UPDATE 1/14/2011: Marco was sentenced today to 31 months in prison minus time already served, in spite of his attorney's statement that Marco had already begun making plans to return permanently to his native Mexico and that his family was planning to join him there. The judge said that he did not believe Marco was a danger to society or at risk of returning again illegally to the U.S. under the circumstances, he said he wasn't taking the traffic accident into consideration at all in the sentencing, but he said he wanted to send a signal to any other immigrant that just managing to keep a clean record and avoid detection for a long period of time doesn't mean they can get away with an immigration law violation. So, a man who has had no felony conviction since his drug smuggling one back in 1992, will be held behind bars at taxpayers' expense while individuals with worse records are being released every day due to overcrowded prison conditions.
Furthermore, Marco will now be turned over to the federal prison system. The judge agreed to pass on the request for Marco to be confined as close to his family as possible but there is no federal prison in Virginia and so his family won't have much chance to see him for the next couple of years. At the end of the 31 months, Marco will still be turned over to ICE for deportation.
No winners in the end. No mercy for Marco's family, no justice for Marco, no peace for Alice's mother, only sadness for all of us.
UPDATE 11/3/2010: Last week, Marco pleaded guilty to the immigration charge in a federal district court in Alexandria. He was returned to his jail cell to await sentencing which is scheduled for January 14, 2011. A number of people from his parish witnessed his plea. Unfortunately, he will be in prison, away from his family and his faith community, for the Christmas season.
UPDATE 8/30/2010: Marco has been moved to a jail that is closer to his real and spiritual family where we can visit him.
Two years ago this summer, a young woman named Alice Swanson died when her bicycle collided with a dump truck being driven by Marco Flores Fuentes at the intersection of R and 20th Streets NW in Washington, DC.
I did not know Alice Swanson. From the news reports, she sounds like the kind of young woman I might have enjoyed meeting. At the time of her death, Ms. Swanson (22) was working as a program associate with the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a not-for-profit association specializing in international education and leadership development. She had graduated from Amherst the previous year and was fluent in Spanish and Arabic. She had worked as an intern with the Middle East Institute, which described her as "a true spirit of friendship". She had also been abroad, teaching English to African refugees in Cairo in 2005 and she won a competitive internship with the Council of Elders of Monimbó in Nicaragua in 2006. As I contemplate Alice's life, I wonder how she would feel about what happened after her death, about the relentless campaign waged by her mother, Ruth Rowan, aided and abetted by two investigative reporters -- Bruce Leshan of WUSA 9 and Kate Ryan of WTOP, to punish the driver of the dump truck, even though Mr. Flores was found by DC police not to be liable for Alice's death. I'm pretty sure that Alice would have been horrified by the hornet's nest of bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment that her mother's campaign has stirred up.
I do know Marco. He is a member of my church, where he attended every Sunday with his wife Carolina and her two daughters to whom he became a father -- as Carolina tells me "more of a father than their real father" -- after the couple married. The older daughter works and is a part-time student at a local community college; the younger daughter just turned 16 and is an honor student at a local high school where she will be starting her junior year this fall. The older daughter came to this country at age 4; the younger daughter was born here and is a U.S. citizen. Both girls speak more English than Spanish and have not known any other life than America. Carolina and Marco have always been active in the church. Before his arrest by ICE last month, which was prompted by the campaign being waged by Mrs. Rowan and her media allies, Marco would help set up for Mass every Sunday as well as coordinate the lectors and the ushers who took up the collection. I am one of the lectors who served under Marco. The couple was also active in the Legion of Mary.
I am writing this column because I am disgusted with how the facts of the accident have been distorted to fit Mrs. Rowan's vindictive agenda and dismayed by the resulting portrayal of Marco as reckless and uncaring. Fortunately, the official final DC Metropolitan Police Department investigative report has been posted on the Internet. Any reasonable person who reads it can conclude, contrary to Mrs. Rowan's assertions, that the police did an adequate job of investigating this tragic accident. Some points:
1. Drug Test: Mrs. Rowan faults the police for not performing a drug test on Mr. Flores. According to the report, "the driver was administered the standardized field sobriety tests and two breath tests by intoxilyzer. The tests revealed no indication of impairment on the part of the driver." In other words, the police were satisfied that Marco was completely sober and in control at the time of the accident. They had no reason to perform any other tests.
