Suddenly One Night

Los Angeles Times
April 30, 2005
By Alex Tizon

RENTON, Washington – It was a slab of particleboard, about 5 feet long, 18 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches thick. No one knew how far it had traveled or how many times it had bounced off the pavement. Late on Feb. 22, 2004, it was known only that it got loose on Interstate 405, near this Seattle suburb, and for a few moments became airborne. One witness later said it was simple physics that turned the board into a missile, hurtling north.

Maria Federici was driving south. Like other cars nearby, her Jeep Liberty was going about 60 miles per hour. She had just gotten off her shift. Federici, then 24, worked three bartending jobs, just as she had while studying at the University of Washington. She had recently graduated, and the road ahead was full of possibility. But on this cold and overcast Sunday night she just wanted to get home.

Federici was approaching her exit when the board pierced her windshield, glanced off the steering wheel and plowed into her face. The Jeep veered onto the shoulder and struck the Jersey barrier once, twice, before stopping.

Two motorists pulled over and rushed to help. One of them, off-duty bus driver Anthony Cox, found the Jeep’s doors locked. He jumped onto the hood, reached through the hole in the windshield and felt for Federici’s pulse. The other motorist, Jean Gamboa, frantically dialed 911 on her cell phone.

Much later, after the shock had subsided, Gamboa, who had been driving behind Federici, voiced the notion that so many who came into contact with the case expressed: “It could have happened to anybody.”

The randomness haunted Gamboa. A life was demolished before her eyes in a single moment, like a flash of lightning.

State lawmakers eventually would pass a bill in Federici’s name, one that broke new ground in the prosecution of accidents caused by debris. But on that night fourteen months ago, the chief concern of almost everyone at the scene was keeping Federici alive.

At Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, the young woman clung tenaciously to life, surprising doctors who didn’t think she would make it. The board obliterated all the bones between her jaw and forehead. It shattered her eye sockets and cheek bones, and split her palate. If Federici survived — “if” doctors emphasized — she would be permanently blind, brain-damaged and disfigured.

Her mother, Robin Abel, remembers the phone call she received at home that night. Mother and daughter lived only a few miles apart in this hilly community southeast of Seattle. Abel said the call put her in a dream state.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘Keep breathing,’ ” she said.

Abel rushed along I-405 toward the hospital and saw her daughter’s Jeep — the board still in the windshield — on the opposite shoulder, surrounded by flashing lights. Whatever else swept through her mind, Abel knew from that moment life would never be the same.

*

Local news media described it as a freak accident. Pictures of a photogenic Federici — with wavy dark hair, expressive eyes and an easy smile — ran in newspapers and television broadcasts as police sought help in tracing the origins of the board.

Tearful friends and family described Federici as talkative and full of life, driven and slightly sassy. At 5-foot-3, she was a sparkplug of energy, tough enough to hold her own with strangers but vulnerable with friends. She was widely adored.

As her relatives pleaded for people with information to come forward, news of similar incidents came to light.

Days before Federici’s accident, Claudia Avila, 43, was fatally struck by a 34-pound metal plate on Interstate 95 in Florida. A few weeks later, Michael Hall, 43, was killed when he rolled his SUV trying to avoid a clothes dryer on Interstate 75 in Atlanta.

Four months after Federici’s accident, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit agency based in Washington, D.C., announced some startling statistics. In a 148-page report, the first to comprehensively look at the problem, the foundation said road debris caused 25,000 accidents and 90 deaths a year in the United States. These were conservative numbers, the report said.

The problem does not draw wide attention in part because the number of debris-related fatalities pales in comparison with the number of deaths associated with drunk driving and unfastened seat belts, said Liz Neblett of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The federal government leaves it to the states to regulate debris-related issues. Many states, such as California, leave it to counties. In most cases, violators get only a citation for littering or failing to secure a load. The fine for an unsecured load in California ranges from $134 to $154. In Washington, it is an $82 ticket.

In the hours after Federici was rushed away in an ambulance, state troopers collected nearly 40 fragments of what appeared to be a large piece of furniture strewn along the roadway. It turned out to be a home entertainment center. Every piece was sent to the state crime lab.

