Most Charlotteans probably remember Min Chang, the 18-year-old UNCC freshman killed by an illegal immigrant driving the wrong way on I-485 in November.
There was genuine outrage in this community over a promising life cut short, and barbs were traded among some illegal immigration critics and pro-Latino advocates. But aside from police and a few district attorneys, no one took much notice of the fate of Tony Grier, 49, an African American security guard who was killed in March while walking along Sharon Amity Road. Geronimo Leocadio Villa-Gomez had a blood-alcohol level of .20 when he ran off the road and plowed into Grier, who died at the scene. Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) say Villa-Gomez was in this country illegally.
In May, Shawn Michael Robinson, a 23-year-old auto mechanic who'd moved to Charlotte from Alaska was killed while riding his bike on East Peterson Street. Driver Mauro Aristides Dominguez Campos, who police reports say was intoxicated, hit Robinson from behind. The impact was so great that Robinson's body was thrown 70 feet. Campos fled the scene. ICE says Campos, too, was in the country illegally.
So were the drunk drivers who killed 21-year-old Jasmine Lawrence and Roberto Casillas, 47. Frank "Buddy" Cline, 33, was killed on his way to his job as a third-shift conductor for Norfolk Southern Railroad when another illegal drunk driver crossed a median on North Tryon Street and crashed into him head-on. Cline left behind a 2-year-old son and a wife who was eight months pregnant with a daughter he never got to see.
A lot of people -- including me, until recently -- assumed most of the drunk drivers killing people on the county's roads were American citizens whose cases never get the media attention showered upon Jorge Hernandez Soto, the driver responsible for Chang's death. As it turns out, that assumption is wrong.
At the moment, 11 drunk-driving cases that resulted in the death of another person are pending in our court system. In six of those cases, the drivers are in this country illegally.
Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Marsha Goodenow says her office prosecuted every drunk driver who killed someone during that period. None had charges against them dismissed, which means the DA's office isn't singling out illegal immigrants for prosecution.
At least three of the six men have been charged with drunk driving at least once before. I say "at least" because, as a group, the six men have about two dozen aliases. While the jail system is supposed to assign just one prisoner identification number (PID) to each person, one of the men, Noel Moreno, has two prisoner identification numbers and is known to the county criminal justice system as two different people, both of whom have drunk driving charges. Two of the men had North Carolina driver's licenses.
The hardest thing for me to get past in cases like these is that if our politicians had enforced our immigration laws, the victims in these cases, who died horrible deaths, would likely still be alive.
At the point in my research when I got so mad I couldn't see straight, I ran across 26-year-old Geronimo Villa-Gomez's mug shot, taken in the hours after he ran over and killed Grier. On Villa-Gomez's face is one of the most perfectly captured expressions of human anguish and devastation I've ever seen, and it stopped me cold. In a sense, he's a victim here, too. Like every other illegal alien who has breached our borders, his first act upon stepping foot in our country was to break our immigration laws. Working here meant breaking more of them. Why should we expect Villa-Gomez, who is now charged with second-degree murder, to be able to distinguish the laws we're serious about (drunk driving) from the ones we aren't (being in the country illegally)?
If our national politicians plan to continue pretending these people don't live in our country, then they need to set up information kiosks near the border that spit out pamphlets delineating which laws we intend to enforce and why. The current plan just isn't working.
In the meantime, we clearly can't leave it to a handful of crusaders in Mecklenburg's Latino community to educate these drivers, because at the current rate, within a decade, inexperienced illegal drivers will get drunk and kill roughly 70 people in this county.
It's time for a communitywide effort that begins with acknowledging there's a problem and that these drivers aren't going away.
Tara Servatius' new radio talk show, "Citizen Servatius," airs Sundays from 11am to 1pm on WBT-1110AM.