$1 million awarded to parent of child in fatal 2006 accident

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It’s been almost eight years since Annine Gabaldon lost her son in a car-to-pedestrian accident, but in October she was granted $1 million in combined restitution when a judge ordered the defendants he found responsible for wrongful death and failure to provide aid to do so.

The case was based on the incident that occurred Aug. 4, 2006 in which Gabaldon’s son, Zachary, then 14, died as a result of his injuries after Jessica Acosta, of Socorro, struck him with her car near 1457 NE Frontage Road at the north end of Socorro.

In October of 2013, Annine won a lawsuit in New Mexico Civil District Court against Zeke Acosta, Jessica’s father, and Jefferey Maldonado, Jessica’s boyfriend at the time. The hearing ended with Judge Kevin Sweazea ruling in favor of Gabaldon for Maldonado and Zeke being at fault for wrongful death and failure to assist Zachary.

The judge ordered the defendants to pay a total of $900,000 in actual damages and $100,000 in punitive damages, as was requested from complainants.

Sweazea said during the court hearing that evidence of Zeke and Maldonado was enough to provide a reasonable decision that the two had not rendered help and waited too long to call for emergency medical help. Additionally, Zachary’s body was found with his legs and arms together a few feet off the road, according to an EMT’s testimony.

The arguments stemmed from Gabaldon’s attorney, Shannon Robinson of Albuquerque, providing that there had been too much time between when the accident probably took place and the time the incident was phoned in.

A claim from the defense was Zachary was wearing dark clothes and it was pitch black sometime around 8:45 to 9 p.m. Aug. 4; however, emergency services weren’t called about the situation until at least 45 minutes later, the plaintiffs argued. Additional evidence was cited by Robinson to show that Jessica had cleaned off her car before calling law enforcement. An EMT who responded to the incident testified during the October hearing that Zachary had sustained head trauma at least 45 minutes before they responded.

Although this was part of the judgment rendered by Judge Sweazea, he said during the hearing, “There’s not much I have to go on,” in regard to the evidence he was provided.

Sweazea also said the testimony from a key witness was compelling enough that it gave credibility to the accounts that the defendants involved did not render aid in a timely fashion.

“There is no question that the primary person responsible was Jessica Acosta,” Sweazea said during the hearing, adding that based on the evidence he was given, he decided Zeke and Maldonado did not render aid.

The testimony given by Melanie Kelly was that she had been at the same house as Zeke Acosta, Maldonado and Jessica when a party was taking place. Kelly said during the hearing in October there was marijuana and cocaine at the party, but she said she could not recall if Jessica had partaken in the illicit drug use.

Later that evening, it was reported that Jessica had argued with her boyfriend and left the party to take her daughter to get some ice cream. It was between the time she left and the time a call was placed to emergency services that Jessica struck Zachary.

Further evidence provided that the call had initially reported the incident on Fatima Road and not the NE Frontage Road where the accident took place. That isn’t more than a fraction of a mile at most, but it was still not the location of the incident.

Responding officers at the time reported Jessica had no impairment to her driving, according to the dispatch recordings from Aug. 4, 2006.

SPD Chief Mike Winders, who was on the force at the time, told El Defensor Chieftain Tuesday he had come into contact with Jessica the night of Aug. 4, 2006 and said he also did not see any signs of intoxication.

Robinson, who represented Gabaldon in another case against Jessica, said they had settled with her for about $10,000 through her car insurance agency.

No criminal charges were filled against Jessica after the incident. Officials from the New Mexico Seventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office, which serves Socorro and other counties, said at the time they believed they did not have enough evidence or even preponderance of the evidence to bring a case against her.

Robinson said when conducting an investigation of drug-induced possibilities, an officer who is a specialist in these matters needs to be available. He said at the time the city nor the area did not have an officer with that kind of training readily available to make an accurate determination.

During the trial, Zeke denounced the accusations that Jessica had been on drugs. he said that other people at the Aug. 4, 2006 party had tried to give her “pills.” He denounced any wrongdoing by himself or Maldonado to thwart police efforts or failure to render aid.

Zeke defended himself and on the behalf of Maldonado, Jessica’s boyfriend at the time, as Maldonado had been incarcerated after pleading no contest in a class-three felony charge in 2010 of distribution of a controlled substance (non-narcotic), according to New Mexico Courts court documents. Jessica also did not attend the court procedures.

“It made it difficult because you don’t have direct evidence of impairment, and you end up with circumstantial evidence of really ineffective driving and probable impairment,” Robinson told El Defensor Chieftain in a June 22 phone interview.

Robinson said during the civil hearing that there were some claims against officers of the Socorro Police Department, but he acknowledged in answering the judge’s questions in regard to the complaint that there was not have the evidence needed to file those complaints.

Det. Christine Frank, of the Albuquerque Police Department and New Mexico Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) state coordinator, said all law enforcement officers are trained through a 40-hour driving while intoxicated (DWI) enforcement course. But it was only since 2009 that drug recognition enforcement was implemented.

“In 2006, we didn’t do ARIDE (Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement) in New Mexico,” Frank said. “Our very first ARIDE was in 2009. Currently there are 91 DRE in the state who are specially trained officers, and at that time, to my best recollection, there were none in that area. There subsequently are now in the Socorro area.”

Officers could always cite someone with enough probable cause, Frank added.

If nothing else, Gabaldon said she has become an advocate for increasing street lighting throughout the parts of the city and within the some of the New Mexico Department of Transportation right-of-ways. Although it won’t bring back her son, she said she hopes that she can help prevent incidents like her son’s from happening again.

According to documents filed by Gabaldon to the City of Socorro, Socorro County and NMDOT, she has been able to get resolutions passed through the city of Socorro, but the tort claims she filed with NMDOT were not found to have merit.

“There’s nothing that I can get out of this anymore,” Gabaldon said in a June 21 interview. “I did ask for sidewalk and lighting and road dedication on the Frontage Road.

“I believe (Zachary’s) civil rights were violated; I believe he deserved better,” she added. “If we can get a few lights on that state road … I’m not asking for them to put the sunshine out there.”

One of her petitions garnered 1,000 signatures for the dedication of the NE Frontage Road to be dedicated in her son’s memory, but she said she was told those state roads are reserved for military service members.