A motorist told investigators she had seen a truck and trailer pulled off to the side of the roadway just moments after the accident. The witness said the driver, whom she described in detail, was pacing around the trailer, as if he’d lost something. For weeks, it was the only solid lead.

Back at Harborview, a rotating platoon of doctors worked to save Federici’s life. In the first week, doctors performed two complicated surgeries. The second one, to reconstruct her face, lasted nearly 16 hours. Bone was taken from her skull and hip to replace her nose and cheek bones. Titanium was used to rebuild her eye sockets, although both eyes were pulverized, the optical nerves severed. Her teeth were stapled into her gums to prevent them from falling out.

“She had all these tubes going in and out of her,” Abel said, groping for words to describe what her daughter looked like. “A Martian. She looked like a Martian.”

Abel, 51, was a real estate executive for a wireless company. After the accident, she set everything aside and stayed with her daughter at the hospital round-the-clock. Federici’s father had left when she was a young child, and Abel had raised Maria by herself. Three weeks after the accident, Federici uttered her first word. A nurse asked her to say “Ah,” Abel recalled.

“Mom,” said Federici, softly.

“Maria, can you say ‘Ah?’ ” the nurse said.

“Mom,” Federici said again, louder.

It was a small step. As Federici slowly began to mouth other words, the Washington State Patrol heard back from its crime lab: Technicians had identified a thumb print on the board. It belonged to a man who’d been convicted in California for theft and in Oregon for drunk driving and possession of narcotics.

On March 19, almost a month after the accident, state patrol officers arrested James Hefley on suspicion of felony hit-and-run. It happened at his workplace in Seattle. Hefley, then 28, was a technician for a communications company. Sgt. Steve Penry, one of the arresting officers, said Hefley “didn’t seem surprised to see us.”

*

The man, who went by Jamie, could not stop fidgeting in the police interview. The videotape showed that Hefley at first denied having a criminal record, but later admitted it when officers brought up specifics. He denied knowing he had a suspended driver’s license. He denied knowing anything about the accident on I-405. He denied owning an entertainment center. When officers confronted him with proof that he had rented an open-air trailer from U-Haul, that a witness saw him near the accident scene and that his fingerprint was found on one of the broken pieces, Hefley seemed to wilt.

“Like I said, the last thing I want to care about is my own self and everything, but, um, I have to look at that, too, you know,” Hefley told the officers. “There’s nothing been malicious here. If I had seen the news and everything, I would probably have come forward and said, ‘Hey, you know, that might have been me.’ ”

It was the most Hefley would say about the accident.

Investigators later interviewed a co-worker who said he helped Hefley load the entertainment center onto the trailer that night. Hefley had been moving from Tacoma to the town of Newcastle, north of Renton. Police believed they knew how the accident happened:

Federici had driven into the right lane, preparing to exit. She was probably not far behind Hefley. The entertainment center flew out and bounced at least once before breaking up. The base, which weighed as much as 50 pounds, flew backward into Federici’s car. Other pieces went over the top and around the sides. At least one other car behind Federici was hit by debris, but no one else was hurt.

To convict Hefley of hit-and-run or reckless endangerment, prosecutors would have to prove he knew the furniture had fallen out. More difficult, they would have to prove he knew it caused an accident. Prosecutors, after intense deliberation, decided they could not meet those standards of proof. Authorities punished Hefley the only way they could: They slapped him with citations for littering, failing to secure a load, driving without insurance and driving with a suspended license, all totaling slightly more than $1,000. Then they let him go.

“There was a lot of anger,” said Therese Sangster, a friend and co-worker of Federici’s. “Maria’s life is changed forever, and this guy … this guy gets a ticket.”

Sangster, a manager at a club where Federici worked, helped organize an auction and benefit. Medicaid and Social Security Disability Insurance paid for the major medical expenses, but Federici and Abel were still left with enormous bills. People from around the region — friends and strangers — pitched in and raised more than $100,000. A bank paid off Federici’s car loan. Doctors volunteered their services.

King County prosecutors, frustrated by their inability to bring charges against Hefley, lobbied lawmakers to pass a tougher law on debris-caused accidents. They testified in the Legislature, telling Federici’s story. The lawyers recruited sponsors, and with almost no debate, legislators approved the Federici Bill on April 14, 2005. On that day, two carpoolers were killed on the Golden State Freeway in Los Angeles when a metal freight container coupling crashed through their windshield.

