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Two lives forever altered on a roadway

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; 10:33 PM

Officer Jason Cokinos was about to leave his house in northern Montgomery County when he heard the traffic report. Route 27 was backed up. Better take Stringtown Road, he thought, before climbing into his police cruiser to drive to his off-duty job at a power plant.

Inside a modest, split-level house along Stringtown Road, 12-year-old Luis Jovel Jr. had gotten home from school. He ate a bowl of cereal and asked his dad whether he could walk to a friend's house. He headed down his long driveway and crossed a stretch of Stringtown where rural gives way to residential.

What happened next, on a sunny afternoon in April 2008 in Clarksburg, changed two lives forever.

"It's a picture in my mind that I never want to see again," said Cokinos, speaking publicly for the first time about the accident.

He was driving an estimated 56 mph, nearly twice the speed limit, and said the child darted in front of his car. He slammed his brakes, skidded 40 feet and struck the 82-pound boy, who rolled over his hood. Junior, as Luis is called, is now a quadriplegic.

"It's okay it was me," Junior told his mother. "I can't even imagine if it was one of my brothers or my sister."

Junior and Cokinos believe things happen for reasons. They tell themselves not to dwell on the past. They never have spoken to each other.

"I don't want to just show up at the door," Cokinos said. "I don't want to create any problems for them. I don't want to create any additional pain."

On the road

After Cokinos's car skidded to a stop that afternoon, he jumped out, grabbed a first aid kit and applied a bandage to the back of Junior's head. He felt no pulse and started chest compressions. Junior's father, Luis Jovel Sr., came running out of the house. He performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, taking in blood as he did.

The two got a labored breathing going. Medics showed up. Junior was taken away in a helicopter, barely alive.

He fell into a coma. Doctors determined his brain stem, a small area that translates thoughts to actions, was badly damaged. It was unclear whether the altar boy and youth football player would ever speak again.

On his way to visit him at Kennedy Krieger hospital in Baltimore one day, Junior's older brother Juan stopped at a Borders bookstore and spotted a spelling teaching tool for young kids: a board that held movable, magnetic letters.

At Jovel's bedside, Juan and his twin, Melvin, pointed at letters and asked Junior to blink once for yes, twice for no.

Using the blinks and gestures, Junior spelled this out: Don't visit me anymore wearing Cowboys jerseys.

Two months after the collision, Junior saw his neurosurgeon, Amanda Yaun, at Children's National Medical Center. His head and neck were confined inside a halo, and he couldn't move his feet or right arm beyond a flicker.

"Junior, show her what you can do," his mother, Norma, said excitedly.

He struggled for several seconds. And then he raised his left hand, bending at the elbow, six inches off the bed.

Guilty of speeding

Cokinos, 26, grew up the son of a New Jersey police officer. He graduated from college in Pennsylvania and joined the Montgomery force in 2006.

Cokinos called his father after the accident. Cokinos remembers speaking calmly, thinking about what he'd say before it. "It sounds like you've got this under control," he recalled his dad saying.

His department's investigation concluded that if he had been driving 30 mph instead of 56, he could have stopped in time. The department also faulted Junior for trying to cross the road where he did.

"As soon as I saw him, he was at a full sprint," Cokinos told internal affairs investigators. "By the time I saw him, he ran that fast into the road."

Cokinos repeated the account in several interviews and said he spotted the child as he ran near the double yellow marking on the road.

He was issued two citations: speeding and negligent driving. He pleaded guilty to the former, and a judge found him not guilty of the latter, saying there was no evidence of errant driving beyond speed. Cokinos was fined $160, and he went forward with his career on the force.

He later applied to an opening on a small, coveted street crimes unit, which is deployed to hot spots across the county.

Although he was among the least experienced of the 10 candidates, Cokinos had a file full of commendation letters from citizens. In answering interview questions, Cokinos quoted extensively from U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland appeals court opinions governing police procedures.

"He stood head and shoulders above everyone else," said Sgt. Jim Brown, a supervisor in the street crimes unit.

School smarts

Before the collision, Junior was shy and rarely spoke up in class. In early 2009, he returned to school with the conspicuousness of a wheelchair and unsure whether others could hear his faint, short sentences.

By then he'd undergone multiple operations. Doctors fused vertebrae in his neck and inserted a pump under his skin to deliver medicine to his spinal fluid that made his muscles more relaxed. He could move his feet slightly but couldn't walk, couldn't turn pages, couldn't hold a pencil.

Rocky Hill Middle School provided a full-time aide, Tom McAuliffe, 42. But no one knew exactly what the brain injury had done to Junior's school smarts.

