By Pat Caldwell
JORDAN VALLEY – Dark settled over U.S. 95 out on the Oregon desert, and the three construction workers still had 100 miles to go.
The two in the front seat chatted while the third man in the back seat listened to music. The drive south so far was unremarkable, similar to what they’d done nearly every weekend to get to their high-paying jobs in Winnemucca.
Coming the other way, Brandon L. Fuller, 45, was alone at the wheel of his black Toyota Tundra, bound for Boise.
In the previous half hour, he had sideswiped an SUV south of the Oregon-Nevada border, rocketed past a freight truck in a no-passing lane, and later crossed into the oncoming lane, forcing a van to veer out of his way.
Now, he bore down on the Chevrolet Trailblazer carrying the three men. Driver Luis Ramirez, 35, saw the headlights of Fuller’s truck coming at him.
“What the heck?”
Ramirez, from Garden City, Idaho, jammed on the brakes and tried steering out of the way but his reflexes couldn’t save him. The nose-to-nose collision at highway speed unleashed tremendous force. The steel frames of both vehicles buckled. Sheet metal wrinkled like paper. The bed on Fuller’s pickup sheared loose of its bolts.
Ramirez and his front-seat passenger died in an instant. The backseat passenger, saved by a seat belt, was critically injured.
Just two weeks before Thanksgiving 2016, Malheur County had logged another fatal accident caused by a drunk driver.
Five people were killed by drunk drivers on Malheur County roads in 2015, the latest year figures are available. Across the state, 78 died.
Fatal accidents often generate a police press release spare in detail and clinical in identifying the dead, the injured, and the arrested. Such accidents rarely get more than a few paragraphs in the local news.
The impact of this desert crash, though, rippled across the country.
One victim was buried in Idaho, another in Texas. A third returned home to Alabama to recover from life-threatening injuries. And one became a state prison inmate.
Ramirez and Fuller were 500 miles apart and in different states when they both took to the road that Sunday afternoon, Nov. 13.
Ramirez usually drove alone to his job in Nevada. Not this day.
He was accompanied by William Speegle, 42, and his brother, Perry, 49, who had bummed a ride. All three worked for Summit Wall Systems building a hospital in Winnemucca.
Ramirez, a native of Mexico, had lived in the Boise area 20 years. He was married with two children.
Perry Speegle arrived in Idaho a little earlier than Ramirez, seeking treatment for Crohn’s disease. He moved in with his cousin, Sheila, and found treatment. A good carpenter, he decided to go into the construction business.
In spring 2016, his younger brother William arrived in Idaho, lured by the good money from construction and his brother’s invitation to work on his crew.
Their plans to hit the road for Winnemucca stalled when a friend returned a borrowed truck with a flat tire. A quick trip to Costco for a fix turned into endurance of a sales pitch for four new tires. The men gave up and rode on the spare back to Perry Speegle’s home.
They called Ramirez, who agreed to pick them up that afternoon – about an hour later than the Speegles had planned to leave.
While it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, both men hardly gave it a second thought. Perry had ridden with Ramirez before and was comfortable with him.
Ramirez made the 20-minute trip over to Perry Speegle’s house, loaded his passengers, and then drove to the company’s stockyard to pick up sheetrock for the Winnemucca job.
By late afternoon, they were on their way.
At roughly that time, Brandon Fuller pulled out of a casino parking lot in Winnemucca, bound for home in Meridian. A veteran, Fuller and his wife moved to Idaho in August to help family. He, too, worked in construction.
Fuller had a wild weekend, meeting friends from school days for an annual fishing outing in northern California. According to police reports, he said he had been drinking and smoking marijuana.
Fuller later told police he had about 10 beers after leaving his friends and heading for Idaho.
Now, he was in a hurry to get home.
Up north, Ramirez powered his Trailblazer down the road for what would have been about a four-hour trip. He and Perry Speegle talked up front and William, who sat in the left rear seat, listened to his MP3 player as they drove down U.S. Highway 95.
“I was searching through music because there are no radio stations out there,” William Speegle said.
At about 5:30 p.m., they reached Jordan Valley and stopped at a gas station.
“We always stopped there to use the restroom, get a soda and some snacks. I got me a package of pistachios and I think we fueled up before we left,” Speegle said.
By the time they departed it was already getting dark.
They were about an hour from disaster.
Deputy Casey Negus of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada was on patrol when he was dispatched to the Ideal Market in the border community of McDermitt. The time was 6:15 p.m. – roughly 45 minutes after the Idaho construction workers left Jordan Valley.
Negus met a man who complained about an accident moments earlier south of McDermitt. According to police reports, the man said he was driving a Chevy Suburban and towing a utility trailer when a black pickup rear-ended his trailer. When the pickup passed, he sideswiped the Suburban, taking off the driver’s mirror.
The man couldn’t give a solid identification of the vehicle other than it was black and he thought it was from Idaho because the license plate he glimpsed was red.
Negus turned the matter over to a Nevada state patrolman and went looking for the offending truck.
