Cindy Colasanto was on vacation in Florida in February 2008 when she got the phone call every parent dreads: Your daughter’s been in an accident, get here quickly. But there was an ice storm in Northern Virginia, where her daughter Ashley McIntosh had been critically injured in a car crash with a Fairfax County police officer, and it wasn’t until the next day — hours of agony later — that Colasanto made it to Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Doctors kept Ashley alive just long enough for her mother to see her one last time. And then, at 33, engaged to be married, Ashley died. And Cindy’s voyage, along with her ex-husband John McIntosh and her daughter Meredith Heller, was just beginning.
For the next three years, I had a front row seat as the McIntosh-Colasanto clan plunged ever deeper into the emotional abyss of losing a child. Then, somehow, a light. Cindy Colasanto launched an improbable, impossible campaign to change Virginia law. She struggled. She lost. She struggled some more.
And finally, on Tuesday, she won. Gov. Bob McDonnell came to Mount Vernon, where both he and Ashley (and Colasanto) grew up, and signed the bill changing the way emergency responders drive through red light intersections.
It was an amazing ride. Here is a taste of their frustrations, their pain, and their triumphs from Feb. 12, 2008 to July 26, 2011, when “Ashley’s Law” was signed by the governor.
And here is Cindy Colasanto after Tuesday’s bill signing:
Feb. 13, 2008: Ashley, a kindergarten teacher’s assistant at Clermont Elementary School, dies. She is well known in the Mount Vernon area as an athlete and referee. Her father ran the Fort Hunt Youth Athletic Association for many years. More than 700 people attend her funeral. Police Chief David Rohrer calls the family and offers his condolences.
March 2008: I meet Ashley’s family for the first time. Colasanto is suspicious of reporters, but agrees to meet. Because the family has hired a lawyer, the Fairfax police have stopped releasing any information about the circumstances of the crash to the Colasantos and McIntoshes. The 22-year-old officer’s name is kept secret. Witnesses tell me they saw the officer tearing up Route 1 with her red lights on, but no siren. The family is devastated, confused by the police silence, unsure of what’s next.
April 2008: Ashley’s family and friends launch a petition, seeking charges against the officer. Colasanto meets with Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who is still gathering information. Colasanto is not convinced that Morrogh will seek justice for Ashley, and she is miserable.
May 2008: Morrogh watches the in-car video from Officer Amanda Perry, showing that she did not have her siren on and that she did not hit the brakes before entering the Boswell Road intersection on a red light. He watches it repeatedly. With the public calling for charges, police officers lean on Morrogh to clear Perry of any charges.
Morrogh charges Perry with reckless driving, angering the police. It also angers Ashley’s family, who wanted a manslaughter charge. Morrogh said manslaughter requires more than just negligence, such as drinking alcohol or utter disregard for others. The police officers’ union issues a statement denouncing the charge.
The charge is a misdemeanor. Inexplicably, all of the judges in Fairfax’s general district court — no pushovers for the prosecution — promptly recuse themselves from the case, saying they wanted the public to believe the case was tried impartially.
The case is assigned to a Stafford County judge, Sarah Deneke, who is a former prosecutor.
September 2008: The case goes to trial, and Officer Perry’s in-car video is played publicly for the first time. A packed courtroom gasps at the moment of impact. Colasanto and Heller, Ashley’s sister, are in the front row. It is painful to see them to watch their loved one violently killed.
Perry testifies, weeping at times. The tape shows her zooming up Route 1, and indicators on the screen show her siren wasn’t activated. Perry said she reached down for the controls but fumbled with them and “it did not come on.”
As Perry continues on Route 1, at speeds estimated between 38 and 44 mph, a line of virtually all sport-utility vehicles is in the left turn lane to enter Mount Vernon Plaza. The line of SUVs blocks Perry’s view of the cars emerging from the shopping center, though Perry said she was constantly scanning both sides and “my perception was the intersection was clear, so I could proceed through.”
The tape shows the light at Boswell Road was red for about five seconds before the crash, but Perry does not brake as she goes under the red light. McIntosh’s Toyota Corolla, in the left turn lane to go north on Route 1, appears to be trying to zip straight across Route 1, which would take her to her home in Fort Hunt. The collision is played and replayed. The tape does not show McIntosh being ejected from the spinning car (she did not have seat belt on).
Deneke finds Officer Perry not guilty of reckless driving. “I don’t find the evidence rises to a level that this driving was reckless,” the judge rules, but offers no further explanation..
This is the utter bottom for Colasanto, yet another crushing blow. Her daughter is killed. The other driver is charged with a misdemeanor. The other driver is acquitted. She and Heller stagger out of the courthouse, and Colasanto tells the TV cameras, “It’s beyond any understanding I have.”
Colasanto adds that she will push for legislation requiring emergency vehicles to slow down when entering intersections. Meanwhile, the police union installs Perry on its executive board, though she remains on administrative duties and has been an officer for only two years.
