AP NEWS

Late night choices can change lives

December 28, 2018

HARLINGEN — Melva Arias remembers the dreadful call.

The tragic accident is so vivid. The date, Jan. 9, 2009, is burned into her memory.

She was driving to Edinburg to view her son’s mariachi performance.

She had just spoken to her father Jose Paolo Mata, who was about to be hit by a drunk driver who already had prior DUIs.

“He said, ‘We’re on our way, we’re on our way,’” she recalled. “I’m sure that the moment he hung up the phone the accident happened.”

How did she know?

“Not even eight minutes later I was called by his phone,” she said. “I thought it was him. A bystander saw it all, and he stopped to give aid.”

A shadow crept in as the bystander described her father’s truck and then those horrible words.

“He died on impact,” the stranger said.

Time seemed to stop at that moment. She doesn’t recall what exactly was happening in her mind. She remembers going inside the auditorium and telling her son what had happened.

She had to leave, she told him, and she headed to the accident scene on Monte Cristo Road.

“I don’t even know how I got there,” said Melva, 52. “It seemed like forever. God must have helped me.”

The untimely death of her father, who was about to turn 65, was a loss to many. She and her father were extremely close. She was a “daddy’s girl,” and he was great friend to those who knew him.

“He was a jokester,” she said. “He was very kind and he loved to make you laugh. He loved to help anybody he could.”

Crowds of those who loved him filled the church and later the cemetery during funeral services.

She feels the sadness now as much as she did then. And there’s anger over his senseless death and the way authorities handled the drunk driver.

“He was an illegal,” she recalled. “He didn’t have a driver’s license, he didn’t have insurance.”

The driver was taken to the hospital but, she says, authorities didn’t guard him and he fled to Mexico the night of the accident. The years since, with the loss of her father and the driver free, have presented a rough road.

“It’s been very hard,” she said. “I felt so much hate. I felt so much guilt. I felt so much depression.”

Her father was the patriarch of the family.

“My dad was the one that kept the family together,” she said. “Now that he’s gone, everybody went their own way. Nobody seems to have time to see each other.”

This was the result of one man’s decision to drink and drive. The whole family sort of “broke,” she recalled.

“My dad was the joy, my dad was the head of everything,” she said.

The years of pain were amplified by the anger of the drunk driver being free.

"I could not forgive this man,” she said. “I never thought that he was going to get caught, that he was ever going to serve time.”

Recently, though, the man finally went to court and received 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence he could get for manslaughter. She doesn’t understand why it’s manslaughter, she said.

He should have been convicted for murder, because drinking and driving are intentional.

“When you’re drunk, you know the consequences when you get in a vehicle and drive that way,” she said. “You took a life so to me you should live the rest of your life behind bars so you won’t hurt anybody else.”

The fact he had prior DUIs seems to have deepened the anger. The law, she said, didn’t do its job by keeping the man off the street after getting several convictions for driving while intoxicated.

However, she has managed to forgive him now that he’s serving a jail sentence. She recognizes his family suffered too.

“I have no consideration for him, but his kids, I believe they were small kids back then,” she said. “Now they are going to grow up without a father. And it’s not their fault. He ruined not just my family but his family, too.”

She sent a strong message to people about drinking and driving.

“Don’t do it,” she said. “It’s not worth you doing this because even though you might live, the other person was killed and then what. Call somebody else to drive you home.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com

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