Healing by action

3 years after sisters' death, Peshlakais continue to fight DUI

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

SANTA FE, March 7, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Chaplain José Villegas, center, says a prayer Sunday night before the start of the sobriety checkpoint held in memorial of sisters Del Lynn and Deshauna Peshlakai, who were killed by a drunk driver on March 3, 2010.

SECOND FROM TOP: Darlene Thomas quietly looks on as a prayer is given on Sunday night in Santa Fe.

THIRD FROM TOP: Younger members of the Peshlakai family wait their turn to hand out a calendar and other information about drinking and driving as a Santa Fe County Sheriff's deputy watches Sunday night during a sobriety checkpoint in Santa Fe.

T he red and blue lights illuminating the dark sky here are a reminder of the night the Peshlakai family experienced three years ago.

That is when their daughters Del Lynn, 19, and Deshauna, 17, where killed by a drunken driver.

The lights were the same color March 3 but flashed for a different reason as the family joined Santa Fe police at the memorial checkpoint to detect and arrest individuals who are driving while intoxicated.

The sisters' parents, David Peshlakai and Darlene Thomas, of Naschitti, N.M., sustained injuries but survived the March 5, 2010 crash.

James Ruiz was sentenced to 40 years in prison under a plea agreement with the state of New Mexico on two counts of vehicular homicide and two counts of causing great bodily harm by vehicle.

"Are we ready to end DWI tonight?" Darlene asked her family after they listened to a prayer by police chaplain José Villegas at the memorial site on Cerrillos Road.

This is the first time the Peshlakai family participated in the memorial checkpoint but they have participated in others on the Navajo Nation.

At the checkpoint, the female driver of a white Dodge Caravan looked surprised when Darlene handed her a card displaying the girls' photograph and a short narrative about them.

The expression softened as Darlene told the driver that a drunken driver killed her daughters and urged her not to drive under the influence.

"They were angels on Earth," she said.

Up to now, Darlene said, she has only asked three questions about the accident. It is like a puzzle she would like to piece together, but it is painful.

"I always wonder why? Why them? Those are questions never answered," she said.

As David stood a few feet away from Darlene, he watched the surrounding activity.

"They were called 'daddy's girls' because everywhere I went, they were with me," David said. "Now I try to pay back and try to help out. In a way, that's part of my healing."

The sisters' cousin, Bobby Billsie, of Newcomb, N.M., distributed door hangers with the words, "Arrive safe. Drive sober," a few feet away from David.

"Hopefully with these types of checkpoints, people can realize, 'Hey, you know what? I need to think twice before getting behind the wheel,'" Billsie said.

Earlier in the evening, the family gathered inside the Santa Fe Police Department.

The bond that developed between the family and law enforcement officers was evident as they exchanged greetings and hugs.

At three years old, Delshay Henio was the youngest family member in the room. She was there with her parents Dwayne Henio and Darnell Peshlakai, Del and Deshauna's older sister.

Like other family members, Dwayne and Darnell were dressed in fluorescent yellow T-shirts that had the sisters' photo on the front.

Delshay was three months old when her aunties died, Dwayne said, then added that Deshauna had always carried her baby niece.

In the span of time, three months is a small measure for relatives to bond but Dwayne and Darnell continue to tell Delshay and her siblings Dwayne Jr., 7, Dorien, 10, and Delijah, 13, about their aunts.

"She knows," Dwayne said then asked Delshay, "Who is this?" while pointing to the photograph on his T-shirt.

"Del and Deshauna," Delshay said.

"People always say that little kids are precious, that they can always see things that we can't see because they're closer to God," Dwayne said. "Sometimes she laughs and she'll say, 'Deshauna.' It's funny because she hardly knows her but I know they come visit her."

The family continues to raise awareness about the consequences of DWI by hosting basketball tournaments, motorcycle runs and speaking at events.

A billboard with Del and Deshauna's image was recently placed along U.S. Highway 491 in Gallup.

They will continue to bring awareness until laws that addresses DWI are strengthened, Darnell said.

"It's up to us to do it, hopefully we can stop it," she said.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez joined the family at the police department as well as the checkpoint.

The governor said she is pushing for tougher legislation against repeat DWI offenders.

"They're not learning the lesson that they should not be getting behind the wheel," Martinez said.

She then briefly highlighted some of the pieces of legislation under consideration in the state legislature.

One of the bills would allow law enforcement officers to participate by videoconference in hearings for individuals whose driver's license has been revoked due to DWI.

Another bill would increase the penalties for an individual convicted of a fourth or subsequent DWI conviction.

"We want the rest of the country to know that we're taking DWI seriously. We're not going to have two sisters, ever again, die senselessly," Martinez said.

The checkpoint, which had law enforcement officers from the Santa Fe Police Department, the Santa Fe County Sheriff's Office and the New Mexico State Police, was held from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on southwest bound Cerrillos Road.

It resulted in three individuals arrested for DWI, one arrest for narcotics possession, and more than 30 citations issued for various traffic infractions, according to Capt. Aric Wheeler of the Santa Fe Police Department.

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