Published: May 6, 2008
By PAUL DAQUILANTEOf the News-Register
Exasperated authorities may finally have found a solution to Ignacio Merendon-Zerega's penchant for getting behind the wheel drunk and paying no heed to anyone who gets in his way.
The 44-year-old illegal immigrant will spend the next 15 years in the state prison system, then be deported to his native Mexico.
However, it's too late for the Cox family of Newberg. Judyth Ann Cox died in December - leaving her husband of 48 years, 72-year-old Craig, a widower - after Merendon, in a drunken stupor, crashed his Dodge Caravan into their Geo Storm.
About 2 1/2 hours after the crash, Merendon's blood alcohol content still measured .347. That's more than four times the .08 establishing the presumption on impairment in Oregon.
According to statements in court, the Woodburn resident started his day by mixing 10 shots of tequila with his morning coffee, then switched to beer. Thus fortified, he got behind the wheel and took off, driving with a suspended license.
And it was apparently something he had done many times before.
Merendon's record shows six previous drunken driving convictions. It shows a hit and run conviction from a DUII crash in which he registered a blood alcohol content of .29 - almost four times the legal limit. It shows repeated license suspensions and revocations, coupled with a previous deportation to Mexico.
But nothing seemed to stop him. After the deportation, he returned to the U.S., returned to the bottle and returned to the road, records show.
Before Yamhill County Circuit Judge Cal Tichenor sentenced him Monday on one count each of first-degree manslaughter, fourth-degree assault, driving while suspended and felony driving under the influence, Merendon told the court, "I'm sorry." But prosecutor Alicia Eagan said he showed no remorse at all at the crash scene.
Eagan said he climbed from his van, leaned against it and lit a cigarette. When informed 66-year-old Judy Cox had succumbed to her injuries, she said, he reportedly responded, "She shouldn't have died. It wasn't that big of a crash."
She said several witnesses reported seeing Merendon weaving all over the road shortly before the crash, alternately crossing the center line and fog line.
"He was drunk, very, very drunk," she told the court. "One officer said he was visibly, obviously intoxicated."
At one point, a fellow motorist rolled down his window and yelled at Merendon, "Get off the road before you kill someone," Eagan said. And minutes later, the unheeding Woodburn resident did just that.
If a murder case could ever be made as a result of a DUII crash, Eagan said, this would be the one.
Tichenor seconded that.
"You deliberately killed another human being," he told Merendon as he pronounced sentence under terms of a plea bargain. "You showed no regard for the life of that woman or the lives of anyone else."
Under Oregon sentencing guidelines, Merendon could have gotten as much as 20 years, Eagan said. However, that would have required taking the case to trial, instead of negotiating a plea bargain under which counts of reckless driving and recklessly endangering another were dropped.
"Potentially, he could have gotten 20," she said. "Had we gone to trial and won, and with enhancement factors, I think we could have gotten the 20. But I wasn't going to put the family through a trial."
For members of the family, who filled two rows in the courtroom Monday, the sentencing hearing was a difficult emotional ordeal in its own right.
Cox's daughter, Vicki Peterson, submitted a letter in which she told Tichenor her mother had suffered a permanent brain injury 25 years earlier at the hands of another drunken driver. She told him a family friend had died in that crash.
Retired First Baptist Church Pastor Bernie Taylor of McMinnville, a longtime friend of the Cox family, read the letter on Peterson's behalf as Eagan offered her emotional support.
Peterson said her mom was her best friend. She was an incredible woman whose philosophy was to make the world around you a better place just by being in it.
Laughter was her signature. She found humor whenever she could.
Peterson said she considered herself the luckiest daughter in the world to have had Judy Cox for her mother.
She called Cox an amazing mother-in-law to her husband and an amazing grandmother to her children. Now they all are left with a huge hole and struggling with the senselessness of this tragedy, she said.
Peterson said her parents' marriage was filled with love and strength. It was an inspiration to all. Now she watches her dad carry on alone and it's heart wrenching to see the pain and loneliness he is having to endure.
"It is incomprehensible that this could happen twice to our family," Peterson said, referring back to a March 1980 crash that left her then 39-year-old mother hospitalized for three months.
She said her mom had to have a vega nerve stimulator implant to control her seizures, and still had to take anti-seizure medication the rest of her life. But she said Cox had been doing especially well in the months before the December crash in Newberg.
"She was feeling better than she had since the first crash," Peterson said. "My parents finally had gotten to the point where they could retire and travel to do and see all they wanted to. Ignacio Merendon-Zerega had no right to take that away."
Keith Swanson, a Salem attorney, read a letter from Craig Cox.
He said words weren't sufficient to describe the 48 years they had together. He said there were difficult times, but they worked hard to overcome them.
"Now it's over forever," he said. "This man killed my wife and me. This is a life sentence for me, and he only will get 15 years. I am more alone now than any time of my life."
He said his daughter and son lost the love of their life and their best friend, as he did. He said Merendon "ripped our hearts out."
"I can't even talk about it without crying," Cox said. "All our grandchildren are suffering more than I can say. She won't be there for Christmas or birthdays or any other family get togethers."
Letters were also submitted by Vicki Peterson's husband, Sam; Sam and Vicki's daughter, Hannah; Sam's sister, Judy; cousins Pat Williams and Paul Kinser; and other family members. Turner also submitted a letter, as did Judy Cox's long-time friend, Judy Newton.
Sam Peterson said Merendon had left a black hole in all their hearts - one that would never be filled.
"I'm sorry I couldn't come to court, but I can't see him," Hannah Peterson said. "I can't see the scum who murdered my grandma. I can't. I don't want to.
"Please don't let him hurt anyone else. Please. No one deserves to feel like this."
Eagan said, "Before this hearing, I chose to read all these letters rather than focus on the reports of the crash. I feel as thought I know her. This was a lovely woman."