Our bookstore is temporarily closed. Please check back soon.
Cover Story
March-April 2008

Second chances bring both tragedy and justice

Brent Robbins

Investigator in the Denton County Criminal District Attorney’s Office

After an intoxicated driver kills one person and seriously injures two others, New Hampshire families return to Texas to find justice and closure.

March 25, 2006, was going to be a day of celebration for several New Hampshire families. Marilyn Gates and her husband, Don, along with their good friends Gene Cordes, his wife Beverly Brooks, and their 17-year-old son, Griffin Cordes, had traveled from New Hampshire to the DFW area for a wedding. Marilyn and Don were just weeks shy of their own 30th wedding anniversary.

Marilyn, a flight attendant for American Airlines, could possibly have been working Flight 11 on September 11, 2001; terrorists flew this plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Marilyn had taken September off to care for her ailing father. Despite cheating death (or perhaps because of it), Marilyn still, four and a half years later, often spoke of the close friends she lost that day. Don was enjoying his retirement after spending 32 years as a police officer and state trooper in New Hampshire. Many of Don and Marilyn’s family (including one adult son, a daughter, and several sons-in-law) had followed in Don’s footsteps, becoming cops as well. After attending the wedding and reception (where no alcohol was served) here in Texas, they left just after 10:15 p.m., and were heading back to their hotel outside of Carrollton.

The same day was a celebration for 52-year-old Stephen Mole as well. Mole, his elderly parents, sister, and brother-in-law were at a Dallas-area restaurant commemorating his folks’ 55th wedding anniversary. Mole consumed a few glasses of wine at the restaurant bar before dinner, more glasses of wine with dinner, and several after-dinner Drambuies. After leaving the restaurant, he dropped his parents off at their house around 10:15 that night, then began the drive to his own home.

Seventeen minutes later, lives were changed forever. Driving down the road at an estimated 60 miles per hour (in a 45-mile-per-hour zone), Stephen Mole’s white Ford Expedition approached a traffic light. The New Hampshire group, in a silver Mercury Grand Marquis rental car, were heading southbound, preparing to turn left. In the front seat next to Gene Cordes was Don Gates, while 17-year-old Griffin Cordes, his mother Beverly, and Marilyn sat in the back seat. (All of the men were wearing seat belts, as required by law, while neither Marilyn nor Beverly were. Seat belts are not legally required for adults in the back seat.) As the rental car approached the traffic light, Gene saw the light change from red to a green left arrow. Gene proceeded into the intersection to turn left as Stephen Mole approached. Mole never touched his brakes. Never. His SUV, still traveling at 60 miles per hour, blew through the red light and slammed into the left rear door of the Grand Marquis. The force was so great that the rental car spun nearly 360 degrees. During the spin Marilyn Gates and Beverly Brooks were ejected through the rear window of the sedan; both ended up in the middle of the intersection. Griffin Cordes’ body took the brunt of the Expedition’s force as its grill plowed into the smaller car right where Griffin was seated.

Within three minutes, Carrollton police officers and multiple ambulances and fire trucks arrived on the scene. The men seated in the front of the rental car were not seriously hurt. However, Griffin Cordes arrived at a nearby hospital with multiple pelvic fractures, multiple left leg fractures, and window glass embedded in his face. (Nearly two years later, Griffin still has multiple pieces of glass buried under the skin of his face.) Beverly also suffered a broken pelvis, cardiac contusions, and leg fractures. (Mother and son went on to survive their injuries but endured months of pain, inability to walk without assistance, and multiple surgeries.) Though she was able to speak with her husband on the ambulance ride to the hospital, Marilyn Gates was not as fortunate as Bev and her son. Every one of her ribs had multiple fractures, which caused lacerations to her spleen, liver, aorta, kidneys, and heart. She was pronounced dead just after midnight on March 26, 2006.

Even with the front end of his Expedition destroyed, Stephen Mole exited his vehicle unhurt. He spent the next 45 minutes standing by his SUV, exhibiting no apparent emotion.

A trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety arrived at the crash scene at 11:15 p.m. After he spoke with the first officers on scene, he conducted SFSTs and had Mole blow into a portable breath-testing device. Mole told the trooper and a Carrollton police officer that he had only consumed “two or three glasses of wine.” (I interviewed Mole’s parents and brother-in-law later and unearthed the credit card receipt from the restaurant where they’d eaten that night; everything indicated that Mole had consumed several more glasses of wine and two after-dinner liquers.) The trooper then arrested Mole and read him the DIC-24 warning. Mole agreed to provide a blood specimen at a nearby hospital. The results indicated that Mole’s blood alcohol level was 0.12—nearly two and a half hours after the crash, likely more than twice the legal limit at the time of the crash.

My involvement

Unfortunately, I knew nothing about this case, Stephen Mole, or Marilyn Gates for nearly a year. In February 2007, the case files landed on my desk. It had been delayed for all of the usual reasons: waiting on blood test results and continuances from both the defense and the State. By this time, both vehicles had been released and destroyed, witness’ contact information had changed many times, and memories had faded. An indictment for one count of intoxication manslaughter and two counts of intoxication assault were the first documents I read. Over the next 11 months, I subpoenaed, obtained by court order, begged for, gathered, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of photographs. This case, and specifically the family of Marilyn Gates, became mine.

One of the difficulties we encountered was that our two intoxication assault victims, as well as the other occupants of the rental car, were all back home in New Hampshire, 1,800 miles away. All interviews had to be conducted via telephone. Relatives of Marilyn Gates soon learned of my involvement with the case and began contacting me regarding possible trial dates, travel, hotel arrangements, etc.

As is the case in many other counties, Denton County has a website where one can search for information regarding pending criminal cases. I am convinced that half the state of New Hampshire was checking our website daily. I created a “distribution group” in my e-mail program and kept everyone updated on every motion, hearing, and potential issue with the trial. This line of communication proved vital, not only for later presentation of our case, but also for ensuring that everyone involved knew exactly what to expect when they returned to Texas. It seems so cliché to say that “communication is the key,” yet I found that to be precisely the case. Whether it was the constant communication with my “second family” in New Hampshire or communication between me and the frequently changing set of prosecutors assigned to this case, excellent communication at all levels was truly an asset for us all.

In the months that led up to the July trial, I began nearly daily communication with Melissa Gates Larochelle, Marilyn’s daughter. Melissa sent me several CDs of photographs of Marilyn and her family so that I could put a face with the name on an indictment. From Melissa, I learned just how tragic this case really was: Melissa had been a police officer for a New Hampshire town. After learning she was pregnant (her husband was also a police officer), she left the streets and became a dispatcher for the local sheriff’s office. Melissa considered Marilyn her best friend; I could hear in her voice how much she loved and missed her mother. I learned that Melissa was six months pregnant when her mother was killed. Melissa’s son, Samuel, was born on June 24, 2006—which would have been Marilyn Gates’ 53rd birthday. Melissa’s sister-in-law was also pregnant when Marilyn died, leaving two grandchildren Marilyn never got to meet. Since the tragic loss of her mother, Melissa became involved with her local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and also started the Marilyn Gates Memorial Fund (www.marilyngatesmemorialfund.com) as one way to help her cope with her mother’s senseless death. Melissa became my primary New Hampshire contact. She was well-liked and trusted by all of Marilyn’s family (as well as Griffin Cordes and his parents). Having a single person as the main contact in a complicated case with multiple out-of-state witnesses, friends, and family members made my job much easier while still ensuring that everyone in New Hampshire was kept updated regarding the status of the case against the man who killed Marilyn Gates and severely injured Beverly and her son Griffin.

The first trial

Melissa, the occupants of the rental car, and more of Marilyn’s friends and family than I could count, arrived in Texas on July 22, 2007, for the trial. It ended after just one day of testimony; the court granted a mistrial at the defense’s request because of jury misconduct. A juror was overheard saying that the defense attorney did not want her on the jury because she was already convinced of the defendant’s guilt.

Once the mistrial was declared, it was decision time. Should we offer Mole probation? A minimal prison sentence? Go back to trial in six months? Assistant Criminal DAs Ryan Calvert and Chris Abel and I agreed that the family and victims needed to have a say in how we proceeded. In a very emotional meeting in the office conference room, everyone agreed that they would return to Texas as many times as needed to ensure that Stephen Mole was made to answer for the lives he destroyed.