While he had been investigating that call, a truck driver also was dealing with a reckless black pickup truck. The driver said the pickup passed him three times – twice in no-passing zones and a third time almost colliding head on with a mini-van.
William Speegle listened as his brother and Ramirez chatted about women. Ramirez shared worries because he and his wife had argued just before he left.
Perry Speegle, as usual, tried to help.
“I remember Luis asking Perry what he should do. Perry thought everything could be solved with flowers. He said Luis ought to buy some roses,” William Speegle said.
He leaned forward.
“I said, ‘Women like candy,’” Speegle said.
His brother chimed in, telling Ramirez, “Then maybe you should get both.”
The three fell silent as the road played out before them in the shallow glare of headlights.
Ramirez broke the quiet.
“Luis would always say ‘what the heck.’ It was kind of his saying. I was playing with my MP3 player and all of sudden Luis said, ‘What the heck,’” said Speegle.
Speegle looked up to see what prompted the comment and saw headlights.
“The lights were not in our lane but going out of our lane off to the side of the road,” William said.
Then the night exploded. It was about 6:30 p.m.
“I remember seeing the airbags deploy. It was so fast. I can still see that one image of them. Then we started to roll. We rolled over one time and landed on the wheels,” Speegle said.
The force of the impact locked Speegle’s seatbelt, pinning him against the roof of the Trailblazer.
He struggled free. He didn’t know it then, but he was in serious trouble. The seatbelt did its job – it kept William’s body from crashing forward – but the kinetic energy from the crash and the strength of the belt crushed Speegle’s internal organs.
As soon as he released the belt he struggled forward. The front of the maroon Trailblazer was a tangle of metal and fabric and glass. Most of the front part of the vehicle was now crushed up against his brother and his friend. Speegle reached over and touched his brother’s shoulder.
“Perry. Perry are you OK?” William asked.
Perry didn’t answer.
William turned to Ramirez, who was motionless.
“Luis?” he asked.
Ramirez didn’t answer.
Speegle tried to open the back door but it was jammed. He kicked it open and stepped out into the mid-November darkness.
He stumbled around to the back of the Trailblazer. He realized his brother and friend were dead.
He walked up onto the road and then the pain from his abdomen rolled over him like a shock wave. He slowly sat on the edge of the road. He looked back at the destroyed Trailblazer. He felt another wave of pain. Already going into shock, he wondered if he was going to die too.
Negus, the Nevada deputy, had been watching for the pickup for less than a half hour when dispatchers called him again.
There was an accident just inside the Oregon border. He was needed there. He had about 20 miles to go and still would be the first officer to arrive.
At the crash scene, Speegle watched as a semi-truck came to a stop.
The truck driver stepped out, grabbed a piece of bumper in the middle of the road, and pushed it out of the way, Speegle recalled. Without saying a word to Speegle, he got back into his truck and drove away.
Soon, a man who said he was an off-duty medic was beside Speegle, tending to his injuries.
When Negus arrived, he encountered Fuller, apparently uninjured but complaining of a headache.
Negus determined the two in the Blazer were dead and then questioned Fuller. Fuller admitted rear-ending the utility trailer in Nevada. He admitted he was drunk. He admitted drinking 10 beers, according to Negus’s report.
Help was on the way. Law enforcement officers from the Oregon State Police and the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office headed for the scene, as did medics from Jordan Valley and Humboldt County. A LifeFlight helicopter from Boise headed for the desert as well, eventually taking Speegle back to Idaho for care.
The Jordan Valley ambulance took Fuller to Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario for evaluation. A test roughly six hours after the crash showed Fuller’s blood alcohol contest was .19 – more than twice the legal limit in Oregon.
The following day in Texas, Darlene North worked the phones to locate her cousins, Perry and William Speegle. Their boss had called another relative to report the men hadn’t shown up for work Monday.
North eventually sorted out the truth – that Perry was dead and William was hospitalized.
She traveled to Idaho to help, and in the coming months would stay in close touch with prosecutors and police.
“We went to funeral home to make arrangements to fly Perry back to Texas. Like cargo,” North said.
In Idaho, Ramirez was laid to rest at Cloverdale Cemetery in Boise.
William Speegle spent weeks in the hospital, enduring three operations. He said he will probably never work again in construction. He returned to Alabama.
Fuller last month pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Records show two prior arrests connected to alcohol — a DUII in 2003 and a drunk in public offense in 2012.
Pat Cowles, Fuller’s stepfather, said Fuller had been a Navy rescue swimmer during the Gulf War and struggled with alcoholism. He said Fuller was classed fully disabled from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
He appeared to have been sober for a year before heading to meet those friends in California.
“Can I say that if he hadn’t gone to California it would not have happened? Yeah, I can honestly say that,” Cowles said.
Fuller’s wife Gina said she feels despair for the losses to the Ramirez and Speegle families. Her husband, she said, isn’t a monster but a caring individual.
“If he could, he would switch places with them,” she said.
Speegle is trying to move on. He is still racked by pain and he misses his brother.
“Some of the smaller things that we think about that are so important, after something like this, those things don’t matter,” he said. “It is family that matters.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Crohn’s disease.