The Leotta family — Rich, Marcia and Shana — under a portrait of Noah Leotta at the parents’ home in Olney, Md. Leotta, a Montgomery County police officer, was killed by a suspected drunk driver. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Rich Leotta was certain what to do. His wife, Marcia Goldman, thought she was, too.

But as they huddled outside the hospital room, she asked whether doctors could do one more, just one more, test.

“Come with me,” a doctor said softly. “I want you to see this.”

The couple followed him down a hallway. Behind them, their son Noah, a 24-year-old police officer, lay hooked to a breathing machine, deep in a coma. A week earlier, on a road north of Washington, he’d pulled over a suspected drunk driver and gotten out of his car before another drunk driver came up from behind and rammed into him.

Noah’s story drew national attention. In the months that followed, Rich and Marcia would become public faces in the battle against drunken driving. They would testify at Maryland’s capitol, lend their son’s name to legislation and play a key role in the growing movement to strengthen the state’s DUI laws.

But trailing the doctor, they were two parents facing the worst decision imaginable. He led them to a computer. He showed them a CT scan of an active brain. Curved lines. Expanses of white.

He asked whether he could show them Noah’s brain. A solid gray mass.

“Okay,” Marcia said in near a whisper, “I understand.”

* * *

The night of the crash started for Rich and Marcia with dinner with the Ruddens, a couple they had known since college.

Rich was two years retired as a procurement director for the Energy Department. Marcia had retired soon after him from similar work at the National Institutes of Health.

They had started traveling — to the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks, and to Spain. And they had their new routines: Rich went to the gym every day and played golf with his brother as much as he could. Marcia visited her 91-year-old mother, Sylvia, who lived nearby. She took water aerobics and had her book club.

At the Outta the Way Cafe, dinner conversation turned to their two children.

Shana, 26, was doing great, teaching kindergarten and living in Baltimore.

Noah was thriving in his third year on Montgomery County’s police force. This, from the same Noah who had been scared of seemingly everything as a kid, came as never-ending wonder to the four adults.

He had moved out of his parents’ home in Olney a year earlier but still lived close. On his way to his night shifts, he would stop by for dinner and see Thorin, his beagle-pug mix, named after the dwarf commander in one of his favorite movies, “The Hobbit.”

Every time Noah got up to leave, Rich wanted to tell him to be careful, but he held back rather than draw unneeded attention to their worries. “Have a good night,” Rich said instead.

Now, with the Ruddens, Marcia talked about how Noah, just a month earlier, had earned a spot on the county’s holiday alcohol task force, becoming the youngest officer selected. The temporary assignment meant he would be driving around pulling people over, not barging into the apartment of some madman with a gun.

“He’ll be safer,” Marcia told her friends.

* * *

At Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Marcia quickly set a rule: Anyone entering Noah’s room couldn’t cry and had to speak only in positive terms.

But seeing Noah was jarring. The breathing tube snaked down his mouth. His skull was wrapped, his face badly swollen, his right eye closed. Shana found it easier to stay to his left.

The neurosurgeon had spoken to them, and they had Googled something called the “Glasgow Coma Scale.” On a scale of 3 to 15, with 3 being the worst, Noah was fluctuating between 3 and 4.

“You can come to us,” Marcia said, squeezing his pinky.

“We’re not going to leave you,” said Rich.

* * *

Their life with Noah started on June 7, 1991. Rich made a neat record of it inside a small square of the calendar he kept daily entries on during his son’s first year. “Noah arrived. 8 lbs, 7 oz,” Rich wrote.

Three days later, Noah was sleeping well.

“Mom and dad actually woke you at 4:30 a.m. for fear that something was wrong,” Rich wrote. “We were wrong.”

The entries that followed told of a year of constant visitors — cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents — and traditions handed down from Marcia’s Jewish side and Rich’s Italian one. One morning, Noah insisted on being held to the window to watch his dad mow the yard.

“Happy Birthday,” Rich wrote as Noah turned 1. “We went to the beach on a lovely sunny day. You enjoyed playing in the sand but didn’t like the cold water. The cake was chocolate.”

