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

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010; B01

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.

In advance of the sentencing, Maria Mendoza wrote a long letter about her family to the judge, Louise G. Scrivener. "I want you to know that the 7th of July, 2009, destroyed our lives," she wrote.

By 12:30, the bus pulled up to the Montgomery County Circuit Courthouse. Driver and bus owner Darwin Cruz, a family friend who donated use of the bus, looked for parking. "She has to pay," he said of the defendant.

On the third floor, the hearing got underway at 1:40 p.m.

Prosecutor Mark Anderson laid out the facts of the case.

On the evening of July 7, Loos had gone with a friend to the Hamburger Hamlet in Bethesda, where she drank a bottle of wine. She dropped the friend off and made her way onto the Beltway, even though she lived in Bethesda and had no reason to take the highway.

Almost immediately, other drivers started calling 911 about an erratic driver. They were parting "like the Red Sea to allow the drunk to go through," Anderson said.

The three crimes to which Loos had pleaded guilty -- two counts of vehicular manslaughter, one count of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death -- carried a maximum penalty of 30 years. Under her plea agreement, though, prosecutors limited their request to 20 years.

Anderson argued that the drunk driver, Loos, now 34, was a threat to everyone on the roads. "I fear people like her more than I do violent felony offenders with guns shooting at people," he said.

Mendoza's youngest child, Madelyn, 13, was one of more than 10 speakers. She told the judge how her father took her, her sister and her brother to Six Flags on their birthdays and to Central America for vacations. "My family and I will never be able to have another family trip with him," she said.

Loos sobbed nonstop as the tributes continued for nearly an hour. She, too, read a letter to the judge, and then turned to speak to the family. "I'm just so sorry," she said, her voice falling apart.

The judge, Scrivener, said she had read all the letters, she appreciated them, and she lamented how preventable the deaths were. She also said Loos had showed a "huge level of remorse" and seemed committed to continuing her alcoholism treatment.

"She's not a horrible person by any means," Scrivener said.

She sentenced Loos, who worked as a meeting organizer, to 10 years, near the high end of state-recommended guidelines in the case. But she probably won't serve nearly that long.

She will get credit for the 10 months she has been in jail since the accident. She will be eligible for parole in 20 months because vehicular manslaughter is considered a nonviolent crime under state rules. The state's good behavior credits in prison could make her eligible for mandatory release in as little as 3 1/2 years.

"The laws, they're not very good," Mendoza's brother, Thomas, said after the hearing.

Purkoski, the old friend from the Hilton, also wanted more. He'd gotten to know Mendoza over the years because he hired him for work, and because Mendoza would check on his health as Purkoski got into his late 60s.

Passing the crash site as the bus made its way back to Virginia, he thought of Mendoza and Manzanares.

"God bless, guys," he said.

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