Sadly, it's not unusual that people die in car crashes. It happens tens of thousands of times every year in this country. It wasn't all that newsworthy when Phyllis Martin of Phoenix died that way in February. Martin had just picked up her grandson from school and was heading home when a pickup truck being driven by Gilbert made a sudden swerve and then crossed into oncoming traffic, striking Martin's car. Martin died at the scene. (The grandson is physically OK.)
What happened next is what makes this story stand out. First off, Gilbert's blood-alcohol level tested at .328, more than four times the legal limit. She told police that she'd had two beers and maybe a Vicodin. I'm no chemist, but if Vicodin can quadruple the effects of alcohol in one's system, you can bet that the liquor industry is going to fight to get that stuff taken off the market.
People in law enforcement, despite the common perception, will generally give a person a break, provided that person's story comes within a few light years of believability. Two beers and a .328 blood-alcohol count don't mesh. Two beers per hour for the past week and a half, maybe.
A friend of mine who works in that field had to revoke a woman's probation because she tested positive for heroin. When he asked her where she had gotten it, she said that she had been on a Sun Tran bus when she saw somebody she knew from high school. That other person was so happy to see her that she gave her some heroin for free. On Sun Tran.
"So," my friend asked, "there's a woman riding around on a Sun Tran bus giving away free heroin? Do you want to stick to that story or maybe go out in the lobby and come back in a few minutes with a different story?"
She stuck to the story.
Gilbert stuck to her story and basically skated. The police didn't confiscate her driver's license, because they assumed that she was going to be charged with some type of vehicular manslaughter. Amazingly, if someone is "merely" driving drunk, the police will take the driver's license away, and it can be administratively suspended. (Of course, drunks will probably continue to drive, but at least the courts can drop another anvil on them if they get caught a second time.) However, as a policy, prosecutors don't pursue DUI charges in manslaughter cases for fear of gumming up the works judicially. This leads to a situation in which driving drunk leads to a loss of your license--but driving drunk and killing someone amounts to a free pass to continue your highway hunting.
Oh, Gilbert was arrested and charged, but her bail was set at a stunningly low $5,000, even though, as it turned out, she had been busted for DUI just three weeks before the fatal crash. (Prosecutors had asked that her bail be set at $75,000, but Commissioner Eartha Washington slashed it down to a point where Gilbert could see daylight for $500.)
For administrative reasons, the charges weren't officially brought until July, five months after the death of Phyllis Martin. But during that time, our drunk driver with the magical blood stream had apparently been busy, spreading her particular brand of sunshine around the state.
On the night of June 27--before Maricopa County brought charges against Gilbert--she was stopped by Marana police on suspicion of DUI after her car weaved through traffic, drove up on the sidewalk, cut across several lanes and ended up on the median. (That's on the raised median, not in some painted median.) Gilbert had an open container of beer in her cup holder, and told the cops she'd had (ahem) two beers.
She added that she was also on four different medications. At least one of those medications must work counter to Vicodin, because this time, her blood alcohol was .243, only three times the legal limit.
It's hard to say what's most troubling about this case. A couple of things that stick out are that she wasn't charged until five months after her actions took the life of another human being. And it's also a head-scratcher that the bail was set so low despite the fact that someone died, and Gilbert had been arrested for yet another industrial-strength DUI just three weeks earlier.
The Maricopa County District Attorney's office says that they didn't know about the Marana arrest when the bail was set. And Marana says it has to wait for lab results to come back from Phoenix before it moves to suspend her license.
At press time, Gilbert's bail is being raised to $20,000, and she's facing a hearing during which it might be revoked altogether. Let's hope they can get it right on this try before she gets her hands on two more beers.