A life cut short

This dancer was aiming for the stars when her life was ended by a drunk driver. The story behind a Washoe County statistic.

She was chasing her dreams.

Young enough to believe they’d come true.

Beautiful, fit, 22. In love with life, with a guy, too.

That morning of Thursday, Sept. 2, Vanessa Marie Fernandez had started theater and dance classes at Truckee Meadows Community College. Someday she’d be up in the bright lights, the ether. “Going to put J-Lo to down lo,” she jotted in her journal.

For now, stage time was just when it was her turn to shed her top to pop ballads under the spotlights at the dim strip club. Kept body and soul together. Except when too few customers or too many dancers.

That night, the Men’s Club was kind of dead. A slow Thursday crept past midnight. She decided to leave early.

Around 1:30 a.m., she changed out of her knee-length, salmon-colored sateen dress, black Lycra T-back and clear, 7 1/2-inch stilettos into a tan bra, pink shirt, tan sweater, blue jeans, street shoes. Climbed in her light-blue 2002 BMW 330. Punched boyfriend, Dave’s, buttons on her cell. No answer. Left a message: “Ah, if you’re not answering the phone, you must be sleeping. All right, baby, I hope you have sweet dreams.”

Navigating downtown at 1:45 a.m., avoiding construction barriers guarding the train trench, over to and up Center, left, crossing Virginia and Sierra, onto the Interstate 80 onramp heading west on the wide lonely asphalt of wee-hours, weeknight Reno. Fading summer warmth. Roads dry and clear. Magic-kingdom casino towers quickly lost behind. Lanes rising, dipping with the terrain. Speeding now past the outer subdivisions snoozing in the hills winking with dull-orange streetlights. Wouldn’t be long until the exits to Verdi, neon of the truck stop/hotel-casino Boomtown, California border … and the sudden quiescence of the climb into the forested Sierra and the eventual turnoff in Truckee to Highway 89 leading to Lake Tahoe, to home.

Semis in the right lane. She zoomed in the left. Highway tilted downward, bending in a long curve. …

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Shawn Patrick Scott was chasing away chronic low-end misery.

On his second marriage, he’d been recently booted from his mother’s house, where he and his wife had moved after his mother helped them out of debt.

Age: 35. Frozen-foods manager at Smith’s in Lemmon Valley. Drinking problem.

Before leaving the apartment not far from the I-80 ramps off Robb Drive, he’d downed a couple glasses of wine at dinner, then a couple beers. Maybe more? His wife, 25-year-old Andria, was in bed. He got in the red 1995 BMW 325 registered to her. Drove down Robb, jumped on the I-80 entrance heading west. Three and one-half miles. Exit 5 into east Verdi. Wound along the two-lane of Old Highway 40. Pulled up in front of the Bar-M-Bar.

Wood A-frame flanked by pines. Yanked the door. Jukebox, pool table, darts, familiar faces. Cheery lady bartender. Elevated TVs. Sign behind bar: “Never Trust A Man Who Doesn’t Drink.”

There’s Debbie. Friend of his and Andria’s. Debbie who later insisted on driving him home. She first popped into the restroom. He split.

With a 0.354 blood-alcohol content, four-plus times the 0.08 legal limit, he drove the dark two-lane out of Verdi. Past the trailer park on the right, the corrugated-iron metallurgical plant on the left. On the lonely stretch after the last street signs of new subdivisions nestled near the Truckee, the nocturnal cloak thickened, rendered invisible sagebrush foothills, trestles bridging the Truckee. Limbo between mortality and eternity.

Was he bracing for the reaction back home? Or just in a general stupor? For where the highway forked at its east end, he didn’t veer gently to the right to stay in his lane, to carry under I-80 overpasses and up the onramp eastbound. Instead, the Beemer drifted slightly left, passed between signs either side of the opposite lane. Each bore a red orb bisected by a white bar, and a message in white:

Do Not Enter

Freeway descended, long lazy crook. Minute later, empty lanes ascended. Another minute—nearly home.

What did his brain make of the blazing headlights of the tractor-trailer closing on his left? Was he as surprised as the Alabama trucker who, after a terrible instant, would witness a fiery explosion in his rearview?

