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.
The San Diego Police Department counts instances of drivers fleeing accidents that occur on city streets. Through May of this year, there were 13 felony hit-and-run cases, compared with 5 during the same period in 1999. Last year's total of 23 felony hit-and-run cases compares with 29 in 1998. There are about 4000 misdemeanor hit-and-run cases annually.
The Toyota's driver would not discuss the accident except to say, "I had no culpability in that."
Eyewitnesses who saw the Toyota Camry run over Wallman said other cars honked to get the driver to stop. But "the elderly white female with white hair in big curls" continued driving as she looked repeatedly in her rearview mirror. Concerned about damage to her car, the driver later stopped along Sea World Drive to check. A woman who stopped to help the elderly driver informed her about "a bad crash" nearby.
The description of the driver's actions and, more significantly, her inaction of not stopping initially is contained in a California Highway Patrol traffic-collision report based on statements from the driver, several eyewitnesses, and people who knew Wallman. On hearing a television news report about the accident, the driver "thought that the bang she heard may have been the body hitting her car," the report states. "She related that whole day that she was nervous and could not sleep well that night. With all this information in her head, she did not call the police to report that she was possibly involved. She stated that she did not have any responsibility."
On November 19, four days later, a relative informed the driver that the California Highway Patrol was looking for a beige Toyota Camry. At that point, she called the police. Because so much time had elapsed, the California Highway Patrol had no choice but to recommend charges, Gregg said. "People aren't necessarily charged with hit-and-run if they call right away," he said. "Sometimes people hear a noise as they're driving on the freeway at night. They're not sure if they've struck something, but they call to let us know."
It would be difficult for any driver to avoid striking someone who drops suddenly to the road from the sky, several insurance and legal experts said. "Her problem isn't that she hit the body," said Terry Newman, president of Collision Technologies in Vista. "Her problem is she fled the scene. The D.A. will probably look at her age and the circumstances. They'll probably offer her a misdemeanor. If it were you or me, they would prosecute to the nth degree," he said, noting prosecutors are reluctant to incarcerate elderly people.
Wilson was disappointed to learn from the patrol's report that the driver cared enough about her car to stop, while apparently disregarding what she might have hit. Though the two women have never met, Wilson occasionally thinks about the elderly driver and is reminded of her own mother, whose death from cancer last year troubled Wallman. Magnanimous in her grief, Wilson said, "I don't want them to prosecute someone that age, but I think it might be beneficial to take away her driver's license.... It's so strange that it's a little old lady who hits my son, a little old lady who's about the same age as my mother."
Was Wallman still alive after he soared through the air and bounced off the iceplant, which blunted his fall to the asphalt?
The Medical Examiner's report is inconclusive. Following a description of Wallman's many "rapidly fatal injuries," Dr. Christina Stanley wrote, "It cannot be determined at autopsy whether it was injuries inflicted as a result of the ejection from the vehicle as the result of the primary crash, a subsequent impact, or combination of these which resulted in the death." On learning that her athletic son was still breathing at UCSD Medical Center more than a half hour after the crash, Wilson feels strongly that he might have survived had he not suffered the final trauma of being run over.
One finding was conclusive. Stanley detected methamphetamine in Wallman's body -- leading her to speculate, "This acute intoxication may have contributed to the cause of the initial crash." The amount of the highly addictive and euphoric drug was enough for the California Highway Patrol to amend the traffic collision report and label Wallman's accident "DUI," or "driving under the influence." However, evidence of drug use, Gregg said, wouldn't prevent the California Highway Patrol from pursuing the driver of the white Mustang if that driver were identified, nor would it prompt the patrol to reverse its recommendation that the Toyota's driver be charged with hit-and-run.
The Medical Examiner's finding did not surprise Wilson. Since her mother died in April 1999, she noticed a change in her son. He seemed worried. He lost weight. He became secretive. He spoke more rapidly. His skin broke out in small bumps. He acquired a new interest: driving fast cars. In a strange way the toxicology report summarized the final months of Wallman's life, which previously had been drug free, friends say. In his final months, while taking meth, Wallman was coping with a variety of concerns, ranging from his grandmother's death to, ironically, a prior car accident in which he had been victimized by a drunk driver. Perhaps in his final moments, Wallman felt relief. He was speeding on speed.
