Two dead, one critically injured in crash involving alleged drunk driver

Lack of testing kit casts doubt on blood-alcohol concentration

Posted

Correction appended

When word spread that two people had been killed and a third was critically injured during a head-on collision with an alleged drunk driver early Saturday morning (Sept. 30) along a narrow road south of Taos, it sent a familiar anguish through the many communities that were affected. 

Hannah Metzger, 25, a seasonal resident of Taos and Santa Fe from Delray Beach, Florida, and Cedrick Kober, 33, a seasonal resident of Santa Fe from Little River, South Carolina, who rode with a second passenger, were both killed during the crash. Metzger, who was behind the wheel of the vehicle when it was hit near mile marker 37 on State Road 68, was pronounced dead at the scene; Kober died shortly after he was transported to Holy Cross Hospital in Taos. A third passenger, Cody Woolard, 26, of Taos, remains in critical condition at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

The driver of the second vehicle, Juan Espinoza, a 21-year-old resident of Bakersfield, California, had come to Taos to work on a gas pipeline being laid along the same stretch of roadway where the crash occurred. Law enforcement officials have alleged that Espinoza had alcohol in his system at levels above the legal limit at the time of the crash – an assertion evinced by Espinoza’s own alleged admissions during a post-crash interview, but which has been convoluted by a lack of medical evidence.

Arraignment

Espinoza rolled into Taos Magistrate Court Tuesday (Oct. 3) in a wheelchair – his eyes and mouth black and blue from the crash. He was arraigned on charges that include two counts of homicide by vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs, second-degree felonies; two counts of homicide by vehicle for reckless driving, third-degree felonies; one count of great bodily harm by vehicle for reckless driving, a third-degree felony; unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, a fourth-degree felony; driving under the influence of liquor or any drug, a misdemeanor; and reckless driving, a “specific penalty misdemeanor.”

A discussion began over the four counts that allege alcohol was a key factor in causing the crash. Both Aleksandar Kostich, a defense counselor, and Tim Hasson, a district attorney, reminded the court that the defendant had blown a “.01” when a deputy administered a Breathalyzer test within three hours of the crash. Moreover, Hasson said no blood test was conducted by law enforcement to attain what may have been a more accurate reading.

“Normally, they would get a search warrant for the blood,” Magistrate Court Judge Ernest Ortega said. “They would call me or Judge Shannon, and we would normally sign a search warrant for blood – no matter what time of day or night it is – and there would be a blood test done at the hospital.”

“They have to have a special authorized kit to take the blood sample for purposes of blood alcohol testing,” Hasson responded. “Only that certified kit apparently is what they are authorized to use, and they didn’t have one available. … It’s very unusual, but that appears to be the circumstance.”

Testing issues

According to a criminal complaint filed this week by the Taos County Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Jake Cordova was among those first to respond to the scene of the crash. Sgt. Gilbert Atencio asked him to retrieve a Breathalyzer to test Espinoza’s blood-alcohol level at Holy Cross Hospital.

Cordova said he “detected a strong foul odor of alcoholic beverage emitting from his [Espinoza’s] breath and slurred speech,” the deputy wrote in the criminal complaint. As he prepared the Breathalyzer, Cordova spoke with Espinoza, who allegedly admitted that he drank “three beers” at Taos Tap Room prior to going to The Alley Cantina. There, he said, “He heard gunshots and got scared, jumped into a tan Tahoe and left not knowing who it belonged to.”

Taos Police Department is investigating the incident of the stolen vehicle and shots fired, but did not release any information regarding these events as of press time.

Espinoza also allegedly said that he remembered getting into the crash.

Following the interview, Deputy Jose Garcia administered the Breathalyzer, inserting the device’s straw through Espinoza’s lips, which were bloodied, cut and dried from the accident, he wrote in the complaint.

The deputies were unable to obtain a “good sample,” due to the blood on the suspect’s lips that prevented “a good seal on the straw mouthpiece.”

In an interview later on Tuesday, Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe clarified, “The reason that there was no blood test done on the Sept. 30 crash is that there were no blood kits available in the state of New Mexico,” he said. “The state scientific lab produces those kits and provides them to law enforcement. They are the only ones that are approved and court accepted. There were absolutely none available.”

Hogrefe said that Atencio phoned Jason Avery, supervisor of the state Department of Health’s Breath Alcohol Program, the morning of the crash to see if any kits were available. “We were told that every kit in the state was expired,” Hogrefe said.

The criminal complaint doesn’t indicate whether or not a deputy attempted to get a blood test kit from the state that night, but New Mexico State Police Lt. Elizabeth Armijo said on Wednesday (Oct. 4) that her agency’s officers also did not have access to the proper blood kits. “I reached out to the district, and that appears to be an accurate statement made by the sheriff,” she said. “In that district, there are absolutely no blood kits available.”

Several messages seeking comment from Avery before press time went unanswered.

Espinoza is currently being held in the Taos County Adult Detention Center on a $200,000 cash-only bond, pending a hearing on bond and conditions of release that is scheduled for Thursday (Oct. 5) at 2 p.m.

Due to a typo, the defendant's bond was listed in a prior version of this story at $20,000, which has since been corrected to $200,000.

fatal car crash

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tara king

In future stories could you please give a better location than the mile marker? I had to look it up on NMDOT. Better to say three miles north of the Horseshoe or something similar. And "low road" doesn't work in my opinion.

Sunday, October 8 | Report this
Elaine Riedel

Thank you for posting this story. This is unbelievable. Such a tragedy and display of incompetence at so may levels! This needs to be addressed at a national level if the state level shows this type of incompetence. PLEASE continue to follow up on this story. There are so many families and friends effected by this tragedy and we are working to get this addressed nationally.

Sunday, October 8 | Report this