Was Vanessa, startled by stabbing beams as she rounded the curve, able to even take her foot off the gas after the one-and-a-half seconds for “perception reaction"?

Doe in headlights.

Split-second more: Her dream within a dream was obliterated.

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By daylight, they were statistics:

· Two of three traffic fatalities in Washoe County on Sept. 3. (Peter Venegas, 12, succumbed after a car struck him the morning before on way to school.)

· Two of 55 traffic fatalities to that date in 2004 in northwest Nevada. Five—including Shawn—exceeded the legal blood-alcohol limit.

· Two of 67 killed each year in northwest Nevada traffic, approximately 15 intoxicated.

· Two casualties in 150-some DUI-related crashes a year in northwest Nevada. (About 1,200 DUI arrests prevent more.)

· Two of 25,000 fatalities per year in the United States in alcohol-related accidents, despite a quarter-century of awareness campaigns.

Because DUIs no longer are a sexy media issue, there is no searing angle to this story. Hot topics grab headlines, cool, fade for fresher issues: road rage, cell phones.

But there are stories behind statistics, faces behind cold sterile facts. Broader arcs, timeless themes to impose perspective, ascribe meaning to seemingly senseless events. Philosophical arguments to explain why someone innocent loses her life to someone reckless.

Or maybe there’s no satisfactory reason fathomable by the human brain.

Vanessa Marie Fernandez had dreams of becoming a model.

People still drive drunk.

Self-destructive people still claim victims besides themselves.

Addicts still avoid free 12-step programs.

Some people never grow up.

Some never get the chance.

The journalistic spin is toward Public Awareness. Don’t drink and drive. Suspect a problem? Call Alcoholics Anonymous (324-1138; 355-1151). Drugs? Narcotics Anonymous (322-4811). Gambling? GA (356-8070). What’s said here stays here.

Public awareness is part of this story. But now it’s the narrator’s turn.

Vanessa Marie Fernandez: your bio, in brief.

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Vanessa’s was a teenage mother. Mia Gallegos grew up in Union City, East Bay. The tomboy caught Arturo Fernandez’s eye. He: construction worker. She: short, pretty, high cheekbones, large eyes. She grew up quick. At 18, a supervisor at a computer-components firm.

Vanessa Marie was her joy. “She came out a very magical child. Her mind was just so outbound with ideas. She was never a sick, depressed, bad child. She loved the world.”

Vanessa’s make-believe friend, Marvin, went everywhere with her. Blamed for closet messies. Reality was harsher. The family visited Mexico. Urchins selling Chiclets. Vanessa, 4, cried. “Can I give them my shoes, mama?”

Mama, papa separated. Mia, Vanessa, 5, and 2-year-old sister Irene moved to Yerington, far from the Bay’s congestion, crime. Vanessa danced in the yard.

Mia and Arturo tried again. Junior was born in 1988. Little brother and sister were Vanessa’s audience: fake microphone, belting Madonna, Cyndi Lauper. Long showers—singing away.

Angry when her parents divorced, still not a hater. Know-it-all at 13. Mia explained it as hormones. They got back to being best friends. In high school, Vanessa played softball, ran track. Theater. Cheerleader. Miss Fair and Rodeo for Lyon County. Hispanic Queen of Yerington. Didn’t turn into a bitch, though. Befriended jealous girls.

Fell for Ricky, football star. Broke up before senior year. Broken heart.

Mother and sibs moved to Carson City. Vanessa stayed with friends in Yerington until graduation, then moved to Carson. It was no place to launch a superstar career. How to get on stage right away?

Strip club.

Showed up at the Wild Orchid, in Reno. Eighteen, scared. Got used to it. Developed her role: friendly, exotic “Akira.” Meant anchor in Scottish, bright in Japanese. When customers asked, said she was Egyptian. Insouciance.

The most attractive Reno dancers migrate between the Orchid and the Men’s Club. Akira became a veteran. Averaged 30 lap dances, $600 a night—$515 after 10 percent tip-out and $25 club fee. Sometimes really made bank. Got a big spender in the VIP room, earned hundreds instead of $20 a lap dance. Popular with a wide range. Weirdoes? Mr. Armpit Fetish offered $20 to sniff. But Akira could pick and choose.