The re-trial

The re-trial was scheduled for January 7, 2008. From the end of July through the New Year, countless hours were spent continuing the investigation into this case. Again, contacts with the families occurred via telephone. My constant e-mail updates, with Melissa as my main contact, continued too. The final prosecution team was named: Ryan Calvert would lead the case, as he did in July. Chris Abel had since left our office, so Forrest Beadle, our newly promoted assistant chief of the misdemeanor division and DWI prosecutor, would sit second chair. In the background and ready to take over for Ryan during the second week of the trial (as Ryan had committed to be a faculty advisor at TDCAA’s January Prosecutor Trial Skills Course) was Cary Piel.

While Ryan and I brought an intimate knowledge of the case—and I could rattle off every witness and family member’s name, relationship, and phone number in my sleep—Forrest and Cary came in with new perspectives, knowing very little about the case originally. Cary’s previous years as a criminal defense attorney brought yet another facet to the team. Although we didn’t think it was possible, we were more ready for January’s re-trial than we had ever been before.

The weekend prior to voir dire brought trips back to DFW Airport to pick up New Hampshire folks, meetings in the hotel conference room, and many long hours re-interviewing every one of our 20-plus witness. By 5:30 p.m. Monday night, 13 jurors had been seated and sworn in; it was the first time an alternate juror had been used in our county’s history.

Opening statements and testimony began Tuesday morning. Between three entire rows of family members on “our side” of the room (nearly twice as many people came down from New Hampshire for the second trial), representatives from MADD and DPS, Sue Wooldrige (our office’s Director of Victim Services), and other prosecutors who had heard about the case, it was standing-room-only the entire week.

We began our case-in-chief with testimony about the crux of our intoxication and causation evidence: Mole’s driving. Seven civilian witnesses testified regarding the defendant’s terrible driving prior to the crash. He was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, and he nearly struck several other vehicles. Five of the seven witnesses saw that Mole’s light was red for several seconds before he drove into the intersection. I also subpoenaed the traffic signal operations manager for the City of Carrollton, whose testimony was devastating to the defense. He testified that Mole’s light was yellow for four seconds, then red for an additional two seconds before the cross traffic had green arrows. He also testified that it was impossible for both westbound and southbound lights to be green at the same time and that the traffic light was operating properly at the time of the crash.

Perhaps our most powerful witness was Julia Smith, a 16-year-old witness to the crash. Although she didn’t know any of the people involved in the wreck, Julia climbed into the blood-covered rear seat of the rental car and held Griffin’s hand, calming him down until ambulances arrived—all while Stephen Mole stood silently by the side of his SUV, uninjured and showing no interest or concern for his victims. Calling Julia to the stand first followed our strategy to “start strong.”

Wednesday morning, the third day of trial, brought troublesome news: One of our jurors had suffered a miscarriage. While we all felt terrible for her loss, we also realized that we were down to 12 jurors. Just one more jury issue could result in a second mistrial. The court had disagreed with the State’s request for at least two alternates, thinking we would never need the 13th juror, let alone a 14th.

We introduced Mole’s book-in photo. He had a smirk on his face in the photo, which had been taken the night of the crash—after he learned that Marilyn Gates had died.

The blood evidence and results were then introduced, as well as testimony regarding toxicology and the effect of alcohol on the human body, then testimony from the medical examiner. Because we also wanted to “finish strong,” we saved Beverly, Griffin, and Don’s testimony for last. Although Beverly and Griffin remembered nothing about the collision, they testified about their injuries and recovery, leaving no doubt in the jury’s mind that they both had suffered “serious bodily injury.”

Don was one of our final witnesses. It was heartbreaking to listen to Marilyn’s husband re-live that night. Hearing this hardened ex-cop’s voice break as he told the jury how a doctor had notified him that his wife had died was more than most of us could bear. His testimony did not leave a dry eye in the room—with the exception of Stephen Mole.

All of these witnesses did an amazing job (especially under cross-examination from a very aggressive defense counsel) and were able to keep their wits about them, never uttering the phrase “first trial,” which may have resulted in yet another mistrial.

One difficulty

Perhaps the most difficult State’s witness was also the briefest. The trooper who investigated the case was forced to resign from DPS in February 2007. His resignation resulted from disciplinary actions that, while unrelated to this case, nevertheless called his credibility into question. The prosecutors made a successful motion in limine to keep the trooper’s specific conduct away from the jury. However, to avoid “opening the door” to what was sure to be multiple days of brutal cross-examination by defense counsel, the prosecutors severely limited what was asked on direct examination. We also knew that this witness was at the heart of the defense’s strategy of attacking the crash investigation. Thus, we wanted to minimize his importance. As a result, the only areas we covered with him were that he formed probable cause to arrest Mole and that he placed the blood vial into evidence after the blood was drawn. The direct examination was less than five minutes long, but the cross was much longer.

