By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The tire tracks traced the upward slope of the hill and veered across the road to where a group of teens stood by a broken fence, a rough wooden cross and a steadily growing floral memorial on the lip of a 200 foot drop.
School had just let out on May 15, and friends of 17-year-old Ayleen Ruiz Alvarado had come to pay their respects at the site of the car accident that had claimed her life and sent five others to the hospital the night before.
The accident on the evening of May 14 — Mother’s Day — was all too reminiscent of the other incidents that have marred graduation season here and elsewhere, right down to the spot on Thompson Creek Road (CR 108) known as Sweet Hill.
According to Colorado State Patrol Public Information Officer Nate Reed, the 1999 Audi sedan full of teens was attempting to pass a car on its way down the steep, narrow stretch of road just west of Carbondale at around 9:39 p.m. when driver Gerardo Banda, 19, of Glenwood Springs, lost control. The vehicle ran off the uphill side of the road, began to overturn, then traveled back across the road and into the ravine.
“It looks like nobody was wearing a seatbelt in the car at all, and they’re suspecting alcohol on the part of the driver,” Reed said.
State Patrol later amended the assessment of two of the seatbelts from unused to unknown.
Alvarado was pronounced dead at 1:45 a.m., according to a press release from the Garfield County Coroner’s Office.
According to a written statement from Bridges High School Principal Lyn Bair, Alvarado was the youngest of three siblings and a lover of fine art.
“Ayleen brightened our halls with laughter and smiles, and we loved her sense of humor,” Bair wrote. “As a school, we talk about compassion often, and how we can reach out to our peers and be kinder and gentler. Ayleen was our model for this character trait.”
“Bridges High School is a tight-knit community, and a tragedy like this has hit everyone,” she added. “We have been working closely with the Family Resource Center to make sure all our students and our staff are supported through the grieving process. This is our top priority right now. We’ve also been in close contact with Ayleen’s family and are making sure we respect their wishes and that we provide support and resources to them during this difficult time.”
Some friends took to social media to share their grief and try to share lessons for their peers. On The Sun’s Facebook page, Christian Straw offered a ride at any time of the night to avoid waking up to such news.
“I can’t believe that another friend has been sent away and God has chosen to welcome yet another of his children into his gates. This is number 12 since last May.
“All but 1 of these friends had alcohol or drugs in their system at their time of passing,” she wrote. “I can’t push enough, do NOT put the responsibility of another’s life in your hands by choosing to drink and drive. Don’t do that to your families.”
According to his arrest affidavit, Banda recorded .115 on a portable blood alcohol breath test — well above the legal limit — and told a state trooper that “it was all his fault and that he lost a friend.”
Following treatment for injuries sustained in the crash, he was booked at the Garfield County Jail with a $75,000 bond on presumptive charges of vehicular homicide (a third degree felony) and two counts of vehicular assault (a fourth degree felony) as well as driving under the influence and driving with a restrained license, both misdemeanors, and minor in possession, a petty offense. He is scheduled to appear in court for official filing of charges on May 31.
The remaining passengers — a 16-year-old girl from Carbondale, a 17-year-old boy from New Castle, an 18-year-old girl from Carbondale and an 18-year-old boy from Glenwood Springs — were also hospitalized. According to the arrest affidavit, two of them sustained serious bodily injury, but Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Rob Goodwin was optimistic about their chances, thanks in part to support from bystanders and first responders from multiple agencies.
“It was a tough night, but we had a lot of help,” he said. “From what I gathered … anyone who survived this long is going to make it.”