2. Negligence: Unfortunately for Mrs. Rowan's theories, there was also no negligence found on the part of Mr. Flores. All witnesses report that Mr. Flores had his right turn signal on. One witness reported that Mr. Flores stopped before completing his right turn in order to yield the right of way to him, and even turned wide to leave safe spacing between the truck and pedestrians standing at the corner. As for speed, "roadway evidence confirmed that the truck was traveling below the posted speed limit at the time of the crash". When he felt Alice's bicycle hit his truck, Marco stopped immediately, got out to investigate, and remained at the scene until the police came. He cooperated with them fully. Based on the statement of witnesses, the police concluded that "the driver had already commenced his turn and was in "command" of the intersection at the time the bicyclist approached." On the other hand, several witnesses reported that Alice seemed to be going too fast on her bike. Alice should have slowed down, paid attention to her surroundings and yielded. Had she done so, she would be alive today.
3. Blind spot: Mrs. Rowan somehow still seems to fault Mr. Flores for not seeing Alice and yet the police report states quite plainly, as a result of a reconstruction of the accident which they performed in December 2008 using an identical vehicle voluntarily supplied by KMG Hauling, that there is no way Mr. Flores could have seen Alice. "At the area of impact, the bicyclist is not visible in the upper, larger sideview mirror. The uppermost portion of the bicyclist's head is visible in the smaller lower mirror and would be visible only for a split second as the bicyclist continued forward and the truck continued turning."
4. "He ran over my daughter": Mrs. Rowan continues to assert that her daughter died because Mr. Flores ran over her, as if it were something deliberate. The police report tells a different story: "The location of the impact reveals that the bicyclist was not riding within the bicycle lane and that the bicyclist struck the side of the trash truck in the area of the passenger door, near the step just behind the right front tire. The bicycle's impact with the trash truck would have caused the bicycle to stop forward motion and throw the rider from the bike and into the path of the right front tire as it continued to turn the corner."
The police recommended that no charges be brought in the incident which their report largely appears to attribute to Ms. Swanson's failure to observe proper speed and care in operating her bicycle. Understandably, it's difficult for a mother who idolized her daughter and now grieves for her to hear this verdict and accept it.
Ms. Swanson's family went on to file a civil suit against KMG Hauling and Mr. Flores which was settled out of court without any admission of liability in the death. The company's willingness to settle spared both parties the need to relive the tragic events of that day. While the settlement was not supposed to be disclosed, various sources on the Web state that it was settled for $5 million. Carolina has never told me the amount, only that it was a substantial sum of money. The family assumed that the case was now closed and Marco, who had not committed any violation, went back to work at KMG Hauling where his supervisors were satisifed with both his driving and his work ethic.
However, Mrs. Rowan was not satisfied. She wanted someone to blame for her daughter's death and continued to investigate Mr. Flores. She found that, even though he held a valid commercial driver's license at the time of the accident, he had previously been convicted on a drug smuggling charge (Mrs. Rowan takes care not to specify the nature of the drug charge to bolster her argument about the drug test), that he had served time in prison and been deported. At last, she had a way to get even. If she could not interest the DC Metropolitan Police, she could create a fuss and get ICE to pick Mr. Flores up and charge him with re-entering the country illegally after already having been deported. She could get him re-arrested and re-deported. She hides this desire for vengeance behind the pious-sounding pretext of getting a dangerous driver off the road. But remember, the police found no evidence that Mr. Flores acted negligently or carelessly or that he caused Alice Swanson's death. “I don’t have anything against immigrants. But it seems it was the only way to get him off the road,” Mrs. Rowan told WUSA 9 following Mr. Flores' arrest last month. She said: "This person is dangerous and I kept thinking, how will I feel if I don't say something and he kills someone else." It makes a great soundbite but, Mrs. Rowan, it's time to face facts: Marco did not kill your daughter. Alice's own inattentiveness and reckless operation of her bicycle killed Alice. And it created a tragedy with which an innocent man and his family will have to live for the rest of their lives. Getting Marco deported, breaking up his family, and jeopardizing his daughters' future, will not raise Alice back to life or bring peace to your heart, Mrs. Rowan.
Now, Marco sits behind bars in the Rappahannock Regional Jail, far away from his wife and daughters and church, waiting to possibly be separated from them permanently. Deprived of his income, the family can no longer afford to live where they have been living. Carolina is desperately trying to find a smaller place for herself and the girls, but one that will be near enough to her youngest daughter's high school so her life will not be further disrupted. She cries frequently, as she did on my shoulder during the charismatic healing Mass last Saturday where she came to ask God to work a miracle for her husband and family. Her youngest mopes and has lost her appetite due to being depressed about her missing father. The jail doesn't even allow real visitation, only videoconferencing.
Because of one woman's inability to forgive and let go, a tragedy is multiplying over and over again, a seemingly endless web of sorrow spinning out from one unfortunate accident. Every day I pray to God for everyone involved and ask for this cycle to end, and I keep coming back to the same question: What would Alice do?
Photo: A ghost bicycle that marked the spot of the accident.