The birthday card Sonia Wilson gave her son last summer contained an unusually prophetic message. One of the passages read, "Time passes, and your innocent little boy starts to test his limits. He lets go of your hand to race into the midst of life without thinking ahead or looking both ways."
The card, signed "Love to my Special son, Love, Mom," proved too prophetic, heartbreakingly prophetic. Five months later, on November 15, Charles Patrick Wallman died in a car crash for which, the California Highway Patrol concluded, he was responsible &mdash a finding with which Wilson disagrees. According to eyewitnesses, Wallman was driving his dark-green Camaro at more than 100 miles an hour, heading west on Interstate 8, racing against a white Mustang. "How could they know or even guess how fast my son was going?" Wilson asks. "The patrol told me they never clocked his speed."
Wallman's violent collision, dramatic death, and extenuating circumstances distinguish the case. "It's not your common accident," said Mark Gregg, a patrol spokesman. "We don't normally come across accidents that are the result of a speed contest. We don't have statistics on these types of accidents because they're classified into the broader category of 'speed-related accident.' And that can range from exceeding the speed limit by 30 miles an hour to someone being rear-ended by a car at 2 miles an hour." Despite the lack of data, Gregg said, "The public perception is drag racing is on the rise."
Tire tracks &mdash still visible in the iceplant where Interstate 8 forms a bridge over Midway Drive &mdash indicate Wallman's Camaro veered from the left lane and hit a guardrail. To the astonishment of other drivers, the car catapulted and landed upside down 150 feet away on the opposite side of the freeway. Ejected as his car flipped midair, Wallman fell through a gap separating the west and east lanes. He landed 30 feet below on Midway Drive, a major thoroughfare in Point Loma, where he was promptly struck by a beige Toyota Camry.
The white Mustang continued heading west, moving too fast for eyewitnesses to catch a glimpse of the driver, much less a license-plate number. Within days of her son's death, Wilson appeared on television station KFMB Channel 8's newscast. Her request for information was a plea to find a needle in a haystack, given that Mustangs are popular automobiles, and white is the most common color for cars.
California Highway Patrol investigators received a few leads, interviewed at least one owner of a white Mustang who they determined was not involved, and closed the case. If identified, the driver could be charged with a misdemeanor for engaging in a speed contest and with a felony for reckless driving that resulted in the death of another person -- even though patrol officers say the two cars didn't bump. They say no white paint was found on Wallman's forest-green Camaro. The investigation struck Wilson as shallow, and the grieving mother felt as though her son had been treated as a traffic statistic.
Where is the white Mustang? Was the driver friend, foe, or stranger to Wallman? These are among many unanswered questions likely to haunt Wilson for the rest of her life.
Knowing the driver's identity might have enabled 21st Century Insurance Company to collect money from the Mustang's insurer for Wallman's totaled Camaro and his medical and funeral expenses. However, 21st Century Insurance says Wallman's policy expired October 29. Wilson cannot believe coverage ended a mere two weeks before her son's death. She can't find any payment-reminder letters among his possessions, but she found an old bill bearing a "good driver" discount. Getting a cancelled check from his bank to prove payment may have to wait until Wallman's estate passes through probate court, a process that could take years.
Like most parents, Wilson didn't expect to outlive her child. Her loss is a heavy, almost intolerable burden, and little things, inconsequential incidents, threaten to serve as "the straw that breaks the camel's back." For example, she noticed that UCSD Medical Center addressed the emergency-room bill to a dead person. Wilson has questioned the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office for charging her for an autopsy she didn't authorize. She wonders why more than five hours passed before she was notified of the collision.
While navigating bureaucratic mazes, Wilson encounters skepticism amid sympathy. "People say, 'Your son was 33. Isn't that a little old to be drag racing?'" Although cutting, such remarks give Wilson a chance to make a lesson of Wallman's death. "I want to educate the public so they don't race. Racing isn't limited to teenagers," she said, noting that some famous people in their 30s have died in speed-related automobile crashes. They include Bobby Phills, of the Charlotte Hornets basketball team; Derrick Thomas, of the Kansas City Chiefs football team; and Steve Chiasson, of the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team.
Wilson, 56, of North County, has talked on radio shows about the dangers of drag racing. It's a growing problem on San Diego County's roads and freeways, according to several law-enforcement agencies, which have few statistics but lots of anecdotal evidence. Wilson wants to challenge the automobile industry for glamorizing sports cars. "Why do they even build cars that go beyond the speed limit?" she asks. Supporting a cause, such as the National High Schools Car Club Association, a nonprofit group in Escondido that sponsors driving contests for youth, helps Wilson find meaning in her son's death.
Yet she keeps asking herself whether he might have lived had he not been run over by the beige Toyota Camry. "You hear stories about people surviving falls of 30 feet," Wilson said, remarking that skydivers whose parachutes failed to open have endured bigger drops. "He might have had a chance to live if he hadn't been hit."
In February, the California Highway Patrol recommended that the San Diego County District Attorney's office charge the Toyota's driver, an 86-year-old Pacific Beach resident, with felony hit-and-run. The District Attorney's office declined to file such charges. That would leave the case open to the City Attorney's office to consider for misdemeanor charges.