Saved her money. Evaded catty dance-club drama. Drank socially, smoked pot, avoided white-powder poisons.

“A good head on her shoulders,” dancer Tomoko Keilholtz, 22, says.

"'A lady,'” customer Tony Perry, 39, says.

Perry, a Reno printer, was Vanessa’s first regular at the Orchid. Paid for chat, not dances. Vanessa: good company. A friendly date to the ballet. “As I ended up losing my business and marriage and started in recovery for cocaine addiction, she remained a wonderful person to talk to,” he says. “Vanessa had an enormous amount of spiritual wisdom. She told me she wanted to have huge pictures of all her friends decorating the walls of her house. Her cherishing of human relationships was very strong.”

So was her presence. Attracted Dave Robards. Six-foot-3, blond, 26, Men’s Club bouncer. Seen the parade of pretty faces, hard bodies. Five-foot-4 Akira stood out. Long dark hair, honey skin, apple bottom, deep-brown eyes. Dancing—elegant, slow, entrancing. From the second he saw her …

“She’s my pretend girlfriend,” he told friends.

Finally approached her. “My name’s Dave.”

“I’m Akira.”

He, casually: “I see you have braces. I have braces.” Flashed smile.

She cracked up.

Dave learned she was training for a marathon. Started running himself, to build stamina. Even if they didn’t end up dating, he’d get in shape. If they did … he’d match endurance.

He had to earn the time to get to know her. Was allowed to ride along as she drove a friend to Tahoe, then returned to Reno. He rode along twice more. Kept cool. Didn’t call too often.

Played his cards exactly right.

First date, they discovered each had a dog. Vanessa’s black Lab, Chianti; Dave’s rottweiler-hound mix, Gucci Girl. Dave gave Vanessa a goodnight peck on the cheek.

She cooked! Mexican, Italian. Made Magical Chicken Soup that cured strep throat.

Shawn Patrick Scott had alcohol troubles. Those problems came to an end early on Sept. 2.

Said she was a fairy. He believed her.

“If there were one word to describe our relationship, it would be ‘magical.'”

Mia had to check out this blue-eyed gringo her daughter raved about. Went to the club. “You must be Vanessa’s mom,” he said, charmingly.

Vanessa resisted falling in love. Approaching Aug. 24, year’s anniversary with Dave, she confessed in her journal to jealousy, vulnerability, fear of unreturned love, grumpiness when not seeing him. She was flat-out moonstruck. His eyes: silvery blue marbles. His smile: gentle. His soul: her soul. “When the moonlight hits your face/ There is a beauty beyond compare.”

They shared motivational books. Read about enthusiasm, courage, living every day as if it were the last.

She introduced him to roller coasters. Mission Beach. Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

At the mall, she twirled around like a ballerina, made him pay attention. He did. Would do anything for her. Her stardom quest. Entered her in bikini contests. She won first place at a bar promotion.

As she and Dave grew ever closer, there was less time for friends. She’d been an irreverent instigator—taking off on a whim on a “girls’ vacation” to Santa Cruz. Leave work, don’t even stop home first. But she had her serious side.

“She was always up for a challenge,” says Erin Lynch, who shared a house with Vanessa in Tahoe City. Erin, 27, had seen an advertisement in June 2003 for the Honolulu Marathon that December. The Arthritis Foundation would pay airfare and lodging to runners raising $3,200. Erin recruited Vanessa and Tomoko. None had run a marathon. They met a trainer. Logged miles. Then slacked.

Race day, they considered dropping out at the start line. “I’m here, I’m going to do this,” said Vanessa, who’d trained the least. “She finished a half-hour ahead of us,” Erin says. “She got lost in the crowd and we didn’t see her until after the race. She showed a lot of determination, always did, to be on top.”

“She wanted to be an actress or model,” Tomoko says. “She would have made it.”

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Trip to San Diego. Dave and Vanessa on the beach, 1 a.m., Vanessa singing to the ocean, wind. “Did you feel that?” she asked. “The Earth. It’s talking to me. She’s dying."Couldn’t be! A man walking on the water. Straight in. Came up on them. Bearded, knit cap, clutching a Heineken.