The Washington bill, awaiting the governor’s signature, makes it a crime to fail to secure a load that results in bodily injury. Conviction could bring up to one year in jail and $5,000 in fines. The person injured would also have access to a state compensation fund for crime victims.

Gerry Forbes, author of the AAA Foundation report, said it would be the most stringent law of its kind in the nation.

“If it makes people take a few extra minutes when they go to the home improvement store to lash objects down securely,” Forbes said, “it could save lives — in particular, the lives of the people driving just behind you.”

*

On a recent afternoon, Federici sits on her mother’s couch, petting her dog Sam. She can talk up a storm again, like the old Maria, but only in spurts. She easily tires, and sometimes she stops in mid-sentence, unable to complete a thought. Federici has no memory of the accident, and in fact can’t remember anything that happened between February and July 2004. The three months she spent at the hospital went by, she says, “like a dream, I think I’m just going to wake up.”

Doctors describe Federici as still in the process of regaining full consciousness. She was for many months “doped up,” her mother says, on a cocktail of medications. The damage to her brain and motor skills are still being assessed. Just recently, mother and daughter discovered that the left side of Federici’s face and body is largely numb. At night, she must use the bathroom constantly, and doctors haven’t been able to figure out why. It makes sleep almost impossible.

She speaks with a clenched mouth because her jaw is fixed in place. Her eyelids are permanently closed, the muscles no longer functional. She feels a constant throbbing in her head, for which she takes painkillers. She has no sense of smell, and little sense of taste. She can walk only while holding onto someone’s arm. She refuses to learn Braille and walk with a cane, says her mother, because “she thinks she’s going to see again.”

Abel says her daughter has recently become deeply depressed: “Like she’s just realizing.”

But on this day, Federici seems glad for the company. Her demeanor suggests someone who doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She talks about lifting a 10-pound dumbbell over her head.

“Feel this,” she says, asking a guest to squeeze her arm muscle.

She talks about going back to school for a master’s in speech communication. Maybe she’ll teach someday, she says. She talks about shopping for new clothes and playing pool again. She jokes about all the titanium used to reconstruct her face.

“I just want to lay my head down and weigh it,” she says, “just to see how heavy.”

Abel laughs, even as tears well up.

Mother and daughter live in Abel’s small, spare cabin. Doctors recommended Abel place Federici in a nursing home.

“I couldn’t do it,” Abel says. “It would have been like putting her in a refrigerator.”

Abel quit her job and found work with another wireless company that allows her a flexible schedule. These days she rises at 3:30 a.m. to do some work before Federici wakes up, and the day’s routine begins. Federici needs help for the most basic functions: eating, washing, dressing. She spends much of the day undergoing one form of therapy after another. She will need medical care for the rest of her life. More surgeries lie head.

Many who came in contact with Federici and Abel after the accident have stayed in touch. The two motorists who stopped to help continue to call and visit. The state patrol officers, a medic, several doctors and prosecutors check in regularly.

The one person they’ve never heard from is Hefley. He still works in Seattle, and lives a few miles north of Abel’s cabin. When contacted by The Times, he refused to comment.

Abel says she has no energy to hate him. Federici, in a moment of anger, says she wishes Hefley was punished with the same thing that happened to her — permanent disfigurement and brain damage — even for just a few hours. Just so he could know the consequences of his actions.

Mostly, though, Hefley is only a name, an abstraction. He is something bad that happened one cold night. On a side table a few feet from where Federici sits is a framed black-and-white portrait of her, taken shortly before the accident. It’s the same photo that was used in news broadcasts and newspaper articles, showing a young woman who beamed with youth and beauty and possibility.

“It’s all gray and black for me now,” Federici says, holding up two fingers in front of her closed eyes. There is the faintest flicker of one of her eyelids. Her fingers are only inches from her face. She switches from two fingers to three and then back to two.

“I can almost see them,” she whispers.

Abel watches her daughter from across the couch, her own eyes unblinking.

“Mom, I can almost see them,” Federici says again.

“Yes,” Abel says. “I know you can.”