September-October 2013

Chilli’s story will warm your heart

Allenna Bangs

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Tarrant County

This adorable 8-year-old wrote a touching letter to the man who plowed into her car while drunk, paralyzing her and badly injuring her aunt. After news outlets picked up the letter, support poured in from around the country—and the local prosecutors’ office.

As prosecutors, we deal with crime victims everyday—it’s part of the job. We deal with some who are very sympathetic victims as well as those who are very difficult. We don’t choose our victims.

    I knew all of those things from my five years in the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, but I never expected to learn so much from a victim, especially an 8-year-old.

    In July 2011, I was wrapping up a three-month term in Grand Jury, and I happened to be six months’ pregnant with my first child. I was looking through my list of unindicted cases and found a newly filed intoxication assault. When you work in Tarrant County and you are trained by misdemeanor chief Richard Alpert, you are predisposed to an interest in intoxication cases. I opened the file and began to read. The facts of the case were not particularly different from those I have read in the past, but the injuries to and the age of the victim immediately struck me. In fact, as I read through the case, 8-year-old Xiticalli “Chilli” Vasquez was still lying in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. She was outfitted with a metal halo with screws directly into her head to stabilize her spine and prevent any further injury.

    One day earlier that month, at 3:25 in the afternoon, 20-year-old Jeremy Adrian Solis was driving on the north side of Fort Worth and attempted to make a hard left turn into a liquor store parking lot. He plowed directly into Maria Gutierrez’s car, crushing her vehicle (see a photo from the scene on the opposite page). The only thing Maria remembers is that she had taken her two young nieces, Chilli and Giselle, to the mall to get their nails and hair done as a special treat three days before Chilli’s birthday. Maria’s son, Warren, was in the front passenger seat and her nieces were in the back seat, and all were immediately transported to area hospitals. Maria fractured her neck and shattered her leg from her hip to her ankle. It took her four months to learn to walk again. Chilli did not leave the hospital for 105 days, and she left as a paraplegic. She had suffered a broken spine, shattered leg, and ruptured bowel. She had multiple surgeries, a tracheotomy, a feeding tube, a catheter, and a rod placed in her leg. But what Chilli had really lost was the ability to be a precocious little girl—or so I thought.

A sweet girl with attitude

I called Chilli’s mother, Arabella, to introduce myself and ask her about Chilli’s prognosis and injuries. Throughout the entire conversation I could hear the struggle in Arabella’s voice as she tried to remain positive and strong while fighting back tears and obvious despair. Of all the victims I have spoken to, she was the most heart-wrenching. She was literally painful to listen to.

    Before we hung up, Arabella said, “You know, I hope you get to meet Chilli one day. I think you would be really impressed. She is the one that keeps us positive. Without her attitude, we would lose hope.” I asked if she had considered what kind of punishment she wanted for the defendant, Mr. Solis. She said she had spoken to Chilli about it and that Chilli just wanted him to go to prison until she learns to walk again. Arabella finally let the tears out and said, “I just don’t have the heart to tell her that is forever.” At that, I had to get off the phone before I lost all sense of professionalism. I put the phone down and hung my head. Maybe it was the fact that I knew I was having a daughter or maybe it would have happened to any prosecutor, but I had a hard time accepting what Arabella was going through. Just a few short months ago she had a little girl with so much spirit. She had dreams of Chilli playing sports, attending school, and one day getting married and having her own children. Now it all seemed lost.

    The defendant, Solis, was charged with two counts of intoxication assault with a deadly weapon for the injuries that Chilli and Maria sustained. Both Warren and Giselle had suffered only minor injuries that did not rise to the level of serious bodily injury. Solis had failed the HGN and then consented to a blood draw. His BAC was .23, almost three times the legal limit. The owner of the house where the defendant had been drinking had let Solis borrow his truck to go get more alcohol, and he never returned. There was still a cold 24-ounce can of Bud Ice in the truck.

    I emailed the defense attorney and offered 10 years on both counts and filed a motion to stack—the maximum. At the time, punishing the defendant seemed like all I could do to help make this family whole.

    At the defendant’s first court setting, I noticed the courtroom was really full. This was not unusual, but there was a large group of people that stood out because they clearly all knew each other. They were all surrounding a little girl in a wheelchair. Chilli was dressed in jeans and a hot-pink shirt with sequins. She had a bow in her hair that was as big as her head and her signature purse draped around her tiny body. She was speaking to her MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) representative and was smiling ear to ear. I approached her and shook her hand. She was a little shyer than I had expected, but of course she would be. This was the first time Chilli was well enough to make it up to the courthouse to meet in person.