“Hello!” Vanessa blurted.

“Oh,” the man said. “It looked like just one guy there. Thought he was stumbling. Maybe it was just the shadows.”

The stranger walked off. Minutes later, Vanessa freaked.

“Do you know who that was? That’s Jesus.”

She continually drew Dave into a different realm.

He planned the right time to propose: when her house lease expired in December.

In August he quit the Men’s Club. Would sell insurance and pursue being a motivational coach, helping people realize dreams. Foremost: Vanessa.

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A Carson City sheriff’s deputy drove up at 7:40 a.m. Sept. 3 to a house in east Carson. Mia Fernandez answered the doorbell. At 39, still slender and pretty, a beauty-salon owner. Stylish stud in nose.

Deputy asked if Vanessa lived there. Mia’s relationship? Handed her a piece of paper with a phone number. “Call Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth, with the Washoe County Coroner’s office, explained Vanessa was killed by a driver going the wrong way.

Disbelief. Denial. Couldn’t be Vanessa!

Mia contacted a funeral home to have Vanessa’s remains transferred. Cancelled hairdressing appointments. Called family. Dave.

Mia and Irene went to Fitzhenry’s Funeral Home in Carson. Vanessa’s face bore burn marks. Hair, flipped back. Pout. Forehead wrinkle. “She had this look, like she’d screamed out, ‘Oh, mom!'”

Mia used her beautician skills, made up her daughter like a princess.

Monday: service and viewing. Hundreds came from work, school, Yerington, California.

Vanessa was cremated.

The next month, Mia moved into a different house two blocks away. Painting and decorating: therapy for anger and grief. The two-story stucco home is warm and comfortable, but in mourning. A little memorial on an oak end table. Vanessa’s ashes lie in an acrylic ornament engraved with an angel, and in a brush-nickel, square pedestal beneath. Beside is a round picture frame, attached to magenta letters spelling “Princess,” holding a photo of Vanessa looking back over her shoulder. A wood-framed larger photo of Vanessa, her mother, sister and brother, stands between the table legs.

Mia brings out an elaborate pencil drawing Junior made. The long sweep of hair and facial features are his sister’s, but she’s painted as a fairy with pointy ears, wings and curly feet, sitting on a toadstool, chin on hand, lost in musings.

Vanessa’s fairy presence lingers. Chimes on the alarm clock ring for no reason. Mia catches ghostly visions of her daughter out the corner of her eye. Hair—a white silhouette. One evening, a shadow passed between Mia and Irene where they sat, touching Irene’s arm.

“I believe Vanessa’s going to be more powerful now in the spirit world,” Dave says.

Still, he struggles.

Those left behind in Vanessa’s family include her sister, Irene, standing, mother, Mia, and brother, Arturo.

Photo By David Robert

“She always believed that everything happened for a reason. But just because there is a reason does not mean that I am supposed to understand it. It could be this guy wished to die, and her being a fairy, she granted the wish because she was the closest one to him.”

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Vanessa’s obituary noted she “enjoyed the outdoors, hiking, the beach and the ocean, skiing, camping and music.” She’d “served as the reigning Hispanic Queen of Yerington, later passing the honor to her sister.”

Shawn Patrick Scott’s obit said he “greatly enjoyed” the company of friends and family, “loved the great outdoors and had a very huge appreciation for classic automobiles.”

“Shawn touched the hearts of many with his sweet personality, kind heart, and unforgettable smile. He was loved by many and will be missed by all.”

Lee Ann Lucier, Shawn’s mother, remembers him as “a very cute, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy.” She was 19 when she bore him. Two years later, she married a Los Angeles cop. They lived in El Segundo, on the coast.

Lee Ann’s only child “was a mama’s boy.” As he grew, he proved handy, enjoying electronics, automobiles. Bagged groceries in town. Went steady with a classmate, Nicole. With a stepfather cop, didn’t get away with much. But did party. After graduation: no firm plans. Nicole moved to Utah. Shawn, 20, followed. Marriage. From mother’s care to a wife’s. They had a child: Kristel. Was 28 when an 18-year-old caught his fancy. Andria. Blond. Pretty. (Goodbye, Nicole.)

