A year after a car crash in Taos County claimed the lives of two of his friends and left him with a traumatic brain injury, Cody Woolard has finally returned home.
“He spent 11 months in hospitals, nursing homes and acute rehab,” said Woolard’s mother, Sherri Woolard, recalling the challenges her family has faced since they received word of the fatal crash last fall.
Her son had worked as a river rafting guide for New Mexico River Adventures in Taos County, along with his friends Hannah Metzger and Cedrick Kober.
On Sept. 30, 2017, the three were returning home to Taos along State Road 68 when their car was struck head on by an alleged drunk driver, Juan Espinoza, a contract worker on the Río Grande Pipeline.
Metzger, a 25-year-old seasonal resident of Taos from Delray Beach, Florida, was pronounced dead at the scene. Kober, 33, a seasonal resident of Santa Fe from Little River, South Carolina, died at Holy Cross Hospital.
Woolard was found critically injured and unresponsive. He was transported to Holy Cross Hospital and then flown by helicopter to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, the first of many medical facilities where he would lie in a coma for months before things started to take a turn in May.
“He began talking on Mother’s Day,” Woolard’s mother said. “His cognitive ability has rapidly improved over the summer.”
She said her son, who is now 27, still has no movement on the left side of his body. He continues to suffer tremors and tremendous pain from the crash, of which he has no memory, his mother said.
“He doesn’t remember most of the last year,” she said. “So his short-term memory is very compromised. He’s doing better, where he knows it’s September, but he can’t tell you sometimes who visited yesterday.”
As Woolard continues with rehabilitation at his home in Illinois, a vehicular homicide case filed against the man accused of causing the crash has moved slowly through the Taos County court system.
Espinoza, who is now 22, was also hospitalized after the collision but had suffered relatively minor injuries. He was charged with four counts of homicide by vehicle: two for driving while under the influence and two for reckless driving. He faces additional charges for DWI, reckless driving and great bodily injury by a motor vehicle.
The first speed bump in processing the case came within hours of the crash itself.
Visiting with Espinoza in a room at Holy Cross Hospital, Taos County Sheriff’s Deputy Jake Cordova said he could smell the odor of alcohol on Espinoza’s breath. Due to the suspect’s battered condition, however, particularly bruising and swelling around his mouth, administering a standard Breathalyzer test proved problematic.
While Espinoza himself admitted to drinking earlier in the evening, he blew a .01 percent, well below the legal limit.
According to protocol, the next method would have been to use a blood testing kit, but none approved for such circumstances could be located in the county that night, according to Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe, who explained the situation during Espinoza’s arraignment.
Responding to inquiries from The Taos News, the New Mexico Department of Health acknowledged that the kits were in short supply statewide. A spokesperson cited a series of hurricanes last fall that affected the Southeastern United States, where they said the kits were shipped from.
Consequently, prosecutors with the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office entered the courtroom with a lack of evidence, and the 21-year-old was released on a $20,000 surety bond in October 2017. He returned home to Bakersfield, California, but has returned as other court dates have been set in his case.
The next complication came during a preliminary hearing held Feb. 1, when a defense attorney revealed that Espinoza had told law enforcement he had been chased by another vehicle and was shot at as he drove south toward the location where the crash occurred. The detail suggested Espinoza may have been under duress at the time of the fatal incident.
Two of Espinoza’s coworkers on the pipeline said they had all been drinking at the Taos Mesa Brewing Tap Room the night of the crash. They then went to The Alley Cantina, where they claimed they were assaulted.
According to their overlapping testimonies, a man at the bar that night punched Espinoza as they were leaving. They said the same man later fired a gun at them on the street outside.
During that altercation, they said Espinoza took off in the assailant’s vehicle in an attempt to escape while they fled in the vehicle they had arrived in.
Espinoza explained to investigators that he was then chased down State Road 68 as an unknown pursuer fired shots at him from behind. Investigators would later recover bullet fragments from the vehicle Espinoza had taken.
The assailant’s girlfriend also testified, denying that any such exchange took place. She said that Espinoza had stolen the vehicle outright.
The case has since moved up to Judge Sarah Backus’ courtroom in Taos District Court. Another arraignment has been held, motions for discovery have been filed by either party, and in April, an order was approved to return the defendant’s wallet to him, which had been held for a time as evidence.
The last entry in the case is dated July 20, a request for prosecutors to release tape recordings of the preliminary hearing held in February.
‘Walking through hell’
According to Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen, the slow pace of the case can be attributed, in part, to the geographical distance that separates the judicial district from Espinoza and the two coworker witnesses, whose jobs take them from one construction project to the next across the United States.
Though his office moves under a heavy caseload that rarely seems to lighten, Olsen acknowledges it’s an important case. He says he keeps in touch with the families, including Woolard’s.
In the meantime, Sherri Woolard and her ex-husband keep watch on their son’s progress, a day-to-day process of getting up and moving forward, past that September phone call that changed their lives.
“Emotionally it’s been like walking through hell,” she said. “There have been times where we felt like we weren’t the lucky parents, but slowly, we are getting our son back.”