Three people are dead after a drunk driver crossed the center line on Lexco Road, colliding head-on with a vehicle full of family members who were on the way home to Albuquerque after a birthday party.
That’s according to Torrance County Sheriff Heath White, who said the driver, 50-year-old Cesar Chavez, appeared to be “so drunk he was unaware he had struck the other vehicle” when deputies arrived.
Killed in the crash were Pablo Caldera-Quezada, 41, and his granddaughter, Citlaly Alvarez-Caldera, age 1, and daughter Jusalet Caldera-Pacheco, 22.
Four additional family members were admitted to University of New Mexico Hospital, White said. They were Amparo Pacheco, 44, Anahi Caldera, 14, Alexis Caldera, 12, and Emiliano Pacheco, age 5. As of the time The Independent went to press, the condition of the injured family members was not known.
Chavez was charged with three counts of homicide by vehicle, a count of great bodily harm, aggravated DWI and driving on the wrong side of the road.
White said the driver is being held on a $250,000 cash-only bond, adding that he is still waiting for test results showing Chavez’ blood alcohol level at the time of the crash.
The sheriff said later that Chavez lives on McNabb Road.
Earlier that night, the Torrance County DWI Prevention Program hosted a dance in Estancia, part of the county’s effort to provide family activities in the area that are drug- and alcohol-free.
Program coordinator Tracey Master was in Santa Fe this Tuesday—to find out the scope of budget cuts to the DWI Prevention Program—when The Independent called her for an interview.
The bad news for DWI prevention efforts in Torrance County is that the next fiscal year will see a cut of just under $18,000 for the program, Master said. What that means in real terms, she said, is likely a reduction of hours that the Smart Choice van will be on the road.
Chavez has two previous convictions for DWI, White said, adding that his department is looking into whether he might have DWI convictions in other states as well.
“Our laws are not strict enough to impose heavy sanctions on DWI drivers,” White said. “After the first DWI the law allows these offenders to continue without consequences—it’s not until the fifth or sixth DWI until there are heavy consequences, not like other states.”
The sheriff continued, “In this situation, taking the lives of three people, including a baby. It’s a senseless crime and … he was given all the warnings. He still chose that night to get behind the wheel.”
White said the prevalence of alcohol advertising gives people the message that “to have a good time you need to be drinking.”
He said he thinks a person’s second DWI should be a felony, with a penalty of six months or a year in jail, adding that his department “goes all over” to talk about the dangers of drinking and driving with students.
That same night, Mountainair held its prom, where students had to blow into a breathalyzer to enter the dance—both when they arrived and if they went outside for any reason. The prom was uneventful, White said.
“If my budget was larger, I would operate Smart Choice van seven nights a week even though we only have two bars,” Master said when asked what she would do to change her prevention efforts if she could wave a magic wand. “We would bump up the advertising and messages even more. … We could promote more drug-free and alcohol-free activities,” she said.
In the case of Chavez, Master said, “I don’t know up we had showed up uninvited to give him a ride if he would have taken it. … It was consequences be damned, he was going to do what he was going to do and nobody was going to tell him otherwise.”
Master said the message of the DWI Prevention Program is not abstinence from alcohol. “If you’re an adult, we’re not saying don’t drink. You get to make that choice if you are an adult,” Master said. “We’re saying don’t get behind the wheel.”
Master said she thinks there should be more funding available for substance abuse treatment in general. But she also had harsh words for the driver who changed so many lives in an instant.
“My heart goes out not just to this family, but to everyone who was involved. We have all of these witnesses who are never going to be the same, and we can’t help them because we don’t even know who they are. … The effects of what he did are so far-reaching. Imagine what our EMS personnel, law enforcement, or even just the bystanders, are going through.”
Even though she runs the DWI Prevention Program for the county, Master said she wishes she could have done more. “We ran the van. We had law enforcement out there and it wasn’t enough. Logically I know we couldn’t do more but my heart doesn’t believe that.”
The $18,000 funding cut Master mentioned was money from a liquor excise tax, funneled through the local government division of the state Department of Finance Administration, and was shifted into drug courts, she said.
She said she can make cuts in training and supplies, but added, “It probably means I can’t pay somebody to drive the [Smart Choice] van. If I want that van to keep going I’m going to have to crunch the numbers.”
The program also does prevention activities in the schools. “We want to start when they are little,” Master said, adding, “A lot of time our lessons about prevention are completely opposite of what they are living at home.”