In talking this weekend with Michael Cote (Saturday) and Helen “Elly” Cote (Sunday after the article was published), I couldn’t help but feel bad for all they’ve gone through since their last visit to our state.
Here is a Colorado couple that was walking in a crosswalk near the Santa Fe Plaza in September 2002 when a drunk driver — one who at the time had nine prior DWI arrests and at least seven convictions at the time — plows through them and just keeps on driving.
And now, he’s facing a DWI charge from last week after state police say he admitted being drunk after leaving Cheeks.
Here is the article that published in Sunday’s New Mexican on John Paul Chavez’s 11th arrest on suspicion on drunk driving: 8 years after tourists hit and dragged, another DWI arrest for driver
That article had 30-plus comments by Sunday evening last I checked. For a Sunday when web traffic isn’t all that high for a newspaper (Sunday’s are big print days, not big web days), those are pretty good numbers for reader comments.
In that crash in 2002, Michael broke a foot, flying over the top of the 1984 GMC pickup driven by John Paul Chavez. Elly wasn’t as fortunate. She went under the truck and got caught on the vehicle, getting dragged several blocks — ripping flesh off her body and causing brain trauma she is still recovering from eight years later. She was in a six week coma with Michael by her side every day.
After Michael spent a couple years devoted to his wife’s recovery, it caught up with him. He became suicidal and still fights PTSD. Elly then spent years helping him recover. Now, both are still doing so.
When I had to call them this past weekend to tell them I was doing a story about Chavez, I dreaded doing so. As much as most think journalists relish that sort of thing, I wasn’t at all happy about calling up two people I haven’s spoken with since late 2003 to tell them news I knew would likely ruin their weekend.
The man that changed their lives was arrested again last week for DWI.
Here is what Michael told me Saturday in a phone interview from Wyoming where they are as he is working as a ski instructor for disabled students (the Cote’s permanent home is still in Colorado):
It’s so upsetting,” he said. “The fact that this guy has the opportunity to hurt people again … I think we all have the right to treat ourselves however we want. If you want to poison yourself at home, that’s fine. But when you go back on the streets and do to people what he did to us, this guy does not deserve any more chances. Stop being lenient with this guy. Stop him. He obviously can’t stop himself.
Elly told me Sunday morning when she called me that Michael was livid when he got off the phone with me on Saturday. But she thanked me for the article. She said both of them want to know what happens to Chavez with this latest DWI charge and will be watching the coverage from afar.
As they told me in 2003 when I spent a day with them in their Silverton, Colo., home, Michael still spends most days trying to forget that day in 2002 while Elly spends a lot of time trying to remember that day so she can better grasp why their lives are now so different.
Neither understand how a state could allow a man like Chavez to have had nine DWI arrests and have spent less than three weeks in jail for them. That was before he plowed them over, drove home (Elly became dislodged several blocks from the Plaza when Chavez drove over a bump in the road) and passed out on the side of his house where Santa Fe Police later arrested him.
The truth is, New Mexico’s numbers are improving for repeat DWI offenders in recent years. Of course the numbers were so bad to begin with after years of the state ignoring the DWI problem that there is still a long way to go before people like the Cotes feel comfortable ever returning to our state.
Here is a list I put together (some this past week, some in 2002 and 2003 when I covered this story in my first stint at The New Mexican) of what is now 11 DWI arrests through the years for John Paul Chavez:
- Dec. 11, 2010: New Mexico State Police arrested Chavez at 2:12 a.m. on southbound Cerrillos Road. A statement of probable cause for Chavez’s arrest states he admitted to driving drunk after leaving Cheeks Nightclub and refused, twice, to take a Breathalyzer test. He was charged with aggravated DWI and was released on a $10,000 bond Friday, according to jail records. The case is pending in Santa Fe Magistrate Court.
- Sept. 28, 2002: Chavez pleaded no contest to great bodily harm by vehicle (while driving drunk) and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to the maximum 8 1/2 years in prison by state District Judge Michael Vigil and was released sometime in the first half of 2010 after serving more than seven years in prison. Total: seven-plus years in prison
- Sept. 4, 1999: Former Santa Fe County Magistrate Bill Dimas approved a plea agreement from the District Attorney’s Office and fined Chavez $500 and sentenced him to 364 days in jail, and suspended 357 of those days. Total: $500, seven days in jail
- April 4, 1990: Former municipal judge Thomas Fiorina fined Chavez $300, but suspended $150 of that fine and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 86 of those days. Total: $150, 4 days in jail
- Sept. 27, 1985: An MVD spokeswoman in 2003 said her office had no record of this arrest ever being disposed of in court and no record of a conviction on this charge.
- Dec. 2, 1984: Fiorina fined Chavez $300, but suspended $200 of that fine and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 88 of those days. Total: $100, two days
- Nov. 3, 1984: An MVD spokeswoman in 2003 said her office had no record of this arrest ever being disposed of in court and no record of a conviction on this charge.
- Nov. 15, 1983: Fiorina fined Chavez $300 and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 88 of those days. Total: $300, two days in jail
- May 27, 1983: Fiorina fined Chavez $300 and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 88 of those days. Total: $300, two days in jail
- April 30, 1983: Fiorina fined Chavez $300 and sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 88 of those days. Total: $300, two days in jail
- Oct. 1, 1982: An MVD spokeswoman in 2003 said her office had no record of how this conviction was disposed of, but said Chavez has not had a valid New Mexico driver’s license since this arrest.