Part III: Fatal Wreck Galvanized Alcohol Abuse Efforts in Gallup, New Mexico


Originally appeared in The Ranger newspaper.

Herb Mosher was coming back from dinner when he stumbled on a car wreck about two and a half miles from the hospital. One. Two. Three. Four. Dead on the scene. The timing was perfect, although nobody had wanted a tragedy.

The opposite had occurred on that January 1989 evening in Gallup — it was proven that alcoholism was not just an Indian problem. A white man, who may have been part Navajo, distraught over his failed marriage, decided to get drunk and drive. He careened into a Navajo family in a van on their way to do volunteer work for their church. In the backseat of the van was Jovita Vega, a Navajo baby with a Spanish name.

“Nothing added up,” said Mosher, director of development for Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services.

His eyes then fell on the 3-month-old Jovita, who was not in a child restraint seat, according to newspaper accounts.

“She was dead, but she looked like she was sleeping — not a scratch on her. She died of massive internal injuries, looking so peaceful,” he said.

The man who caused the wreck was actually the husband of an Anglo hospital employee, and the blood alcohol level on his corpse was well beyond the legal limit, Mosher said.

Under the weight of a great irony — because the man who had caused the wreck was perceived to be white — and due to the reality of hundreds of other wrecks, the tragedy united the patchwork community. Judy Conejo, who was a manager at Rehoboth, dreamed up the idea of marching to Santa Fe to convince the legislature to take proposed alcohol reform bills seriously. Now backers at least had something that crossed racial lines to march about.

Goals for the legislative session included getting approved to hold an election for a liquor excise tax and to close drive-up windows. They also wanted seed money — $300,000 — for a detox center study.

Gallup Mayor Ed Munoz and Judy’s husband, Dave, chief executive officer of the hospital, met with the mother and asked if they could name the march after her daughter. It was called “Journey for Jovita” and “The March of Hope.”

“Her life was snuffed out because our immediate society wouldn’t address this problem of alcohol abuse,” said Dave Conejo, now CEO of Highland Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas.

The liquor industry scoffed at the march. One liquor dealer was trying to get Dave Conejo to use his chief executive powers to call off the event, thinking it would ostracize and humiliate the town when only a few people showed up. As Munoz likes to joke, they thought it would consist of an old Mexican and a few Indians.

Judy Conejo and her cohorts went around to churches on and off the reservations, believing people had been praying for an end to the problem for years. And they were right. They went to Navajo and Zuni Pueblo chapter houses, places she had never been. At first, she was frightened being the only Anglo woman there, until the tribal elders came up and kissed her hand.

The march was led by Munoz and the Conejos in the middle of winter in northern New Mexico. They never had fewer than 150 people, and by the time they reached the state capitol in Santa Fe, they had more than 2,500.

It was a diverse lot, from old Navajo grandmothers who herded sheep to government bureaucrats who took annual leaves of absence. Volunteer doctors nursed sore feet, churches provided food, and schools opened their gym doors to give tired marchers places to sleep.

“To me, it was a long, cold and at times dangerous walk,” said Mosher.

For a person who worked in the healthcare field, he was always worried about accidents, but then he began to realize it meant something different to the Navajos. For many, Mosher believes, they were walking in their ancestors’ footsteps, harking back to what has been called the most traumatic event in Navajo history, “The Long Walk.”

Gen. James Carlton, military commander of the New Mexico Territory, decided the Navajos should be moved to a reservation, become Christian and adopt American ways. In 1863, he sent Col. Kit Carson’s militia to round up them and the Mescalero Apache, destroying livestock, crops and sheep. Although some escaped, about 8,000 made the Long Walk, a distance of 300 miles, to Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico, where they were imprisoned for years.

Conditions were atrocious. To the troops, it was a reservation, but to the Indians, it was a concentration camp. They built huts of sticks and old canvas, starvation tested morale, and 2,000 died of disease. Recognizing a failed effort, a treaty in 1868 allowed the Navajos to return to their homeland.