Defense counsel immediately attacked the former trooper, forcing him to admit that he was not a credible person. The lawyer then aggressively questioned the witness about the many facets of accident reconstruction that were not performed in this case. Finally, after several hours of discussing drag sleds, coefficients of friction, and crush factors, the defense passed the witness. No re-direct. We dealt with crash reconstruction later.

After we rested, the defense began its case by calling the defendant’s sister (whose husband had died of complications from an organ transplant just two days prior). She ate dinner with Mole prior to the crash and testified that he appeared fine when he left the restaurant. On cross, however, she admitted to ACDA Ryan Calvert that her brother’s weaving, speeding, jerking from lane to lane, and running a red light were “not normal” for him. She also testified that she could not recall how much alcohol her brother had had at dinner but that he was already drinking wine when she arrived at the restaurant.

The defense then called two experienced DPS troopers to testify that the ex-trooper who investigated the crash was not credible. After giving their opinions on their former colleague’s credibility, they were passed to Ryan for cross-examination. Ryan had both men explain that all of the crash reconstruction techniques, which the defense emphasized during its cross of the ex-trooper, were irrelevant to determining what occurred in this particular wreck. The two troopers testified that eyewitnesses and the traffic light engineer are the keys to a case like this. In addition, the more experienced of the two troopers testified on cross that the damage on the vehicles will generally indicate who ran the red light. When shown pictures of both vehicles in this case, the trooper said it was clear to him that the defendant’s Expedition had been at fault in the crash. Ryan had effectively turned these two troopers, as well as Mole’s sister, into State’s witnesses.

After closing arguments late on Friday afternoon, the jury was out just two hours before returning their verdicts: guilty on all three counts (one of intoxication manslaughter and two of intoxication assault). Stephen Mole was immediately placed into custody and spent the weekend in the Denton County jail. Later that night, I joined Marilyn Gates’ friends and family for an emotional dinner, where the birthdays of Don Gates and Marilyn’s niece Jessica were celebrated together as they had been in years past. Although Marilyn’s absence was conspicuous, it was satisfying to see everyone’s relief that after nearly two years and one mistrial, the guilt/innocence portion of the trial was finally behind us.

Punishment

Opening statements in the punishment phase were scheduled for Monday morning. However, we had virtually nothing new to tell the jury, nothing but the facts of the case. Despite information I received from interviews regarding Stephen Mole’s reported multiple DWI crashes and multiple out-of-state DWI convictions, I was unable to obtain any solid information we could have used in the punishment phase. Other than a previous arrest for assault (family violence), which was dropped by another DA’s office after the victim signed a waiver of prosecution, we didn’t have much to present. Mole had ignition interlocks installed on both of his vehicles just after the crash, yet after one year and nine months, he didn’t have a single interlock violation. Bank records I obtained showed no obvious alcohol purchases. We were now looking at a 54-year-old man with two children and no criminal history to speak of, convicted of “there but for the grace of God go I” offenses. The chance that this jury could give Mole probation, however unthinkable it was to the victims and Marilyn Gates’ family, was quite possible.

Enter ACDA Cary Piel. Cary quickly made Forrest and I realize that we needed to stop thinking about what we didn’t have and concentrate on what we did have. OK, so what did we have? Marilyn Gates was dead. Beverly Brooks and her son, Griffin, were seriously injured; their lives would never be the same. We had a courtroom full of friends and family members whose lives would also never be the same. We had Marilyn’s daughter, Melissa, who never had the chance to learn how to be a mom from her own mother and whose son will never get to meet his grandmother. Then we had Stephen Mole himself, a robotic, stoic man who showed no emotion or concern for any of the victims, neither at the crash scene nor during an entire week of trial. A man who lied to investigating officers about how much had been drinking that night. A man who was virtually smiling in his book-in photo.

Before we started punishment Monday morning, we had another jury issue. Judge Richard Podgorski read a note from one of our remaining 12 jurors: Her father was dying in a distant state, and she wanted to be excused from jury duty. Knowing that we were nearing the end, the court declined to release her, despite objections from defense counsel. We had dodged yet another jury bullet.