Wilson would have preferred no autopsy, but it is standard procedure in car fatalities. Her preference wasn't so much that she didn't want the whole world to learn from a public record what her son's friends, coworkers, and relatives already knew: that Wallman was indulging in meth. It's just that, as the next of kin, Wilson would have liked some consideration, some courtesy. As a Native American who shared that heritage with her son and late mother, Wilson views the autopsy as further desecration of Wallman's body.
The toxicology report gave Wilson another lesson to extract from her son's death besides the perils of drag racing. "I'm torn between protecting my son's name and trying to help people. Meth is prevalent in San Diego, but people may not know how dangerous it is," Wilson said. While Medical Examiner records indicate several people die each month from overdoses, there are no statistics on fatal accidents resulting from the drug. "My son came from having everything to losing everything."
Driving under the influence -- along with driving too fast, not wearing a seat belt, being run over by a car once he fell to Midway Drive -- contributed to Wallman's death and raised another question that Wilson may never answer. What caused her son -- a nondrinking, nonsmoking, physically fit vegetarian whom she describes as spiritual -- to turn to drugs in the final months of his life?
Wallman's fatal car accident so shocked his friends they can barely speak of it. His sister, who regarded her brother as her best friend, is too devastated to talk. A coworker, identified as Wallman's girlfriend in the California Highway Patrol's traffic-collision report, declined to be interviewed. As is customary with fatal automobile accidents, the patrol attempts to track the final 24 hours of the victims' lives. "Wallman's girlfriend was called on three occasions to verify that he was with her on the occasions stated," the report reads, "but she was not available and there was no return call."
Friends, like his mother, were taken by surprise, horrified by the circumstances. Just as Wilson never expected to outlive her son, his peer group didn't expect someone their age to die. The youthfulness of Wallman's friends, relative to Wilson, imparts greater denial, deeper doubts, more questions, an element of guilt. They, too, had premonitions -- more vivid than Wilson's &mdash of Wallman's violent death.
Wallman's sister and one of his roommates each dreamed &mdash only a month before he died &mdash that he was in a terrible car accident. In his sister's dream, as recounted by Wilson, no one could find Wallman after the collision. To reassure herself that everything was okay, his sister got up to see her brother fast asleep. Jennifer Thornton, the roommate, recalled, "I woke up, crying. I said, 'Where's Chuckie? Something bad is happening.'" That omen was reinforced by a conversation Thornton had with Wallman a few weeks before his fatal crash. They talked about death as Wallman washed dishes in the kitchen sink. "He said, 'When I die, I'm going to go in my car,'" Thornton said. On learning he made a similar remark to a mutual friend, Thornton wondered whether Wallman had a death wish. Given his zest for life, however, none of his friends or family ever thought of Wallman as suicidal.
Thornton, 31, said she couldn't help but feel remorse because she had added to the conflict Wallman experienced in his final months. As the new girlfriend of Wallman's best friend, Christopher Sodergren, she disrupted their activities. "I was cutting into Chuck's time with Chris. We had a rivalry for a while," Thornton said. "Sometimes Chuck accused me of taking things. Why would I want to swipe power tools? I had a huge fight with him a few nights before he died. I still feel guilt about that."
Despite occasional disagreements -- one of which is mentioned in the California Highway Patrol's report -- Thornton, Wallman, and Sodergren were close friends, and the three shared an apartment in Point Loma. They also shared meth, and Wilson recalls that her son spoke of plans to enter a drug-rehabilitation program. It was the first time Wallman had lived apart from his sister. "They're almost like twins, they loved each other so much," Wilson said.
As new friends to Wallman, his roommates noticed the same qualities of humor, generosity, and sensitivity described by his old friends and coworkers. Wallman was a forklift driver at Costco, where he had worked ten years. "Even though we might fight, we always laughed together," Thornton said. Sometimes they talked about past lives. "He would give you everything he owned. It's hard to describe, but I don't know anybody who has a heart like him. Chuck never said anything derogatory or negative about anyone." Wallman was also a perfectionist who spent hours tracing an illustration of a heart and cross. After his death, Thornton and Sodergren each got tattoos of that design with the name "Chuckie."
