Central Avenue curves fast through Kansas City, Kansas, lined with auto-detailing shops, gas stations and panaderias. At 18th Street and Park Drive, it meets a confusing, asterisk-shaped intersection.
Aaron Becerra was 21 when he approached that intersection on the evening of September 30, 2000. This drive was part of his daily routine. He'd just gotten off work at the KCK police garage, where he maintained the cop cars, gassed them up, checked their oil. His father, Hector, lived nearby. Becerra often stopped at Hector's house after work for a shower and a bite to eat. But this night, he might have been heading to his brother Phillip's house. Phillip had been bugging him to return the red Nissan Sentra that Aaron had borrowed while his own car was in the shop.
As Becerra drove south on 18th toward Central, witnesses would later testify, he probably couldn't see the firetruck's lights or hear its siren — a solid bank of buildings obscures the view of oncoming traffic and muffles street noise. Becerra drove into the intersection without hesitation.
Pumper 9 plowed into the driver's side of the Nissan, its massive chrome grill pushing Becerra's Sentra four car lengths before coming to a stop. When an ambulance arrived minutes later, a crowd gathered to watch as responders cut the top off the mangled car to free Becerra.
At the wheel of the firetruck was 38-year-old Anthony Mots. He'd been a driver with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department since 1994.
A witness, who had been sitting at the red light on Central when the firetruck passed him from behind, later described the crash as "vehicular homicide."
"I killed a kid," Mots repeated, over and over, to his girlfriend later that night.
But Becerra wasn't dead. Doctors removed his shattered spleen and, in a rare medical procedure, left his abdomen cut open, covered by a sterile plastic bag, to keep his bowels moist. His father, brother and sister kept a bedside vigil, as did Angela Martinez (then known as Angela Perez), the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Sabrina. Sabrina wasn't allowed to visit her father's bedside; Martinez thought she was too young to handle the sight.
He lived for seven days, improving enough to keep his family and the doctors at the University of Kansas Medical Center hopeful, before his condition suddenly deteriorated. He died of his brain injuries on October 6, 2000. Later on the night of the accident, a Kansas Highway Patrol officer was dispatched to KU Med to pick up a blood sample from Becerra. Testing for alcohol and drugs is standard Kansas Highway Patrol procedure whenever a commercial vehicle such as a firetruck is involved in a crash. Becerra's test came back clean.
Mots also was supposed to have his blood tested. The highway patrol officer investigating Becerra's accident, Mike Gruber, did not test Mots because he believed that Mots' employer, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, would test him independently. But no one from the United Government ever tested him.
After a recent trial against Mots and the Unified Government, a jury's verdict suggests that KCK firefighters helped Mots hide to avoid a blood test that might have detected drugs and alcohol in his system.
Vickie Rehrer was with Mots the night before the accident. This spring, she told her story under oath in front of a Wyandotte County jury and later recounted it for The Pitch.
In 2002, acting on Sabrina Becerra's behalf, Hector Becerra and Angela Martinez filed a federal lawsuit against Mots and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. Represented by Daniel J. Cohen, with the law office of Davy C. Walker in Kansas City, Kansas, they claimed that the accident had violated Becerra's civil rights when it resulted in his death. That suit was eventually thrown out of court. Cohen then filed a wrongful death suit in Kansas court in 2006. It went to trial in March 2008 at the Wyandotte County Courthouse.