Cary and Forrest then did an outstanding job direct-examining Don Gates, his daughter Melissa, Gene and Griffin Cordes, and Beverly Brooks regarding their injuries and the hole left by Marilyn Gates’ death. Don and Melissa’s testimony especially, was gut wrenching. Once again, there was not a dry eye to be found in the entire courtroom, with one glaring exception—Stephen Mole. The defense then called Mole’s girlfriend, sister, daughter, mother (in her wheelchair), and several friends, coworkers, and church members. Under Cary’s expert cross-examination, several of these witnesses confirmed in front of the jury what I had previously discovered, that Mole consumed vast amounts of alcohol, much more than he admitted to investigating officers, on the night of the crash. Cary’s closing argument concentrated greatly on the personal injuries suffered by Griffin Cordes and the tragic fact that Marilyn Gates was dead—all because of Stephen Mole. Cary addressed the probation option by suggesting that IF there were a probation case on an intoxication assault, it could only be for the injuries to Beverly Brooks.

With a punishment range of two years’ probation to 10 years in TDCJ (for the two intoxication assaults) and two years’ probation to 20 years in TDCJ (for the intoxication manslaughter charge), we all knew that anything was possible at this point. I had previously prepared the victims, friends, and family for the possibility of a “not guilty” verdict, and now I prepared them for probation, pen time, jury hanging on punishment (an option none of us wanted to contemplate), and all possibilities in between.

After more than five hours of deliberation, the jury returned with their punishment verdicts: 20 years in TDCJ for the intoxication manslaughter, 10 years in TDCJ for the intoxication assault of Griffin Cordes, and 10 years probated for the intoxication assault of Beverly Brooks. The jury also found Mole had used a deadly weapon (his Expedition) to commit the crimes. It was exactly what we had asked for, and then some. The jury had effectively sentenced Stephen Mole to the maximum prison term. A 54-year-old man with no criminal history was going to prison for 20 years.

Or was he? Prior to the July 2007 trial, a motion to stack had been filed with the court. After the guilty verdicts, Judge Podgorski advised everyone that he would address the motion the following morning. After his ruling and final sentencing, family members could give their victim impact statements. The next morning saw Stephen Mole enter the courtroom wearing a bright orange jail jumpsuit, leg irons, and handcuffs. Shortly thereafter, Cary Piel argued that the law was obviously written to allow for stacking these types of sentences for a reason: cases exactly like this one where intoxicated persons cause crashes that kill or injure multiple people. After a brief “I’m so sorry, please have mercy on me” statement from Mole, the judge pronounced sentence: 20 years stacked with the 10 years, with the 10 years’ probation to run concurrently. With the deadly weapon finding, that meant Stephen Mole will not be eligible for parole for 15 years—when he is 69 years old. Tearful victim impact statements from Don Gates, Melissa, Marilyn’s two sisters Joannie and Margie, Marilyn’s oldest niece Meredith, and Gene and Griffin Cordes, concluded an extremely emotional week and a half.

Lessons learned

The importance of communication! Talk with everyone. Prosecutors and investigators must work together and share their skills, knowledge, and experiences. Do this through all phases of the case: witness interviews, voir dire, case in chief, punishment, etc. This is exactly what we did, and I know it helped our case and our victims.

Talk to your witnesses more than once. Interview them again and again—you’ll be amazed what new information you’ll uncover. Bring in new people to evaluate your case strategy: Sometimes the input of someone who knows nothing about a case is exactly what you need. Keep your victims and their families updated. The kind words that all of us heard from the New Hampshire families regarding how we dealt with them and this case are words that we will always remember. Treat your victims and their families as you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes.

I will never forget the people I came to know so well because of this senseless tragedy. I have been asked to go to New Hampshire this June to celebrate Marilyn’s birthday and participate in the second annual Marilyn Gates “A Night to Remember” to benefit the foundation Melissa started. I will be there, and I can’t wait to see my New Hampshire friends again. I am certain that I will return each June for many, many years, and I will never forget Marilyn Gates (despite never having had the pleasure of meeting her) or her loved ones.

Marilyn Gates may have cheated death on September 11, 2001, and got a second chance. But she couldn’t cheat death again on March 25, 2006. Stephen Mole cheated the law once during the July 2007 mistrial, and he got a second chance. He couldn’t cheat it again this past January; this time it cost him 30 years of his life.