A few weeks ago, Monica Rawlins thought today would mark the end of a long legal process and bring some feeling of justice served for her family, but now the woman accused of fatally injuring her son has hired a new lawyer.
Monica Rawlins and Chris Butenbach, a married couple, share a love of art, family and adventure; they are well spoken, enterprising, kind and generous. Monica is very pretty, olive complexioned with striking features, enhanced by subtle makeup, and an understated smile. Chris is an evident outdoorsman, still wearing his camouflaged jacket inside the courthouse where I met them this morning. They have a baby at home and two girls in Lake Highlands schools—one, a talented artist herself.
The point is that they are far too wonderful to be facing the situation they are facing.
During our chat outside Judge Teresa Hawthorne’s court, the two fall silent when a young women — shoulder-length black hair, snug-fitting jeans and a perilously tight, faded T-shirt — passes, arms locked with a similarly casual young man.
“That’s her,” Monica says.
The woman, Soraya Villaneuva, is accused of fatally injuring Monica’s son, Riley, a Lake Highlands High School student, as he crossed the street one January afternoon in 2012.
Police reports detail a horrific scene: An unlicensed 18-year-old Villaneuva, driving her boyfriend’s uninsured Lincoln, barrels through a yellow-red light at 70 miles per hour, double the posted speed limit. At the intersection, she changes lanes to avoid stopped cars. Strikes Riley as he steps off the curb. Drags him 400 feet before stopping.
Witnesses (teenaged friends) rushed to Riley, finding him blood covered—his clothes practically ripped from his body. One told Monica that Riley seemed to be trying to turn his head — maybe so as not to choke on the blood — but that they were all afraid to touch him, conventional wisdom dictating that you don’t touch or move trauma victims. Later, after he died at the hospital, doctors told them nothing could have saved him, that he likely had suffered cardiac arrest on impact, that every part of his brain had been damaged beyond repair.
The Lincoln was impounded (still is, as far as we know) and Villaneuva was questioned, but not arrested at that time. Later she was arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide, then was released after she posted bail.
At the courthouse this morning, Villaneuva and her companion stand just feet away from Monica and Chris. She dials someone and asks what she should do—her “lawyer isn’t here yet.” Then she waits, talking and smiling with her companion. He whistles a little while they wait. Villaneuva, Monica says, has never attempted to communicate with Riley’s family. “I’m sure her lawyers wouldn’t want her to,” Monica says.
A few weeks ago, Monica thought today would mark the end of litigation. There was a plea on the table; Villaneuva would do jail time, be placed on probation and probably do some community service. But a few days ago Monica learned Villaneuva had hired a defense attorney, Mark Perez.
Perez arrived at the courthouse an hour or so after the rest of us and requested a postponement for discovery, an opportunity for him to collect and review the paperwork on the case, after which he will enter a plea, etc.
The assistant DA explained that another plea bargain could be offered or the case could go to trial.
“I want a trial,” Monica says. But she adds that she believes that once Perez sees the details, it will probably come down to another plea bargain.
She says that she is baffled by the fact that Villaneuva could afford a defense attorney, despite telling the police at the accident scene, according to a police report, that she never got a driver’s license because the classes were too expensive.
I have attempted to contact Villaneuva via her attorney and offered them an opportunity to talk to us. I plan to follow the case and will report any response as soon as I get it.
Meanwhile, Monica and Chris are working to start a foundation in Riley’s memory, one that will help families in tragedy pay for unexpected funeral services. Look for more about that soon too.