Sodergren, 24, who had left home at age 15, found in Wallman the family he never had, but Sodergren felt as though he were the older brother in the relationship. "There was something about Chuck that made me want to lead, and he wanted to follow. He was really intelligent, but as far as street smarts, he was dumb as a brick," said Sodergren, who was touched by Wallman's naïvete. The two had met early last year in a pool hall, and Sodergren observed that Wallman's trusting and giving nature caused people to take advantage by constantly asking him for money, rides, and favors. "Chuck cares for ten people, but he couldn't comprehend that ten people don't care about him. Some people have that front going that they care, but they don't. I tried to show Chuck the difference."
Despite Wallman's gift of unconditional friendship, there was tension. Sodergren regrets they argued the day Wallman died. Sodergren was so angry he smashed his own hand on the kitchen counter so he wouldn't hit Wallman. Helpless to help, Sodergren feared that methamphetamine would rob Wallman of his potential. "Chuck was too smart to be stuck in this lifestyle, the drinking, the drugging. But Chuckie is an extremist in everything he does. If he does something, it's all the way, it's not just halfway," Sodergren said. "I was really kind of jealous of him because he had a family."
Wallman's drug use in his final months didn't represent his entire life, but some friends suggest that his all-or-nothing approach to activities got him hooked. Wilson suspected her son was spending time with a rough crowd, and she wonders whether peer pressure and coercion contributed.
John Tipton, a close friend, recalls that Wallman was an accomplished surfer when they met ten years ago in Costco, where they both worked. But when Wallman got interested in riding dirt bikes, he sold all his surfing gear. Last year after a nearly fatal off-road accident, Wallman traded in his motorcycling equipment and his pickup truck for his first sports car. "He's compulsive," Tipton said. "He gets a little taste for something, and it took over." Wallman was consistent, even during his final months, in going out of his way to help people. "Chuck talked openly about God and what God wanted him to do," Tipton said. "He was always in a good mood. He was always laughing or smiling. That's why a lot of people called him 'Chuckles.' He would walk into a room and do a little dance."
Wilson, however, sensed her son was hurting underneath the smiles, laughter, and clowning. He had always regretted not finishing Kearny High School, Wilson said, and that may have bothered him more as time passed. Wallman was an avid reader, nonetheless, Wilson said, pointing to his book collection that includes The End of the World, Emotional Intelligence, Alien Nation, Secrets of the Night Sky. He spent hours poring over the dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus. "He had a real passion for words," Wilson said. "I think it's so cool that he was reading Mental Wellness for Women." Wallman also missed his maternal grandmother, with whom he had spent a lot of time, never hesitating to take her anywhere, although he was the one who pushed her wheelchair.
Wilson can't forget the family's outings to the San Diego Zoo, a favorite spot for Wallman, who loved animals and frequently watched the Discovery Channel on television. He did not care for television news because reports of crimes and cruelty upset him, prompting an aunt to remark that Wallman was too sensitive for this world. Wilson is grateful to her son for helping her overcome a fear of heights by hiking with her on steep trails along cliffs. "He said, 'Come on, Mom, you can do it,' and he would tell me about this woman who was 80 years old who was a triathlete," Wilson recalled. "He was practicing to be a triathlete. He was a poster child for No Fear."
Within a month after his grandmother's death, Wallman was in a car accident, which led to financial and legal problems. According to the California Highway Patrol traffic-collision report, a drunk driver drifted from the right lane to the left as Wallman passed. Both cars were headed from Interstate 5 southbound to Interstate 8 eastbound on a ramp called the San Diego River Bridge. The drunk driver, who was later convicted of driving under the influence, hit Wallman's blue Camaro, and it spun around and slammed into the ramp wall.
Although Wallman was not hurt, his car was totaled. On buying a replacement vehicle, a 1996 green Camaro, from Weseloh Chevrolet Co. in Carlsbad last June, Wallman did not have enough money and promised the dealership he would soon deliver the $3000 down payment. Wallman was counting on receiving $3521.63 from the San Diego City Attorney's restitution program for victims of crimes. Receiving restitution, however, is a lengthy process, and even now Wilson can't get the City Attorney's office to return her telephone calls. Although Wallman made his monthly car-loan payments and paid $1000 toward the down payment, Weseloh soon hounded him for the remaining $2000 and sued him in small claims court to get the money. Both the restitution and small-claims cases remain in a legal limbo exacerbated by Wallman's death.