They still haven’t forgotten about it. Architect David Sloan is designing a memorial he hopes will be under construction by the year 2000, reported David Roberts in a recent article in Smithsonian.

“Most Navajos believe the Long Walk was a turning point in Navajo history, where a clannish people became a nation. A group of large families decided that they were one people,” Mosher said.

“It was a little broader than alcohol reform,” he added, referring to the march.

Judy Conejo thinks it was simpler than that. The diversity provided strength; one group of people looked different, but on that particular journey thought alike.

“Everybody who walked with us could relate tale after tale of people dying in their own families — dying from alcohol abuse. I don’t know that it went any further than that,” she said.

Whatever was happening, it was powerful. Judy Conejo believes the march was divinely inspired as her thoughts go back to one magical day. It looked like snow, they realized after they stopped for lunch. Because some weren’t dressed right, they made the announcement that they would have to go back. Then she noticed the owner of the restaurant was passing out plastic bags for makeshift raincoats. With God’s help, though, the plastic wasn’t necessary.

“We were walking down the highway, and it was raining and snowing on both sides of us, but not on us. It really happened. It was just a blessed experience,” she said.

The liquor industry underestimated the magnitude of the event, as did the politicians in Santa Fe. A caravan followed with 130 cars, headlights glowing, like a funeral procession. Legislators were not used to seeing people like Mosher away from his desk with a couple thousand people.

Immediately reform advocates tried to harness the energy and talked to legislators from McKinley County. They asked for a presentation before the House and Senate, but both declined. They called the governor and he said he would be out of town. They kept cranking up the heat until a combined session was called. The momentum reached such a level, the governor decided to turn his plane around as the drama unfolded on ABC News.

Munoz was instrumental in corralling the politicians, being familiar with the workings of the Legislature. And Jovita’s mother, Kathleen Vega, gave a stirring speech.

The former wife of the man who caused the wreck spoke about his bout of overcoming the demon. Although the two mothers hadn’t said a word to each other during the session, they hugged, almost on cue.

“Their arms just raised out. They walked across the floor. They just embraced. It was at that point I realized this could have tremendous significance for everyone in our region,” Mosher said. “This wasn’t just about the politics of alcohol. To me, that was the kind of healing you rarely see.”

They succeeded in passing all the bills in a single session and added a new law that banned opened containers in vehicle front seats. But a lawsuit over drive-up windows was brewing on the horizon.

Liquor dealer Gary Tomada used to own a package store and bar. It was believed the man who killed Jovita got drunk from Tomada’s alcohol, but that’s never been proven, he said.

During the 1988 and ’89 period, things were especially hot while different groups — punitive, health care, racist — fueled the flames, threatening to burn each other alive. John Stossel from ABC’s 20/20 came into Tomada’s bar and asked what he was doing about the situation. Tomada had the standard, almost scripted answer, “Well, by golly, we don’t sell to visibly intoxicated individuals and we don’t sell to minors and we’re operating under the law,” he said.

The industry itself had divided. There were 11 drive-up windows in the city and four or five in the county, and they wanted to remain open for fear of competition. They fought the drive-up window issue all the way to the state Supreme Court and lost.

Still, Tomada has realized that it was time for the industry to take a proactive approach. He helped form a voluntary group called the Gallup Area Responsibility Hospitality Council, which would provide server training, among other things. The turnover for waiters, waitresses and bartenders was high, and the liquor industry wanted to give them a bigger role in the sale of a controlled substance. It worked.

People attended 13 hours of classes over two Sundays and received credit through the Gallup campus of the University of New Mexico. Legislation was later passed to make server training mandatory statewide. Now everybody has to be certified to sell alcohol so they can look for the 50 signs of intoxication, Tomada said.

The reforms didn’t put anybody out of business, and many actually increased their revenues after closing their drive-up windows due to impulse buying. Many say insurance rates have also dropped for liquor retailers.

“For a while there, the industry stood and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing all we can, and we’re doing it according to the law.’ But in the end, it wasn’t enough. We had to do more,” Tomada said.

Part IV

Parts I | II | V

Originally appeared in The Ranger, Riverton, Wyoming.