At sentencing in drunk driver's fatal accident, competing pleas for justice

So well-liked was Gradys Mendoza -- who was killed by a drunk-driver on the Beltway last year -- that his family lined up a bus to take 23 people to the sentencing hearing of the drunk-driver.
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

Walt Purkoski, then a 50-year-old Army warrant officer, met Gradys Mendoza, a 20-year-old busboy, at the Springfield Hilton two decades ago. Worried that Mendoza wasn't getting a cut of the waiters' tips, Purkoski started slipping him $10 when he shook his hand.

On Wednesday, joined by two dozen others who had come to know Mendoza well, Purkoski boarded a chartered bus bound for a courthouse in Maryland.

"I want to see the woman get a good sentence who killed a good friend of mine," Purkoski said, settling into a seat several rows behind Mendoza's widow, Maria, and their two daughters and son.

That the family had lined up a bus was testament to how popular Mendoza was and all that he'd accomplished -- promotions to banquet management jobs, starting his own construction businesses, becoming a citizen, building homes in Virginia and a church and kindergarten in his tiny home town in Honduras.

The 23 bus passengers would be joined by 24 others in the courthouse. They all knew what they were up against.

Mendoza was killed by a drunk driver -- and many drunk drivers in Maryland spend less than two years behind bars in cases where they kill other motorists. In this case, the defendant, Kelli Loos, had run into Mendoza's truck from behind on the Capital Beltway, sending it skidding over a guardrail and airborne down a 60-foot ravine. Mendoza's passenger, his good friend Franklin Manzanares, also was crushed to death when the truck landed on its roof. At the time, nearly midnight, the two were coming home from signing a construction contract in Maryland -- sober and wearing their seat belts.

Loos kept driving, into Virginia, where she crashed her Jeep Cherokee, was quickly arrested and found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.2 -- nearly three times the legal limit.

Wednesday was Loos's sentencing day. Mendoza's and Manzanares's friends had to be there.

As horrific as the crime was, though, Loos also had things going for her.

She had pleaded guilty. She'd written to the judge expressing deep and what seemed to be sincere remorse. Health professionals were set to say that what Loos really needed was treatment.

By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in Springfield, cars were pulling into a Kmart parking lot. Supporters boarded the bus and by 11:40 a.m. were on the Beltway, headed toward Maryland.

Near the front was Maria Mendoza, from the Salvadoran town of Piedras Blancas, along the Honduran border. She met Gradys as a teenager, when he drove across the border for dances. Soon he was in the United States, sending her English-instructional videos and letters promising a future together. When she married him in 1991 and moved to Virginia, he'd saved enough to have a slightly used Toyota sports car waiting for her.

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