November 2008: Colasanto keeps her word and begins pushing for a new law on emergency response vehicles, though she has no experience whatsoever with the political process. She launches an online petition and gathers 2,300 signatures. She meets with her state senator, Toddy Puller, and various delegates. The response is not encouraging, but Puller and Del. David Englin agree to sponsor a bill in the 2009 session.
January 2009: Colasanto makes the rounds of legislators’ offices, getting some positive response, from some, utter disdain from others.It is a new experience, waiting in hallways to speak with an aide or a key member of a committee. The bill to rewrite the law is, unencouragingly, assigned to the transportation committee instead of the courts and justice committee, where it meets unified opposition from the police and sheriffs associations. Colasanto speaks before the committee, though she hates public speaking, and then again before the Virginia State Crime Commission. The bill’s chances seem bleak.
Puller suggests holding off for this year, sending the bill to the crime commission for study, and trying again in 2011. “2011?” I say incredulously. “2011?” It seems a long ways off, but Colasanto is not discouraged, somehow.
March 2009: Ashley’s family has filed a civil lawsuit against Officer Perry, and pretrial depositions are underway. Then I learn, and report, that Perry has been forced to resign because she allegedly was falsifying her time and attendance reports, reportedly spending time in the police union offices instead of her administrative job. She is booted off the union’s executive board.
August 2009: A pretrial hearing in the civil suit, to determine if Perry’s driving actions are entitled to “sovereign immunity,” as a government employee acting in the course of her duties. We learn that the initial call of a fight in progress was promptly downgraded to an apprehended shoplifter, but Perry didn’t see the downgrade on her in-car computer.
Virginia law grants police an exemption from obeying traffic laws when responding to an emergency. But Fairfax Circuit Court Judge R. Terrence Ney said this was no emergency. He rules Perry is not entitled to immunity, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers need only prove simple negligence.
It is a giant ruling for Ashley’s family. “Obviously I’m happy,” Colasanto said, “and if there is any justice, this is a step in the right direction.”
January 2010: Fairfax County agrees to settle the lawsuit and pay Ashley’s family $1.5 million. The resolution of the case clears the way for the General Assembly to reconsider the proposed change in the law, though the law enforcement groups still oppose it.
But the bill is again not on the table, in part because the lawsuit wasn’t settled until the legislative session is well underway. The idea of having the crime commission study the bill, and how emergency responders are regulated in other states, results in a formal study headed by former Virginia State Police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill.
Meanwhile, a friend of Colasanto’s husband, Tony Colasanto, connects her with the lobbying arm of the law firm McGuire Woods. The McGuire Woods Consulting group in Richmond agrees to take on the issue for free, and lobbyists Mark Hubbard, Mark Bowles and Tyler Bishop begin helping her work the legislature.
Throughout 2010, Colasanto ramps up her grass roots campaign. She distributes fact sheets and a video of her daughter’s crash to all 140 legislators. She walks the streets of Mount Vernon, to homes and businesses, gathering petition signatures in support of Ashley’s Law. She launches a letter writing campaign to key legislators, which generates more than 900 letters. She tries to meet with every member of the transportation committee She testifies in front of the crime commission again, telling them, “The goal here should be to prevent other parents from suffering what we have endured as a result of her death.”
November 2010: It worked. Colasanto’s persistence, aided by Puller and Del. David Albo, results in a unanimous recommendation by the crime commission that Ashley’s Law be passed: emergency vehicles must have both their lights and siren on, or else yield to traffic when they have a red light.
“A lot of times with these emotional cases,” Massengill said later, substantial change rarely occurs. “I see this one as a teachable standard that will bring about meaningful safety.”
Colasanto is thrilled, but the votes aren’t in yet. Still, the crime commission’s endorsement is a huge step.
February 2011: Fairfax police endorse the bill, which they say conforms to their own training standards. The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police make a last ditch attempt to amend the bill, Colasanto says, but it fails. The bill passes both houses of the General Assembly.
Colasanto is quietly overjoyed. “It was a long journey,” she says, “but in the end, common sense prevailed.”
June 28, 2011: A bill signing is scheduled by Gov. McDonnell for the Sherwood Hall Regional Library in Mount Vernon. But it has to be postponed when a state trooper is killed in a car crash with another vehicle at an intersection, and McDonnell must attend the funeral. State police say the trooper had his emergency lights and siren on.
July 26, 2011: McDonnell signs the bill. A meeting room is packed with friends and family of Ashley, as well as some of her former students and colleagues at Clermont Elementary. It is hot in there, the speech making goes on, the pressure builds, and Colasanto nearly faints. She delivers her remarks sitting down.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Ashley and miss her,” she says. “We all love Ashley and we share in this accomplishment in her memory. On behalf of Ashley, I thank you.”
Afterward, holding a pen handed to her by the governor, she describes the moment as “bittersweet. We had to lose Ashley to make it happen, but we made it happen.”
Then she thanks me, though I did nothing but watch. And she hugs me, which reporters don’t get too often. It was an unforgettable journey.