sol and he finally felt like he belonged somewhere…"
Academically, Otero says, Martinez was "extremely talented and creative and bright, an avid reader. He struggled with task-oriented [work], but he loved to talk about ideas."
Indeed, fellow teacher Seth Biderman, a contributor to SFR, says Julian "wasn't a sit in your seat and do what the teacher says kind of student," but he was starting to come into his own.
"He was crazy about the book The Secret; he always had two or three books going, The Book Thief was the last book I saw him with," Biderman says. "Julian was a very good writer, very advanced. He was writing a story called Ambitions of a Runaway, and his handwriting was all capitals and graffiti style; he was into tagging, and it was a really fascinating story. He got to five or six pages of it, just about the teenage scene in Santa Fe. He was a deep thinker."
Perhaps Martinez' greatest love, Otero says, was the school's botany and garden program.
"He would sit out in the garden and read by himself, and he had his own plot in the garden and became really close with the teacher who taught him botany," she says.
Biderman saw Martinez approximately four hours before he died, on the Plaza. "We stopped and I introduced him to my wife and we shook hands. It was good to get a goodbye because my last memory before that was him breaking a water balloon over my head on the last day of school," Biderman says. He covers his eyes for a moment and laughs with grief. "That's a good memory, too."
Donations for Martinez' family can be made at Century Bank account No. 0050076074.
One girl survived the crash. Avree Koffman remains at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. Her father, Dan Koffman, is an advertising account executive at this paper.
As of June 30, doctors were telling Dan that, although Avree suffered a "severe brain injury"—the implications of which aren't yet clear—she was headed for recovery.
"They think she survived because she was furthest away," Koffman says. He thanks the teens in the trailing cars, who called 911 immediately, bringing paramedics and then a helicopter to ferry Avree to the hospital.
Avree's words so far: "Mom," "pain," "oh my God" and a multi-syllabic curse.
Avree's injuries include fractures to her skull and pelvis, cuts, bruises, burns and a mysterious puncture on her left arm, "almost like a bolt was in her arm," Koffman says.
Avree swerved left when she saw Owens' Jeep coming toward her in the wrong lane, Santa Fe County Undersheriff Robert Garcia says. When Owens realized what was happening, he tried to correct it by turning right. As a result, police told Koffman, "whether she'd gone left or right, she wouldn't have had a chance" to escape the accident.
Now Koffman and a rotating group of friends and family wait by Avree's bedside.
"I don't know if she knows what happened. I know she doesn't know the results of what happened," Koffman says. "Rose was her best friend and they loved each other…"
Asked how he's holding up, Koffman chokes up. His feelings are confused. "I have to go back and forth between putting myself in the other parents' shoes and thinking how close my daughter was, and wondering if she'll come back," he says.
And now those back-of-the-brain fears behind every parental nag to every tough-minded teenager have come true. "Your kid's 16 and she's got a car and she's doing the same thing you did," Koffman says. "You hope you don't get a phone call in the middle of the night that says, 'Come to the Hondo Fire Department. We can't tell you why.'
Then you see. They give you the news. They say, 'No one knows. You need to quietly get in your car and go to Albuquerque.' I drive 104 miles to Albuquerque, just wondering if my kid's alive."
In those first dark hours, when no one would answer his phone calls and he watched hospital staff brush tiny shards of glass from Avree's hair, he felt entirely alone. Community support has brought some relief.
"The outpouring of support is great. I hope the community continues it for the other parents that need it."
And he hopes the support will be there for Avree when she recovers. Without it, he worries, she might fall into a guilt-ridden depression.
"It would be hard not to blame yourself," he says. "The other kids' families have been able to go through the memorials. She's going to wake up: 'What…am I doing here?' When she finds out the channel's been switched, she's going to need a lot of support."
Koffman asks that videos and photos of the memorial services, as well as well-wishes and encouragement for Avree, be dropped off at SFR (132 E. Marcy St.) to be passed along to his daughter when she wakes up.