"I just think Chuck felt he was in a financial hole he couldn't get out of," Wilson said. "I think he was terribly depressed."
Despite that accident, and a more serious dirt-bike crash in which he was nearly killed, Wallman developed an affinity for speeding last summer. Sodergren remembers being "petrified" as Wallman clocked 90 miles an hour through a turn marked 25 miles an hour. After that experience, Sodergren was so confident in his friend's driving, he doubts that Wallman lost control on a straight, level stretch of Interstate 8 under optimum driving conditions of daylight and clear weather. "Where are the skid marks? If he was swerving, it would have left skid marks," Sodergren said. "I think he was bumped before the ice plant."
People who knew Wallman were stunned by the California Highway Patrol's determination that he had not worn a seat belt. He was adamant about taking that precaution, they said, just as he was fastidious about cleaning, waxing, and polishing his car. "I was really bitter about how it turned out," Sodergren said of the patrol's investigation. "Someone hit him and killed him and got away."
Wallman's mother and roommates learned of his death indirectly. Wilson received a telephone call inquiring, "Is this the Wallman residence?" and was immediately transferred to someone who said "emergency room," and then disconnected. When Wilson couldn't reach her son at work or home, she and Thornton began calling every hospital in San Diego. Sodergren saw a television newscast about a bad car crash near the apartment. The mangled wreckage of the car was dark like Wallman's forest-green Camaro, but Sodergren wasn't certain until he recognized one of Wallman's shoes on Midway Drive. Wilson ultimately received the news from the Medical Examiner's office.
Meanwhile, Sodergren went to the accident scene, where he retrieved Wallman's shoe from the street, another shoe from the iceplant, a black hairband, and other belongings. Paperwork from the Camaro's glove compartment was scattered everywhere. Together, Sodergren and Thornton created a memorial, in the iceplant on the east side of Midway Drive under Interstate 8. They included a photograph of Wallman, candles, flowers, balloons, and some of his favorite possessions. The impromptu monument grew with poems, cards, and offerings from other friends, acquaintances, relatives, and strangers.
When all the mementos disappeared during the holiday season, Thornton and Wilson frantically called the California Transportation Department, San Diego Environmental Services Department, and any other agency they could think of that might be responsible. A Caltrans spokesman said he is certain his agency didn't remove the tribute to Wallman although it rests on state property. Caltrans is more likely to dismantle memorials that are visually distracting on busy highways, the spokesman said, and even then tries to notify the family. With the greater frequency of fatal automobile accidents, more roadside memorials are springing up, he said. Friends and family resurrected Wallman's memorial with wooden crosses, and those disappeared, too. An ongoing battle with site maintenance has motivated Wilson to seek a permanent remembrance for her son. While talking with staff members of elected officials about the possibility of naming a small section of Interstate 8 after Wallman, Wilson has met resistance because her son is not well known. But that should matter little, Wilson counters, because his name, that of an average person, could symbolize the dangers of driving too fast.
After Wallman's death, Sodergren drove around searching for white Mustangs. "The white Mustang never stopped to look back." For many months, he visited the informal memorial on Midway Drive under Interstate 8. There he mourned and looked for clues to the crash. On finding a license plate, he turned it over to the California Highway Patrol, suggesting it might belong to the driver who raced against Wallman. "Chuck's still here," Sodergren said, as he combed through the iceplant to reveal remnants of Wallman's shattered car: pieces of fiberglass, mirror, dashboard, glass shards, twisted metal.
"They say they didn't find any white paint on my son's car," said Wilson, who remains hopeful of finding the driver of the white Mustang. "How can they determine that when a car is completely destroyed? You can't tell me the driver of the white Mustang didn't look in their rearview mirror. There are a lot of unanswered questions and gray areas." Denial about the accident lingers. That's understandable in a way, Wilson said, because the funeral director assumed the responsibility of identifying Wallman's body to spare the family further sorrow. "Then my daughter had a dream that her brother didn't die. No one saw the body, so she thought maybe he was unconscious or had amnesia. She dreamed that he was homeless, in San Diego, wandering on the streets."
Editor's note: At Sonia Wilson's request, we omitted the hit-and-run driver's name. After several conversations with Wilson, we denied her request to remove all references to methamphetamine and to postpone running this story.