Common fears, as Noah grew older, gave way to exceptional ones. At night, he was convinced bad guys and monsters were about to break in. His parents struck a deal: He could sleep in their room, but only on the floor in his sleeping bag. During the day, he dreaded catching diseases and ailments he learned about from the news.

Marcia suggested that he take one of his favorite photos — of him sitting in her lap and wrapped in her arms — to school. “When you feel sad and when you’re scared,” she told him, “remember Mommy hugging you.”


Marcia Goldman with her son Noah when he was a young boy in a photo he took to school to calm his anxieties. (Family photo)

Officer Noah Leotta found a focus in being a police officer. He was working on a holiday alcohol enforcement task force on Dec. 3 and was out of his car with one suspected drunk driver when another rammed into Leotta from behind. (Montgomery County Police Department)

Looking at the photo helped, as did sessions with a child psychologist. Noah worked through the anxieties but had a form of dyslexia that made reading a challenge. He notched C’s through high school, a reflection of lingering self-doubts more than any lack of innate smarts.

Noah enrolled in community college and in a class that sounded interesting: criminology. That led to a ride-along with an officer, which led to an internship with the Montgomery police. Noah was picked to shadow veteran officer John Romack, known in the department as the “DUI King.”

“He knows how to find them,” Noah told his parents.

Suddenly, Noah had a focus.

He spent two hours a day in the gym, packing 20 pounds of muscle onto his scrawny 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Noah applied to the Montgomery police academy and said if he wasn’t accepted there, he would try other agencies, such as Baltimore.

“Can’t you find a safer job?” his mother asked.

“You’ve got to let him do what he wants to do,” Rich eventually said.

Noah got in, studied as he never had before and walked across the graduation stage in the summer of 2013. It was, Marcia realized at the time, the proudest moment of her life.

He was soon bringing home stories flush with rookie enthusiasm. One night, he ran out of fuel, got stranded at the side of the road and proposed what seemed like an obvious solution when his training officer asked what should be done.

“My mom lives up the road here,” Noah said, “and she could go get us some gas.”

He found himself responding to suicides, lethal overdoses and fatal car wrecks. Noah told his family about drunk drivers who would beg him to let them go even as Noah could see on the computer in his police car that the person had previous DUI arrests. “Dude, are you crazy?” he would ask.

Around that period, Noah, Rich and Marcia were discussing a TV show about a hospital patient with no chance of getting better.

“If something happens to me, just bury me and go on with your life, and don’t be sad,” Noah told his parents. “No fuss.”

* * *

At the hospital, the 72-hour mark loomed. By then, the swelling in Noah’s brain would have receded. If there was a remote chance of minor improvements, that’s when doctors would have been able to tell.

Rich and Marcia and Shana watched the nurses and doctors in the intensive care unit do regular coma tests. They shined lights into his deep-blue eyes. They spoke to him. They pressed on parts of his body for a response. Nothing. Seventy-two hours came and went. He stayed a 3.

Rich and Marcia kept asking their questions, always out in the hallway, often sequencing them according to the answers they could live with:

Could he be an officer again?

Could he work at a desk?

Would he ever move?

Would we ever know if he heard us?

In the not-too-distant future, the doctors said, Noah, along with the ventilator, would be moved to a nursing home. His life wouldn’t be static so much as in decline — muscles wasting, a constant battle with bedsores.

Down the hall in the ICU waiting room, where they also could talk freely, Rich and Marcia found themselves drawn to the other police officers — other Noahs.

Marcia asked about the man who had hit their son.

He had driven drunk before, one of the officers said. He lived in Olney, too. He was probably at his home now, a free man until the crash investigation was done.

“Go get him. Go get him,” Marcia said. “Let him see what he did to my son.”

But mostly, she and Rich talked about what to do. Maybe they were already seeing a miracle, Rich said — Noah had stayed alive long enough for them to get to the hospital, for his uncles and aunts and cousins and fellow officers to get there, too.

“When I go in there and stroke his hair, when I feel that he’s still warm, I’m doing it for myself,” he admitted to Marcia. “Noah is trapped.”

But how do you ignore that from the neck down everything was fine? No broken bones. Organs that worked perfectly.

