Teen’s life ends minutes after stop by police in Fruita
Parents frustrated about accountability for daughter’s death
Susan Giffin still gets choked up when she sees a blonde girl driving a car. She still expects her daughter, Sammy, to walk through the front door.
The young woman who could light up a room with her smile, the same smile that was the face of Grand Junction in the 2008 Miss Colorado Pageant, now is resigned to a wide array of framed photographs plastered around Giffin’s living room.
But Samantha Loy, who was 18 when she died after drinking too much rum and crashing her car, only smiles anymore behind glass.
She’s on a south-facing wall, posing in a studio as a cheerleader. She’s frozen in time near the television set, grinning broadly in cap and gown, behind oversized sunglasses with her arm draped around a friend on graduation day at Central High School. She’s also on the bookcase, caught in motion in a candid, close-up shot after curling her usually stick-straight locks.
Although it’s been more than four months, Giffin and her husband, Loy’s stepfather, Tim Larsen, still believe the Fruita Police Department officer who had pulled their daughter over for a traffic stop minutes before she died must have known she was drunk.
Loy’s blood-alcohol-content was 0.195 percent, more than twice the legal limit for an adult over 21, early in the morning of Feb. 8 when her 1999 white Oldsmobile careened across both lanes of Interstate 70 and crashed, vaulting her out of the window. Loy was pronounced dead at the scene.
In the minutes before the crash, Loy had been pulled over by Fruita Police Department officer Nate Peck after he witnessed her speeding and failing to signal for two turns.
Twelve days after the crash, an internal investigation involving two sergeants at the Fruita station determined there was no criminal wrongdoing by either Peck, an officer of seven years on the force, or Josh Dove, an officer of a year. Dove arrived later for backup during that traffic stop. Peck said there were no indications Loy had been drinking, according to his report.
“It was 1 o’clock in the morning, she was all alone and lost. All of those are signs,” said Giffin from her home last week. “If she had stepped out of the car, she would have hit the ground.
What are the odds of he letting her go and she dying minutes later. I think he knew she was drunk, and he gave her a break.”
Giffin and Larsen initially pursued a civil case against the Fruita Police Department for what they feel is negligence on the part of Peck. Their attorneys at the law firm of Killian & Davis said the parents didn’t have a case, and lawyers basically would have to prove the officer intended to kill Loy.
Still, Giffin and Larsen said they aren’t about to give up. They plan to plead their case to the Fruita City Council, requesting sanctions against Peck and the department.
Fruita Police Chief Mark Angelo maintained there was no misconduct in the officers’ actions, and Peck’s duties on patrol have not changed.
“I don’t think at any point in time we’ve done anything wrong,” Angelo said.
Peck did not respond to an invitation to comment for this story.
The internal investigation, which Angelo said is considered a personnel issue and therefore not public record, was conducted by Fruita Police Department Sgt. Kevin Paquette and Sgt. Mitch Cadwell.
“I did not observe any indicators of alcohol or drug impairment with Loy,” Peck’s report on the traffic stop read.
Loy’s parents still find that hard to swallow. Giffin said she was filled with rage after being notified of her daughter’s death during the early-morning hours of Feb. 8. It was at that time, she said, she asked the officer who showed at the family home why Sammy wasn’t taken to jail.
“Her eyes were swelling up with tears,” Giffin said of the officer. “She said, ‘I don’t know why she wasn’t taken to jail.’ (Peck) had her in his hands, and four minutes later she was dead.”
Something similar happened during Sammy’s funeral when a Colorado State Patrol trooper approached family members, saying he believed all the signs of Loy being intoxicated would have been there.
“Sammy was drunk, but by God, out of all those people who died, she had a chance,” Larsen said, referring to a spate of drunken-driving crashes in Mesa County earlier this year. “All over the (media) they’re saying: If you drink and drive, you will be caught. What happens if you get caught and they let you go?”
Larsen and Giffin think they have more fuel to add to their fight. They feel they can prove Peck started following Sammy outside of Fruita city limits.
A log of phone calls to and from Sammy’s phone indicate she was in Grand Junction at
1:03 a.m. when she received a call from her friend David Pangallo. Loy was lost and getting directions from Pangallo on how to find his home, which is located between 18 1/2 Road and 19 Road. She was traveling west on U.S. Highway 6&50 when Peck noticed her car speeding and began to follow her.
Loy called Pangallo two more times, at 1:06 a.m. and 1:11 a.m., the times the calls bouncing off a Fruita cell tower, logs report.
Pangallo said Loy first called him when she heading west, just past Western Slope Auto’s Toyota dealership, and soon said she was being followed by an officer and was going to turn over an overpass to see whether the officer followed. Pangallo and Loy’s parents believe Loy crossed over the 20 Road overpass, because she couldn’t have driven fast enough to make it to Fruita that quickly.
According to Peck’s report, he was heading east in the Fruita city limits and noticed a westbound car speeding, so he turned around and pursued the vehicle over the 340 overpass, stopping the driver at 1:05 a.m. in a nearby subdivision.
Before Loy’s death, it was common among her wide circle of friends to drink and drive. That came to a sudden halt, some of them said. Friends or acquaintances who haven’t had a designated driver or who weren’t willing to stay the night after parties have drawn the ire of others.
“People used to party a lot, and they didn’t think twice about driving,” Pangallo said. “Now if anybody drinks, they don’t leave at all.”
Skyler Duffey, 19, who goes by his last name, said he often has to stop himself from dialing Sammy’s phone. He said he couldn’t speak for a week after she died.
A “goofball,” Loy relished being the center of the circle that ranged from a dozen to 20 friends, he said. She liked to party, he said, but anyone could tell when she’d been drinking because she would get loud. Her whole face would become distorted because she couldn’t wipe off her trademark smile.
“She was the center of attention, and if not, she was trying to get to be,” Duffey said. “She was a riot to have around.”
Friends still meet once a week and on the weekends at a private lake in Mack. They honk and wave when they pass by a decorated cross on Interstate 70 where Loy crashed her car.
Friends’ feelings are mixed about that night. Those at a party knew Loy was falling-down drunk, but she slipped out after playing beer pong and drinking shots of rum.
Loy’s last text message at 1:15 a.m. to a friend named Heather, reads, “I just got pulled over by the cops.”
Friends at the party assumed that meant she was going to jail and began to collect money to post bond.
But a few minutes later she was dead. After being let go by the officer, Loy pointed her car east on Interstate 70, barreled over the median into the westbound lane, and crashed off the side of the roadway. Not being one to wear a seat belt, she was thrown from her car.
Loy’s friend, Adison Smith, 21, said the traffic stop shows what he and his male friends always
suspected, that “cops are easier with girls when they get pulled over.”
Tess Buckley, now 20, another in the group, said she got a DUI in 2007 and is thankful that she was jailed. Buckley was pulled over on North Avenue for expired plates. She doesn’t remember much of that night because she drank so much she had blacked out.
“I thank God everyday that I was pulled over,” she said. “It was my fault. With me, it saved my life.”
That’s an outcome Giffin wishes would have happened to her daughter.
Giffin said Sammy was moving out of her home and only recently started partying.
“She was a good girl, man. She was going through a time of transition,” Giffin said, then referred again to the responsibility she believes the police had that night. “When I can’t be there, that’s their flippin’ job. There’s no way he couldn’t have smelled that rum. Why didn’t he just take that little girl to jail?”