They wed in 2000. Struggled. Fought. Shawn was arrested twice. Disorderly conduct, simple assault. DUI. They moved to Henderson, then Verdi in March to Lee Ann’s large home. Moved out in May. Andria blames her mother-in-law’s controlling behavior. Lee Ann blames their bad behavior. Says they drank nightly at the bar.

“My son had a problem with alcohol,” Lee Ann says. “He never grew up. I sheltered him too much, babied him too much. Bottom line, yes, he killed himself and he killed another person.”

She left her number with authorities to pass to Mia. Mia phoned. Lee Ann, tearful, gave condolences, apologies.

Andria, too, feels remorse for Vanessa’s family but shares little else with Lee Ann save an intense dislike for one another and a professed love for Shawn. “I lost not only my spouse, but my best friend.”

Why the heavy drinking the fateful night?

Shawn was despondent over being laid off from a construction job and returning to Smith’s, working graveyard, Andria says, adding, “He had a lot of mixed-up emotions,” childhood issues.

She is angry about the side-by-side entrance and exit lanes on Highway 40 leaving east Verdi. “That freeway entrance should be fixed. Sober or not, it’s not a good thing.”

That night, Debbie, the friend, discovering Shawn had left the bar, drove toward Reno. Passed the westbound wreck. Punched Andria’s number. Was Shawn back?

Drove to the apartment. The women took Andria’s pickup, drove east. Couldn’t tell if the burned hulk on the median was the red Beemer.

Circled around again. Stopped on the shoulder. Andria darted across to the median. Recognized the Lake Tahoe license-plate frame.

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Facts about the crash:

· At 1:56 a.m., 528 feet east of mile marker 8 between the Robb and Mogul exits.

· If both going 70 mph, would have closed at 205 feet per second.

· Front ends did not meet full on. Driver sides hit. Back ends lifted. Cars bounced, continued forward.

· Three collisions in each car: with the other car; driver with interior (seatbelt, dashboard, flying objects); internal organs with skeletal frame. Pulverization. A 140-mph collision is not survivable, says Nevada Highway Patrol Sgt. John Schilling.

· Red BMW rested upright on the gravel median 20 feet south of impact. Blue BMW stopped upright 20 feet northwest. Its engine, knocked out, lay in the right lane.

· Paramedic declared each driver dead three minutes later. Likely killed instantly. Blunt-force trauma.

· Undetermined whether Shawn wore seatbelt. Smoke rose from his charred remains for minutes.

· Vanessa wore seatbelt. Found “in a supine position on a disaster bag.”

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How does this story end?

· Bittersweet irony. Dave Robards had photos shot of Vanessa on the beach. Planned to hit up Maxim; promised to get her on a cover somewhere. In death, she had.

· Head-shaking irony. Tony Perry, about Shawn Scott: “Almost anyone in the meeting rooms of AA could have been behind the wheel. I wish it were known the wonderful help that is out there. Hands-down, this was avoidable.”

· Harsh irony. To project from NHP statistics through August 2004, another 22 people will be killed in traffic—including three above the blood-alcohol limit—in the year’s remainder in northwest Nevada. Nevada’s DUI law dropped the limit from 0.10 to 0.08 in September 2003; education may be working, says Trooper Chuck Allen. “But you’re always going to have those people who have that liquid-courage syndrome.”

· Abstract-expressionist detail. Ink-blot burn mark stains the crash-site pavement strewn with bits of sheet metal, shards of plastic and glass.

· Poignant quote. Roommate Erin Lynch: “I don’t believe she would be angry toward the guy who crashed into her. She would have tried to make a positive light from the situation. Dying is not a negative thing, in general. It’s part of life. Dying young is a shame, though, but it happens every day.”

· Eerie chord. Searching Vanessa’s writing binder, Mia’s boyfriend, Kuj, found a poem penned in seventh grade. A stanza from “If I Ever Go Away":

I’ll never get over missing you
And I hope you don’t forget me too
You’ll always be on my mind
Because someone like you, I’ll never find.