    I met with her and about 15 members of her family in our victim’s assistance area. Actually, I met with her parents because Chilli could not sit still. She wheeled up and down the hall talking to members of her family and court staff. Arabella told me that the girl had just had her halo removed and was really enjoying her newfound freedom. I also had the opportunity to meet with Maria, who had been driving that fateful afternoon. She had just started walking with a walker and was so proud of her recent accomplishment. It was so exciting to hear of both victims’ recent improvement and so sad at the same time. I felt terrible that Chilli and Maria now got excited over regaining control over parts of their bodies that used to be completely normal.

    The court settings continued for over a year. The defense continued to ask for probation given Solis’s age and lack of criminal history. I knew that was never going to be an option. Eventually, the defense decided they would take the 10-year offer. It was a plea to the maximum but somehow felt like it would never be the justice this family deserved.

Chilli’s letter

The day that the defendant pled was not unlike his first court setting. The docket was full. Chilli and about 15 family members arrived to watch Arabella and Chilli read their allocutions. Chilli came in with a handwritten letter. I looked at the first page and could not read any further. It was written on loose leaf paper, the “i’s” dotted with big polka-dot circles, and the paragraphs were numbered as she had learned in grade school. A letter written by a child that spoke of the ICU, her feeding tube (known as a “g-button,”) and other medical terms she should never have to know. At the very top she had titled her letter “From one of Your Victom.”

    Arabella went first and sat on the witness stand. She told Solis what his actions had done to her family. She wheeled Chilli up in front of the witness stand so he could see the result of his actions. Chilli looked a little stunned but brave nonetheless. The defendant hung his head, the judge teared up, a bailiff had to walk out of the room, the other defendants who were present for docket cried, and Chilli’s family sobbed.

    When it was Chilli’s turn to talk, she looked at me and shook her head. She couldn’t do it. She just wanted out of that room, and that was so understandable. Her mom read Chilli’s letter to the defendant, and it felt like it took 100 years. Arabella choked back tears as she read, “There are days that I cry cause I can’t do what I used to do.” The letter ended with, “Look at what I said and the words I said and tell me how I look and feel. How do you feel today?” When it was finally over and the family left, it was like the air was sucked out of the room. Everyone told Chilli they were very proud of her for facing the defendant, and you could see relief on her face. I am not sure if it was because she faced him or if she was just glad it was over.

The story takes off

Little did she know that an even bigger story was just beginning. I snapped a quick picture of Chilli and her family thinking I might submit their names for our annual Christmas Family Adoption, where our office “adopts” a family in need and buys them Christmas presents and food for the holidays. I answered a few questions and showed them to the elevators thinking this is where our brief relationship ended.

    By about lunchtime that day, our Public Information Officer, Melody McDonald, was sitting in my office telling me she had received numerous phone calls and media requests about the Solis case. I was a bit confused. After all, this was a plea, not a weeks-long, televised trial. The Victim’s Assistance Unit had asked the family for permission to post Chilli’s letter on our website, and the local news had picked it up. By the end of that day, I had done a phone interview and an on-camera interview for the news. Surely, that was the last of this case. I was wrong.

    Once the story aired on the evening news, the calls started pouring in, not only from media but also from the community. People wanted to know how they could help Chilli and where they could send checks. By the next night, her letter to the defendant was on every single station in both English and Spanish. I quickly contacted Richard Alpert, our misdemeanor chief, and asked him if we could adopt the family for Christmas and explained that I didn’t think donations were going to be an issue! Richard also suggested that we make Chilli the face of the holiday “no refusals” campaign, but I was reluctant to ask the family to do any more press. Since the day Chilli had been in court, news crews had been to her house, but I called Arabella and asked if Chilli would be willing to come up to our office and do one last interview. She happily agreed. Both Arabella and Chilli said that if this was to help curb drunk-driving over the holidays, they were in.

    Chilli came to my office, and we talked about what she might say. I gave her a pencil and paper, and she wrote one sentence: “Please don’t drink and drive over the Holidays because you might hurt or kill someone that you don’t even know.” Another prosecutor, Ashlea Deener, came by to ask Chilli and Arabella what their family might want for Christmas and explained to them we had adopted them for the holidays. I was surprised when Chilli listed off things that her brothers and sisters wanted for Christmas, and Arabella politely said they didn’t really need anything. Then I walked Chilli down the hall to the media room and expected to find two or three camera crews. When we turned the corner, I thought the President might be speaking—there were probably 10 news agencies there to film this little girl and a few radio stations that wanted audio. I gave a brief synopsis of Chilli’s case and then she read her message. When the press conference was over, each reporter stood in line to ask Arabella and Chilli questions. I thought this would overwhelm the child, but she handled it with poise—and a little attitude.

