A Maryland woman released early from prison after killing two people in a 2009 drunken-driving crash was sent back to jail Wednesday after an alcohol-sensing “interlock” device stopped her several times from starting her car.
“I don’t know what to do with you. I truly don’t,” an exasperated judge told Kelli Loos, 40, during a hearing in Montgomery County Circuit Court.
Judge Joseph Dugan ordered Loos held without bond for 90 days, at which point he will bring her back for sentencing. Loos and her attorney are advocating she go to a treatment program. Prosecutors want incarceration.
After tripping the device last year, Loos of Annapolis claimed that Altoids breath mints caused the device to indicate alcohol infractions. In court Wednesday, she abandoned the mint claims.
“I made poor decisions,” she told Dugan, adding, “I need help.”
Her case has taken on new resonance in a state in which some lawmakers are pushing to toughen drunken-driving laws and penalties.
Two of the legislative proposals in Maryland: Raise the maximum sentence for vehicular manslaughter convictions, like those in the 2009 Loos case; and require anyone convicted of drunken-driving to install an interlock device, not just those drivers who exceed certain thresholds.
Loos was paroled from prison in 2013, after serving four years of a 10-year sentence. She later was permitted to drive as long as she first blew into an interlock.
At least three times, the device halted her from starting her car when she was legally drunk, prosecutors said. One of the readings was a 0.16, which is twice the legal limit.
“Here she is: She’s back,” prosecutor Mark Anderson said in court Wednesday. “The interlock works or else she’d be driving around at these levels. These levels are ridiculous.”
Loos, a graduate of Virginia Tech University who had worked as a meeting planner, stood for much of the hearing on Wednesday, wiping away tears. Dugan ruled that she violated her probation for two reasons: Drinking, and trying to drive after drinking.
His voice raised, Dugan kept asking Loos why she would drink again — knowing she could be sent back to prison, knowing she had an 8-year-old daughter at home, knowing that she had killed two people while driving drunk seven years ago.
He said she was making rationalizations: Trouble being out on her own, a need for more rehabilitation, fears of going back to prison. His words led to a rapid exchange with Loos.
“You’re trying to make excuses,” Dugan said.
“No, I’m not,” Loos said.
“I did it because. I did it because,” Dugan said, imitating her. “All right, why did you do it?”
“Because I made poor decisions.”
“Why did you make poor decisions?”
“Because I need help.”
“Because,” Dugan responded, directing her on what to say, “I’m an alcoholic. And I can’t stop drinking.”
“Because I’m an alcoholic,” Loos said, correcting herself. “That’s what I meant. I’m sorry. I just didn’t use those words.”
“Well, you didn’t use those words because you don’t believe it.”
“No, I do believe it.”
“No, you don’t. If you did, you would have said that right from the beginning,” the judge told her.
“People just don’t take the issue of drinking and driving as deadly serious as they should,” Del. Benjamin Kramer (D-Montgomery County) said Tuesday.
The 2009 crash devastated the families of two men: Gradys Mendoza and Franklin Manzanares.
In an interview Tuesday, Mendoza’s widow said that Loos should have stayed in prison longer. “I feel as if justice was not made for the two families,” Maria Mendoza said.
After her husband died, she maintained hope the pain would ease. Their three children were 12- to 15- years old at the time. But the pain hasn’t receded, Mendoza said, and her children became adults without their dad. “We miss him more and more,” she said. “It gets harder.”
In letters written earlier to the court, Loos had spoken about her deep sorrow, and her efforts to get better through programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I would sincerely give my life to bring Gradys Mendoza and Franklin Manzanares back to this earth and to their families,” Loos wrote. “Gradys and Franklin are my first thought each morning, and my last prayer at night.”
In court Wednesday, Loos’s lawyer, Charles Lipscomb, acknowledged that until last week, whenever he asked Loos if she had recently been drinking, Loos said no — and blamed breath mints for the interlock readings.
