The auditorium at Warehouse 21, Santa Fe's teen arts center, is hushed and dark. Near the front, 16-year-old Avree Fe Koffman sits quietly knitting a soft, maroon scarf, her long, maple-colored hair falling past one ear to obscure part of her face.
Onstage, musicians David Manzanares and Chris McCarty talk about the tragic car accident in June that killed four Santa Fe teenagers and led the musicians to produce a memorial CD called "The Heart of Santa Fe," the proceeds from which benefit W21.
Before he finishes, McCarty stops and looks at Avree. He pulls the mike close and tells her the CD is for her as much as it is for the friends she lost.
"You've got a lot on your shoulders now," McCarty says.
Avree stops knitting and meets his gaze.
"You have the hopes and dreams of your friends that are going to ride with you. We support you, and we love you."
Avree nods, looks down. Soft music fills the background and, when the official program is over, the parents of the four teens cluster tightly around Avree. They hug each other and share a few quiet tears. When it's over, they file out into the cold, bright light of the December morning.
It's been almost six months, and the tragedy is still fresh. Just after midnight on June 28, 2009, 28-year-old Scott Owens allegedly drove his 1992 Jeep Cherokee into the wrong lane, causing a collision with Avree's 1992 Subaru on Old Las Vegas Highway. The accident killed the four passengers in her car: Kate Klein, Julian Martinez and Alyssa Trouw, all 16, and Avree's close friend Rose Simmons, 15.
Four hours after the crash, Owens' blood-alcohol level measured 0.16, twice the legal limit. Avree, the only survivor, spent approximately a month in the hospital. She is the daughter of SFR Advertising Account Executive Dan Koffman, and she spoke to the media for the first time for this story.
In the days after the crash, Santa Fe struggled to come to terms with the heart-wrenching tragedy. An outpouring of grief and memories filled the teens' memorial services.
Santa Fe Preparatory School student Kate Klein was a talented pianist and writer, remembered for her kindness.
Julian Martinez, a student at Monte del Sol School, was known for his avid reading, sense of humor, and his love for gardening and botany.
Alyssa Trouw, like Klein, a rising Prep senior, had a real talent for reading and writing.
Rose Simmons, along with Avree, had been very involved with Earth Care International's Youth Allies program—with making a difference.
But just as sorrow over the loss of four young, bright lives permeated the city, so, too, did anger. Owens was ultimately charged with four counts of vehicular homicide, a third-degree felony, and one of reckless driving; his bail was $3 million cash.
Owens entered a plea of not guilty through his attorney, Dan Cron, on Nov. 30; Cron says a trial is set for May 18.
As the justice system deals with Owens, Santa Fe continues to remember its loss.
Santa Fe Prep senior Hillary Hale, president of a social activism club to which Kate and Alyssa once belonged, has helped spearhead a movement to support groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Impact DWI.
"It's a difficult topic to handle," Hale says. "We had to go lightly in some sense but, at the same time, go hard because it matters so much to those around us." Hale says other students plan to lobby the Legislature for stricter DWI laws.
SFR columnist and Prep teacher Rob Wilder says his way of dealing—and helping his students deal—is by telling anecdotes about Kate and Alyssa "to keep them in the world." He encourages his students to talk about the accident, and he takes the tragedy as a challenge to be a better teacher and mentor.
Erin O'Neill, the garden coordinator at Monte del Sol, helped create a memorial garden in Rose and Julian's honor to "have a place where they're growing and thriving with us, where we can be nourished by their spirits and be reminded of them."
For Avree, change is small, daily and personal. She's on the team that's implementing Mayor David Coss' Sustainable Santa Fe Plan and, with friends, started a safe-ride program for young people.
She suffered short-term memory loss as a result of the accident and has no memories of the crash. Nor does she profess to have any interest in dwelling on the past, other than to honor her friends' memory.
"I just look at [the accident] as a way to make a decision to live even harder, because you never know when you won't have the chance," Avree says. "In almost every way, it's a really horrible thing, but it's given me a lot of good different outlooks on life. When you get that close, like look death in the face," she adds, "you're like, 'Why have I been worrying about all this little stuff all the time?'"
Avree says she is focused on moving forward and helping create change.
"People ask me a lot, 'How do you feel about Scott Owens?'" she says. "I'm like, 'Are you serious? I don't care. That's not what this is about…It's a problem with society, not with this one guy.'" She glances away, but her voice is steady.
"I could waste my time being angry at him," she says. "But that's not going to bring my friends back."
Santa Fe Reporter