    Later that day I called Arabella to check on Chilli, and she told me that they were packing their bags. “The Today Show” had called! Arabella and Chilli flew to New York for the weekend. I woke up early on Saturday morning and Chilli was being interviewed by Lester Holt. The calls and emails to our office skyrocketed. Ashlea and I made sure to inform the media that we had adopted the family and hoped to make their Christmas special. I could have never imagined the response we received. Everyday I came to work and there were stacks of letters from across the country and even Canada. Some letters included encouraging messages and some just included checks. I received packages with wrapped gifts to give to the family. A local car dealership called and asked if they could have a fundraiser, and we agreed. When we attended the fundraiser, they presented us with a $10,000 check to be spent for the family. There were articles posted on websites for ABCNews, CNN, TruTV, and Huffington Post. The comments after each article were very emotional as people shared how their lives had been touched by drunk driving and how Chilli inspired them. The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) called and asked if Chilli would like to be the face of its statewide holiday campaign to curb drinking and driving. Again, the Vasquez family agreed, saying they would do anything to stop this from happening to another family.

Wading through ­unfamiliar waters

To be honest, I was happy that the family was getting attention, but I worried too. First, we were taking in a lot of money and gifts. I wanted to assure each donor that all of the money donated was going to be spent directly on the family. We opened up a bank account for charitable giving and deposited all of the money there. The attention also made me nervous because I didn’t want people directly contacting the Vasquez family at home. We received a few letters that were unnerving and a few requests from people who wanted to meet Chilli that made our “prosecutor radar” go off. We set up a system so that all such requests had to be filtered through Melody (our PIO), Ashlea, and myself to determine legitimacy. In total, we received over $17,000 in donations.

    The misdemeanor section worked very hard to determine the family’s needs, including through a field trip to their home. There was a small makeshift ramp at the front of the house so that Chilli and her wheelchair could get inside. She had had to abandon her bubble-gum pink bedroom upstairs for a room on the ground floor, and she could no longer get upstairs where her siblings were. Her new room had a hospital bed so that she could move it up and down to get in and out. Where you might expect to find dolls and toys, there were medical supplies for her still-evolving needs. I realized there was a lot we could do for Chilli, but what Jeremy Solis took away, no one could give back.

    After identifying the needs of the Vasquez family, attorneys from our office contacted local businesses about in-kind donations. The response was overwhelming, as most had seen Chilli’s story on the news already. One morning in mid-December, a crew of volunteers from our office went over to the Vasquez home. The family was soon to head off to church. We set up a lunch at the same restaurant that hosted a fundraiser, gave them spending cash, and asked them to just go out and have a great day. Once they were gone, we went to work. We put up a Christmas tree; contractors came over and measured to fix the roof; and representatives from Lowe’s came over to build a new concrete ramp in the back of the house. Sam’s Furniture donated bunk beds for Chilli’s sisters so they could all share a room and outfitted the new space with a flat-screen TV. We had many wrapped gifts for each child, mom, and dad. Local restaurants donated snacks and sweets to leave for them. We were able to coordinate with Project Walk, a local non-profit for people with spinal injuries, for a month’s worth of tuition. Project Walk is a specialized rehabilitation facility that designs unique classes to teach people with spinal cord injuries how to cope and live with their injuries. Arabella had heard of the program and really wanted Chilli to attend to keep focused on her goal of walking again, but they could never have afforded it on their own, and insurance would not cover it. Finally, we left an $11,000 check in a neatly wrapped box on top of a new motorized wheel chair in the living room. We cleaned the house and snuck out.

    That day, the media contacted me and asked if they could be present for the big reveal. They wanted to capture Chilli’s face as all of their surprises first greeted her and her family. For the first time, the answer was “no.” Arabella and Chilli had been on a whirlwind media tour, and we felt like it was finally time to just have some peace. I wanted them to feel like a family and not like a sideshow. Arabella texted me when they arrived home and said simply, “Thank you for everything.” As we all say, we don’t get into this job for the thank-you’s, because they are few and far between, but they are nice when they come. All I could respond was, “Thank you for everything.”

    I had learned so much. I really got to look at a case for so much more than what was in a report. I got a glimpse into the life of a victim, long after a crime was committed. I saw how caring the people in this country, my community, and my office are, and I was impressed. I am not an overly emotional person—I don’t cry at work, and I have learned to separate the emotional aspects of this job from my personal life. But this situation was just different. In this job, we deal with victims everyday—but some of them we will never forget.