Shortly after his first day back at school, Junior took a multiple-choice science quiz. Junior motored to a hallway, setting up behind a table with McAuliffe so that he could dictate answers without disturbing other students.

Junior got an A.

He and McAuliffe made quite a pair. One shy and reserved, the other talkative and given to addressing uncomfortable situations with sarcasm.

"Did you just say, 'Call me princess'?" McAuliffe asked one day after Junior had struggled to say photosynthesis.

Before a spaghetti dinner hosted by the Jovels to raise money for Junior's care, McAuliffe asked about the dress code. "Get a haircut," the kid told him.

In fall 2009, Junior notched six A's and one B. Months later, he presented to McAuliffe the classes he would be taking in his upcoming freshman year in high school. Honors geometry, honors science and honors history were in the lineup.

"Dude, that's a lot of work," McAuliffe said. "Pick a foo-foo class. Where's art appreciation?"

"I want to do it," said Junior, who instead added a very non-foo-foo honors English class.

No victim

Junior's father continued his job as a manager at a McDonald's inside the National Air and Space Museum. His mother scaled back her job as a house cleaner to care for her son. She works him through two to three hours of physical therapy each day - at home using tiny weights and an electrical stimulation machine. She also takes him to a nearby indoor swimming pool, where if she or her husband held Junior up, he could move his feet enough to walk through the water.

His parents knew he had fewer social outlets. Kids his age were moving on to the independence of teenage life. Norma took him to an adolescent therapist.

"Do you get upset?" Kathleen Gallagher, director of the Alpha Omega Clinic in Bethesda, asked him.

"I get upset that my mom gets upset," Junior said.

During one session, he told Gallagher he planned to walk again. But if he didn't, he'd be okay because God had a plan for him. It was a level of acceptance that stunned her. She reached across his motionless legs, grabbed a box of tissues and, for the first time in her 26-year career, cried in front of a patient.

Having moved to high school this year, Junior must navigate the chaos of hallways. Some students step aside, greeting him. Others, in their own worlds, force him to steer around them.

This fall, a student with his back to Junior stepped in the wheelchair's path. Junior's chair struck him. The student whirled around and cursed him out.

Staff members stepped in, and the student was taken away.

Junior didn't like the way it all was handled. He asked McAuliffe whether he could speak to the other student.

"I'm sorry," Junior told the other student in a private office.

"He's not going to be victimized," said George Pappas, head of special education at Clarksburg. "He's remarkable in that way."

Strapped for funds

While Cokinos drives his police car, he is reminded of the collision when he sees kids playing on the side of the road. He fears they might come into traffic. He tries not to dwell on what happened, because doing so could interfere with his job.

On a late night this June, he spotted a Chevrolet Malibu linked to a series of armed robberies in the Bethesda area. He tried to pull it over, the car sped away, and Cokinos had to chase it. Speeds reached 116 mph on the Capital Beltway.

"He was 100 percent calm," said Brown, his supervisor, an opinion confirmed by police recordings that captured Cokinos's voice. "I wish I had a shift full of Jasons," Brown adds.

Earlier this year, Cokinos got as close to Junior as he had since the collision. It was inside a 15th-floor conference room in downtown Rockville.

Junior's parents, financially squeezed by expenses for their son and modifications to their home, had sued Cokinos and the county. They said their son always looked both ways. The family said they let Junior walk to his friend's house before the collision. To get there, they said, he had to cross Stringtown because there was a large drainage ditch running along their side of the road.

County attorneys brought Junior in for a deposition.

Three times they asked him whether he remembered the collision. Three times he said no. They asked him how he typically crossed Stringtown Road.

Always checked both ways, he told the lawyers, and made his way to a field across the street. "It seemed like the safest way," he said.

Junior's parents grew concerned about the toll of the interview. But their son didn't want water, didn't want to take a break.

Cokinos remembers how poised he seemed. "I thought it was amazing," he said.

Government liability caps limited how much the Jovels could collect. They settled with the county for $400,000, which will be used for lawyers' fees and expenses for their son. They say they face many more expenses to care for Junior.

The collision has left Cokinos, the only witness who remembers what happened, with mixed feelings. The child came out so fast, he said, he couldn't avoid him.

"There's a lot of what-ifs on both sides of the fence," he said.

The tone of his voice picks up when he is shown Junior's most recent report card - four A's and three B's.

"It speaks volumes," Cokinos said. "That he's in honors geometry, honors history."

He talks about possible advancements in medicine, about Junior possibly walking on his own one day.

"Who knows what will happen in 10 years?" Cokinos said.

Junior said he misses football, misses his independence, but tries not to dwell on it.

"God is giving me patience," he said. "He is helping me get better."

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