“The answer has always been: ‘No, no, no, no. Altoids. No, no, no. I didn’t drink, I didn’t drink, I didn’t drink,’” Lipscomb told Dugan, adding how he knew Altoids couldn’t have registered the readings at issue. “Finally, she said to me, without any sort of prodding at all: ‘I admit it. I was drinking.’ And it was almost — for her — a come to hallelujah moment.’”
The judge, Dugan, set the sentencing date for June 1. He acknowledged that sending Loos back to state prison could hurt Loos’s daughter and elderly relatives she helps care for.
“I could throw you away for 20 years, and that would be that. And then the public would be protected,” he told Loos. “But I suppose there would be a lot of people who would suffer from that as well.”
On the evening of July 7, 2009, Loos had gone with a friend to Hamburger Hamlet in Bethesda, where she drank a bottle of wine. She dropped off the friend and drove onto the Capital Beltway, heading south in a Jeep Cherokee.
Ahead of her were Mendoza, who owned a construction business, and his good friend, Manzanares. The men were sober, wearing seat belts, and coming home from signing a construction job contract.
Loos struck their truck from behind, sending it skidding over a guardrail and airborne down a 60-foot ravine. Loos kept driving, into Virginia, where she crashed. She was found to have a blood-alcohol level of 0.20, more than twice the legal limit.
Loos pleaded guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of leaving the scene of an accident. Each count carried a maximum penalty of 10 years, for a total of 30. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed to limit their sentencing request to 20 years.
On May 19, 2010, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Louise G. Scrivener sentenced Loos to 10 years, giving her credit for time she served while detained after the wreck.
Because the crimes to which Loos pleaded guilty are considered “nonviolent” under Maryland rules, she became eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 percent of her sentence.
In July 2013, Loos was paroled, having served roughly 40 percent of her sentence. At her parole hearing, Loos was able to show a record of good behavior behind bars, presented herself as remorseful and took responsibility for the crime, said David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission.
“We have to balance all factors, and we try to make our best judgment,” he said.
Loos is on parole supervision until 2019 and probation supervision until 2018, Blumberg said.
She has a job and lives in Annapolis, according to court records, and has an interlock device on her car. Her test readings are relayed to a vendor. On July 11, 2015, the vendor reported to state officials that the previous day, the device prevented Loos’s car from starting after three alcohol reading, court records say. (The court records don’t specify the exact readings.)
Loos was brought in for a parole-violation hearing, where she denied she had been drinking and said she had eaten Altoids mints that set off the interlock, according to Blumberg. She was found not guilty of a parole violation, he said.
The terms of her probation — and whether the interlock readings constitute a violation — was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing.
Kramer, the Maryland legislator, is sponsoring legislation that would lower the threshold for when an interlock would be required for a convicted drunk driver. Interlocks are mandated for drivers found to have been very drunk, with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 or higher. Kramer wants to lower the threshold to the legal limit for drunken driving: 0.08.
In one regard, the Loos case does not relate to the legislative proposal. Loos was very drunk, at 0.20. But in another aspect, her case is relevant because it illustrates how interlocks prevent cars from starting, Kramer noted.
In the most recent year for which records are available, interlocks in Maryland had stopped at least 3,800 attempts — at 0.08 or higher — to drive drunk, Kramer said.
“We know for a fact the interlock is working,” Kramer said.
He also said the devices are designed to account for other substances that could create a false read, and that even if the ignition won’t start, drivers have the option of rinsing their mouths and re-blowing — which lets them use mouthwash, for example, and still drive. If someone has been drinking alcohol, Kramer said, the rinsing doesn’t work.
In Northern Virginia, Maria Mendoza — the widow of one of the men hit by Loos — said that without her late husband’s income she has had to sell their home. Their children are in college — one at George Mason University and two at Northern Virginia Community College.
“I try to do the best I can,” she said. “I tell them: ‘Daddy wants you to go to school. We have to make Daddy proud.’ ”