Tragic DUI crash prompts community to take sides

April 19, 2012

The horrific crash erupted in a split second.

Kevin Coffay and several friends had left a party. Coffay was drunk, and he slammed a Toyota Corolla into a tree on the side of a Montgomery County road about 3 a.m.

Coffay crawled out from behind an airbag and slipped into the woods. Police and tracking dogs found him hours later and miles away, his blood-alcohol level still double the legal limit for driving. Three of his friends were dead or dying.

The aftermath, a year later, is still tearing through their community.

The damage will be on display again in Montgomery County Circuit Court on Friday: Coffay — backed by family, friends and neighbors — will ask three judges to cut his prison sentence, arguing that the original 20-year sentence was more about revenge than justice.

“I understand that many people, especially the families of the victims, are angry and demand vengeance — the fact remains that this was an accident and I never set out to hurt my friends in the car,” Coffay, now 21, wrote to the court.

He also wrote of Spencer Datt, who died in the crash: “Throwing my life away doesn’t bring Spencer back.”

To the families of the victims and their supporters, Coffay’s letter turns his criminal act on its ear. Now, it seems to them, Coffay wants to shift the focus from his actions to their anger.

Maryland law allows defendants to contest their sentences without taking the matter to an appeals court. Even with a sentence of 20 years, Coffay could be released on parole as early as his 26th birthday.

“Are we emotional? Sure,” Datt’s father, Doug, said Wednesday night. “And any parent who has lost a child and is not emotional shouldn’t have had a child in the first place.”

The community of Derwood — between Rockville and Olney – feeds bright, ambitious and, in many cases, well-off kids into Magruder High School. Winding roads that connect spread-out neighborhoods have turned deadly from drunk drivers over the years.

By midnight May 14, Coffay and his friends — all high school- or college-aged — had gathered at a party in Olney. There was Datt, 18; Haeley McGuire, 18; and Johnny Hoover, 20. They, too, were drinking.

At 12:30 a.m., Coffay drove the silver 2007 Corolla to another party, in Gaithersburg, where more alcohol was served. The party broke up shortly before 3 a.m. The friends piled back into the Toyota, joined by Charlie Nardella, 19, in the back seat. Coffay was behind the wheel.

As Coffay raced down rain-slicked roads, Nardella shook the driver’s seat and told him to slow down, according to prosecutors. But the car veered off Olney-Laytonsville Road, went airborne, sideswiped a utility pole and slammed into a tree. Nardella was the only passenger to survive.

Coffay later pleaded guilty to three counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of failing to remain at the scene of a potentially fatal crash.

Prosecutors asked for a 20-year sentence — relatively stiff by county standards but justified, they said, because of his callous actions that night. The victims’ relatives endorsed the strategy.

In the days leading up to Coffay’s Jan. 5 sentencing, letters poured in to Circuit Court Judge Theresa Adams.

Coffay’s supporters described him as a sweet young man burdened by early hardships. His father, racked with Alzheimer’s, no longer recognized him. His mother had just completed treatment for breast cancer, helped by Kevin’s driving her to and from chemotherapy appointments.

“While poor choices were made by ALL involved, nothing was done in malice,” a family friend wrote in one of more than 80 letters in support of Coffay.

At the Datt, McGuire and Hoover homes, the families tried to adjust to an impossible new normal.

Every morning, Doug Datt walked to his son’s room hoping to open the door and see Spencer. His son, a popular basketball player at Magruder, had just completed a year of college in North Carolina.

“There is a sadness in my wife’s eyes I cannot make go away,” he said at the time.

One mile north, inside Haeley McGuire’s bedroom, the contents were untouched. On a neatly made bed sat a blue and yellow T-shirt, exactly where Haeley had tossed it before going out the evening of May 14. She’d recently accepted an academic scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina.

“You can almost imagine that it’s the day she was still here,” Elisa McGuire, Haeley’s mother, said recently as she stood in the room.

Down the street, outside the Hoover home, Johnny’s father would wander into his large yard at night. He’d think about his son, who had just completed his first semester at the University of Maryland at College Park, and picture him laughing with friends around a bonfire, like he used to do.

And Pat Hoover would remember what he always said to himself in such moments: “Life is perfect.”

The families took comfort in a foundation started in their children’s memory. Elisa McGuire and her family helped distribute thousands of free T-shirts at high school sporting events to kids who promised not to drink and drive or to climb into a car with someone who has.

But the victims’ parents also read copies of the letters submitted by Coffay’s supporters, growing increasingly upset. Yes, their kids had been drinking. But they didn’t drive, and they didn’t didn’t run through the woods while others gasped their last breaths.

“I have so many emotions I need to express and get off my chest,” Carolyn Hoover, Johnny’s mother, said inside a packed courtroom on Jan. 5.

She said of Coffay’s supporters: “The idea they have tried to spread, as if this accident could have been caused by any typical 20-year-old male — these statements minimize the fact that my son is dead.”

And she spoke about Coffay and her son. “Kevin was the friend every mother dreads, a time bomb waiting to go off. . . . I am so disappointed that he [Johnny] would ever get into Kevin Coffay’s car. I thought my son knew better, but that is the problem with alcohol — judgment is impaired.”

Coffay’s mother, Ellen Coffay, also spoke.

“I am sad our community has become so divided and is so full of anger,” she said. “I do pray every single day that there will be healing at some point.”

Adams, the judge, addressed the defendant’s mother. “Mrs. Coffay, I can’t imagine the pain you are suffering, and I certainly take that into consideration,” she said. “And what I heard in the courtroom today was overwhelming anger, and justified anger, but not hatred.”

Coffay’s attorney, Michael McAuliffe, has said there is no guarantee that Coffay will be released on parole. He submitted a chart to the court showing that Coffay’s sentence was noticeably longer than in other drunken-driving fatalities in Montgomery.

His client wrote him a letter from prison recently that was also submitted to the court. “I realize that I am completely responsible for what I did that night,” Coffay wrote. “It still haunts my mind every day. I wake up and think about what happened that night. All the things I wish I could go back and change, and the guilt I feel keeps me up at night often here in prison.

“However, I do think Judge Adams unfairly punished me to address and try to alter the actions of what she described as a ‘culture of recklessness.’ It is not fair to punish me for something I have nothing to do with. I did not create the culture of teens around me and in no way should be held accountable for it.”

Post staff writer Dan Morse covers courts and crime in Montgomery County, Md.
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