Basketball tourney keeps sisters' message alive
By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
NEWCOMB, N.M., March 29, 2012
(Courtesy photo - Darnell Peshlakai)
Over the weekend, the family hosted the inaugural Peshlakai Angels Memorial "Don't Drink and Drive" Basketball Tournament here at Newcomb High and Newcomb Middle School.
Though it may have taken two years to organize, the tournament is a powerful way for the Peshlakais to raise public sensitivity to drunk driving in a place where tacit acceptance is the norm.
The bleachers at both gyms were packed to the rafters and the tournament raised money for victims of DWI in New Mexico and across the Navajo Nation.
And some of the tournament proceeds are going to the athletic programs at the schools where both girls played basketball before being killed March 5, 2010, in Santa Fe in a crash caused by repeat DWI offender James Ruiz.
The Peshlakais also host an annual honor ride and fun run/walk under the banner "Angels vs. Drunk Drivers."
It is, they have found, a good way to cope with their grief while building momentum for stronger DWI enforcement among counties, the state and tribes.
"We plan these things as a family because I don't want their deaths to be forgotten," said Darlene Peshlakai, the girls' mother. "In my household, everything happens for a reason. That may not be a good reason, but I don't want their deaths to be for nothing. I want it to be known that a drunk driver took their lives."
On Oct. 20, 2011, Ruiz, 36, of Albuquerque, was sentenced to 40 years in prison under a plea agreement.
Ruiz must serve half his time before accruing good-behavior credit that can go toward an early release, a sentencing provision the family didn't initially condone.
"It was very hard for us," said the girls' father David, who shared a particularly close bond with his daughters because he looked after them while his wife Darlene was at work.
The family wanted to see their daughters' killer on trial for vehicular homicide but ultimately agreed to accept a plea bargain rather than risk the possibility of Ruiz being found not guilty.
If there is one classic example of how easy DWI offenders have it in New Mexico, David said, it is the case of Scott Owens, 30, of Santa Fe.
Owens, another repeat offender was acquitted in 2009 of charges he caused a DWI crash that killed four teenagers and badly injured a fifth on Old Las Vegas Highway near Santa Fe.
"After hearing all that, I told my family that it would be a good deal," David said of the plea bargain then under consideration in their daughters' case.
Owens, David noted, was arrested March 17 on a new DWI charge.
Changing the world
Despite what the family considers weak DWI laws and a flawed justice system, the basketball tournament held March 22-25 at Newcomb served its purpose in educating people about the cost of drunk driving.
An educational booth set up in the high school cafeteria offered pamphlets full of alcohol-related information, and each tournament award was emblazoned with the Angels vs. Drunk Drivers logo and signature photo of the girls smiling and hugging each other.
"The girls died to change the world," David said. "This part you see ... it's happening. You can see it here a little (at the tournament)."
The awareness David speaks is reflected in the strong turnout for the tournament, which attracted 30 men's and 18 women's teams from around the region.
"It made us feel really good," Darlene said, adding that the energy of her daughters' spirits could be felt at the event.
As if to confirm it, the scoreboard lit up at random moments with their jersey numbers - Del Lynn's No. 44 and DeShauna's No.14 - and lights flickered unaccountably at times, causing game delays of up to 20 minutes.
The tournament raised about $5,500, which has been distributed to the high school and middle school athletic programs and to MADD New Mexico for its DWI victim services.
In an interview Tuesday, Newcomb High Principal Scott Story said the $2,500 donation from the Peshlakais will be divided among the school's sports teams.
"In today's climate of school budgets, to get extra funding from a community project is very valuable," Story said. "The girls had a real close connection to this school, and they were athletes. We would like to thank the family for helping make this happen, and for their efforts and time in helping the school."
Newcomb Middle School received $500 for its athletic program.
Lora Lee Ortiz, executive director of MADD New Mexico, praised the Peshlakai Angels donation in a phone interview on Tuesday.
"MADD is so appreciative of the funding dollars," Ortiz said. "We need to continue to have funding in order to support victims who have already been impacted as a result of DWI."
According to data collected by MADD New Mexico, 25 fatalities during the months of January and February have already occurred.
Of those, over one-third occurred in just two counties - four were in McKinley County and five in San Juan County.
"It's really high," Ortiz said of the death rate, adding that the $1,500 donation "will easily help five victims receive services."
MADD helps grief-torn families with funeral planning, grief support, and navigating the legal process and the safety net for crime victims.
The Peshlakais said they retained $1000 of the tournament proceeds that will be used to put on the 3rd Annual Angels vs. Drunk Driving honor ride slated for this summer.
If there is one thing the family looks forward to at these events, it is how kinship, the drawing in of family and friends, helps them heal.
"Family and friends help us," David said. "This tournament is like that. We have family running around everywhere, including the little kids. They're all into it."
"The reason why we waited two years was because this was our love," Darlene said of basketball, while fighting back tears. "Emotionally, it's one day at time. We're handling ourselves."