Monday, November 14, 2011
Police upgraded charges against a Decatur man to manslaughter Monday, following Saturday's alleged alcohol-related wreck that killed 8-year-old Amber Merkle.
A Morgan County grand jury could consider a murder charge.
"We've prosecuted folks for murder and gotten murder convictions," District Attorney Bob Burrell said of DUI deaths. "The grand jury will have the option of indicting on the manslaughter charge, a greater or lesser charge.
"Or they always have the option of not returning one at all."
Ruby Merkle said her daughter was set to enjoy an afternoon of ice cream and fun Saturday with her best friend, 9-year-old Destiny Glenn.
"They were so close," Merkle said Monday, as she wiped tears. "They were on the way to the Hartselle Dairy Queen and then to the park."
Police said 21-year-old Arturo Armando Lupian, a migrant construction worker, had a blood alcohol level of .11 when his car slammed into the rear of the sport utility vehicle carrying the West Morgan Elementary schoolmates.
Alabama's legal limit is .08.
"They were singing and listening to the radio, and then, bam!" said April Nantz, Ruby Merkle's friend. "They didn't know what hit them. Amber was in the back seat, and it hit on her side. She absorbed most of the impact in the collision."
Police said Amber was wearing her seat belt, but Nantz said Sonya Glenn, Destiny's mother, believes Amber may have unbuckled.
"Amber was hyper, wide open and wanted to listen to everything that was said," Nantz said. "I must have told her 150 times, when she rode with me, to sit back and put her seat belt on."
Merkle said she rushed to Decatur General Hospital after hearing of the accident.
"The hospital called me at 3 p.m., and as soon as I made it to Decatur General, they flew her to Huntsville Hospital," Merkle said. "I got to see her for maybe two or three minutes."
Merkle didn't learn of the seriousness of the injuries until she arrived at Huntsville Hospital.
"The doctor ran a scan on her Saturday night, and there was little brain activity," she said. "They told me she wasn't going to make it. I asked them to run a second test, and it came back with no brain activity.
"That's when they declared her. She probably died in the middle of the night between Saturday and Sunday."
Police said Lupian's car struck Sonya Glenn's stationary SUV on Sixth Avenue at East Moulton Street, forcing it into a forward car that then struck a fourth vehicle.
Lt. John Bradford said police may not be able to determine how fast Lupian traveled at the time of the crash.
"Lack of skid marks have seriously hampered attempts to calculate the estimated speed of the vehicle at the point of impact," he said. "There has to be some kind of skid mark where an individual braked. As far as we can determine, there was never any deceleration."
Police placed Lupian under arrest at the scene for driving under the influence and cited him for having no proof of insurance. Police charged him with first-degree assault about an hour after the wreck, but amended the charge Monday to manslaughter.
"After reviewing the case with the district attorney, it was determined a manslaughter charge was needed at this part of the investigation," Bradford said.
Either charge is a Class B felony. If convicted, Lupian faces from two to 20 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
"Had the child lived, that (first-degree assault) charge would have been about it," Burrell said. "But because this is a homicide case, there are more potential charges available."
Lupian remained at the Morgan County Jail today without bond. The date of his grand jury hearing has not been set.
Police said he moved from South Dakota to Decatur, carries a Tennessee driver license and has few ties to the community.
"His citizenship here is also in question," Bradford said.
"I hope he does more than two years," Merkle said. "I don't want him going to Mexico and getting another name, and doing it again."
Nantz said she and Merkle want to place a memorial wreath at the accident site.
"He took an innocent child's life," Nantz said. "The least they could do is put him behind bars so he doesn't harm anyone else. We want the wreath to let everyone know a drunk driver took that baby's life. No mother should have to go through that."
Bank accepting funds for family
First American Bank opened The Amber Merkle Memorial Fund in the name of J.T. Copeland Jr. to offset Amber's uninsured medical costs after she died during the weekend from injuries suffered in a wreck.
West Morgan Elementary Principal Roger Houston, a pastor who will conduct Merkle's funeral, also will collect funds for the Merkle family at the school.
David Parks, a director at Roselawn Funeral Home, said the business will donate its services to the Merkles. The family will receive friends tonight from 6 to 8 at Roselawn. The funeral is Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Roselawn Cemetery.
Thanks for caring
Mother calls community's help after daughter's death a 'miracle'
Still in shock from her daughter's traffic death, Rubye Bradford met relatives and friends Tuesday at Decatur's Roselawn Cemetery, mourning on what would have been Amber Merkle's ninth birthday.
In an eerie twist of fate, Arturo Armando Lupian, an illegal immigrant indicted for murder in Amber's death, turned 22 the same day while confined to his cell at the Morgan County Jail.
Their paths collided three months ago today when Lupian, police said, slammed into the rear of a sport utility vehicle carrying Amber and her best friend.
The alcohol-related crash, police said, set off a four-car chain reaction that left Amber critically injured, interrupting two schoolmates' jaunt for ice cream and their journey to a park.
Police said Lupian's car left no skid marks on the dry Sixth Avenue Northeast asphalt. Police measured Lupian's blood-alcohol level at .11, above the .08 legal limit, and charged the migrant construction worker with driving under the influence.
Following a short stay at Decatur General and a medical helicopter flight, Amber died at Huntsville Hospital the following day.
Bradford now wants to thank those who helped her through the latest tragedy to envelop her life.
"At the start of 2002, I lost my dad," Bradford said. "The following December I got a divorce and lost everything. Then in November of 2003, I lost my mom, and in May, Amber died."
Bradford said she didn't have the money to pay for her daughter's funeral, burial or medical bills.
"I filed for bankruptcy after the divorce, and I didn't know what I was going to do," she said. "It's just a miracle, those who helped me. Roselawn (Funeral Home) paid for everything, visitation and funeral services."
She said Roger Houston, the principal at West Morgan, took up donations to help pay for Amber's medical bills.
"I used the extra money to buy the plot beside her," Bradford said.
Although Bradford hasn't attended meetings, she joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said she still suffers from emotional distress, and is living day to day with the help of her friend and co-worker April Nantz.
"Amber's three older sisters are handling it well, but children deal with it in different ways," said Bradford as she sat on a shaded bench outside her employer, Culver Cleaners, wiping tears. "I'm working a lot and trying to keep busy. My job has treated me extremely well."
Nantz said she met Bradford at work and the two became friends. When Amber died, Nantz was laid off, she said, for six weeks and able to comfort Bradford by having the time to make arrangements for Amber's funeral.
"Some days she does pretty good," Nantz said. "The little things remind her of her."
Nantz said the birthday at the grave site helped Amber's sister, Parris, deal with the death.
"On the Fourth of July she was so upset she didn't want to go out of the house," Nantz said. "She's got a long road ahead. Every time she goes to the closet she sees Amber's clothes and little shoes lying around, and jeans put away. Parris doesn't want to get rid of anything."
Nantz said she plans to make a scrapbook with memorabilia from when Amber was 2 weeks old until the newspaper clippings of the accident.
"I can't imagine losing a child," Nantz said. "I haven't been able to give her the package from the hospital that has a lock of Amber's hair, her foot and hand prints before they took her off life support. I don't know when will be the right time. I guess when she asks for it."
Bradford said she was on the Internet one day and found a picture of an angel that resembles Amber. She printed the image and placed it in a frame with her daughter's picture.
"I just wanted to say thank you to my friends, Decatur police, city and county officials who've come by here and been so good to me. I don't know if I'm still angry at (Lupian). I don't want to hate him. I'm still in shock about all of it."