Passions ran high in Santa Fe in the aftermath of the acquittal of Scott Owens, the drunk driver who had been charged with causing the deaths of four teenagers in a horrific collision nearly two years ago.
Avree Koffman wasn’t anywhere near the courtroom when the verdict was read on April 19. She was across town at Earth Care, where she does volunteer environmental and humanitarian work.
Koffman was the driver and only survivor in her vehicle of the June 28, 2009, car crash.
For Koffman, the not-guilty verdict failed to spark the sorrow and outrage expressed by much of the community.
“Either way [the verdict] would have gone, it’s not changing anything; it doesn’t bring my friends back,” Koffman recently told SFR during an interview between her classes at Santa Fe Community College. “The accident still affects me every day, but this trial for me has nothing to do with me grieving over the lives [lost].”
Koffman, now 18, was driving a group of friends to an Eldorado party when her car was struck by a vehicle coming the opposite direction, driven by Owens, 29, whose blood alcohol concentration was twice the legal limit. Koffman’s passengers, Rose Simmons, 15, and Julian Martinez, Alyssa Trouw and Kate Klein, all 16, died instantly. Koffman was airlifted from the scene to University of New Mexico Hospital in critical condition, with a traumatic brain injury and broken pelvis.
Koffman can neither remember the crash nor the drive toward Eldorado. Traumatic brain injuries often cause this phenomenon, known as retrograde amnesia.
But while the prosecution and defense presented detailed evidence at trial reconstructing the crash, the only surviving victim points out why the specifics of that night might not be the most important takeaway.
“The thing about blame is that I could have been any person in that situation, with the car accident,” Koffman says.
“And any of [the other people involved] could have. That could have been any of us; that could have been you.”
Although Koffman was sober the night of the crash, she observes that, despite the outrage the community feels toward Owens, drunk driving is common and socially acceptable to many people—until tragedy strikes. Her main concern regarding Owens’ acquittal is it sends a wrong message regarding the acceptability of drunk driving.
“It could happen to you,” she says. “And you should live your life knowing that. And you should be the person you want to be, so that, when you’re gone, people will say good things about you.”
With her philosophical outlook on the events of the past two years, and the positive developments in herlife—Koffman is a full-time student, has two volunteer jobs and just received a full-ride college scholarship—Koffman seems to exemplify a psychological phenomenon dubbed “post-traumatic growth.” Tragic circumstances push some people into a downward spiral, in which they exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder such as anger and addiction. Others, having glimpsed the transience of life, start to live more passionately.
“I definitely am different now, just because I have the whole perspective of death,” she says. “I’ve looked at death, and so I am different. I feel like, before, I would worry about things that are small and not important, and I would treat people like they were small and not important.”
Koffman works with Food Not Bombs, an Earth Care project that diverts potentially wasted food into community meals for the needy. She also calls voters for the nonprofit New Energy Economy, which last year influenced state regulators’ approval of a carbon cap.
Koffman’s environmental activism is partly an effort to carry on Rose Simmons’ mission. Simmons was Koffman’s best friend; the two originally started volunteering at Earth Care together.
“She really valued people and taking care of people and this place, and respecting it,” Koffman says. “So I mostly continue my work because of her, because I feel like I have to do it for the both of us now, because she can’t anymore.”
Koffman also attributes her positive outlook to the community support she felt after the crash.
“I got to have my whole grieving process be a community thing, and everyone was gentle with me and took care of me,” Koffman says. “After the accident, the way everyone was treating me, I just kept thinking, ‘I wish they would do this to everybody…I just wish people would treat others the way they were treating me then, and we could just live like that.’”