For Marcia, it was the images of her son’s brain, shown to them by physician Mauro Sarmiento, that sealed her decision.

“Everything,” the doctor said, “is gone.”


Noah Leotta’s family displays memorials and his awards as a Montgomery County police officer in a room at their Maryland home. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
* * *

Marcia and Rich were again in the back of a police car — just as they had been the night of the crash, when two officers had knocked on their door around the time Noah sometimes came by, the night the two officers said they needed to go to the hospital, quickly. This time, two months after the crash, they were headed to Annapolis, taking the first step of their new lives — advocating at the statehouse for tougher drunken-driving laws.

Officials led them into a paneled hearing room, set up with banks of television cameras.

Rich held up one of Noah’s police badges, the one he keeps on a thin chain around his neck.

“We lost our son — our vibrant, healthy, brave son, Noah,” he said.

He wondered aloud who possibly could be against legislation requiring all convicted drunk drivers to have a device installed in their vehicles that would check their breath for any alcohol before enabling the ignition. “It’s not a controversial issue!” Rich said, his voice rising.

He had prepared written remarks. But his delivery was raw. His tears came.


Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, right, listens as Rich Leotta holds an ignition interlock device last month in Annapolis while speaking at a news conference about tougher penalties for drunken driving. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Later, knowing he was set to speak publicly again, Rich couldn’t sleep, worried he wasn’t pushing hard enough. He drove to Noah’s grave, taking Thorin with him. “What should I say, Noah?” Rich asked.

Hours later, in front of cameras at a courthouse in Montgomery County, he spoke for 16 minutes.

He called out members of the Maryland legislature, liquor lobbyists, the restaurant that served beer and whiskey to the man who struck his son, and the man himself.

As he had recently learned, the driver, Luis Reluzco, had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 — nearly three times the legal limit — when he crashed into Noah. He’d had three other drunken-driving arrests. And now, charged with vehicular manslaughter in Noah’s death, he might serve as few as 24 months behind bars.

“All he cared about,” Rich said, his voice cracking, “was having drinks and getting drunk.”

Away from the lights, he and Marcia found joy in the young officers who had worked with their son. Over pizza with them on a recent Friday, Rich joked about his tendency to talk at length at news conferences, to name names of politicians.

The eight officers gathered around the table were having none of it. They had watched him on TV that afternoon from their station.

“You can obviously see your passion,” Cpl. Ed Wilcher told him.

Rich and Marcia’s efforts in Annapolis would begin to pay off weeks later. On Thursday, a crucial legislative committee passed “Noah’s Law,” making it more likely that additional convicted drunk drivers will be required to install breath-sensing ignition locks in their cars.

Back in their home, as the pizza gathering was wrapping up, Rich made a point of catching Joe Groeger, who had been Noah’s roommate, before he walked out the door. Like Noah, he was a 24-year-old police officer for the county.

With Noah gone, Joe was moving from their apartment soon and, for a while at least, would be staying an hour’s drive away.

Rich and Marcia’s house would be on Joe’s way home. Stop by, Rich told him, even if he and Marcia weren’t home, it wouldn’t be problem. He gave Joe the code to get in the house. “Just punch it in,” Rich said. “Lay on the couch. That’s what Noah used to do.”


Rich Leotta, at right, with officers who worked with his son Noah Leotta, a the family’s home last month. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
* * *

Rich and Marcia have returned to some of their pastimes, including dinner with their longtime friends, the Ruddens. Sitting in their living room one evening, Rich talked about trying to change laws.

And he told them about the memory he cannot change.

He is walking into the operating room on Dec. 10 where the organ donor team was waiting. Next to Rich are his two brothers and Noah’s girlfriend, all in scrubs and gloves and masks.

“I could see Noah’s head, his shoulders,” Rich says.

Marcia didn’t go to the operating room — she knew Noah wouldn’t have wanted that.

Rich keeps telling his story.

The doctor disconnected the breathing tube. Noah’s body tried to work on its own. One breath up. Another. The breaths began to taper, the movements in his neck less and less visible.

After 10 minutes, Rich kissed Noah on the cheek.

“It’s time to go,” Rich told him. “It’s okay to go.”