Victims of Basalt crash advocate prison for drunken driver |

Victims of Basalt crash advocate prison for drunken driver

EAGLE, Colo. ” An Aspen couple told a judge Wednesday that they forgive the drunken driver who nearly took their lives last May, but they still want him to serve time in prison for what he did.

Jeff Reese and Susan Grove gave stirring testimony at the sentencing hearing of Oscar Canas Portillo, who pleaded guilty last fall to two charges of vehicular assault causing bodily injury.

Eagle County District Judge Thomas Moorhead postponed sentencing until Feb. 20.

The public defender’s office received several letters in support of Canas Portillo written in Spanish. His attorney, Dana Christensen, asked for time to get the character references translated in writing so they can be presented to the court. Moorhead approved the request, but allowed Reese and Grove to speak so they didn’t have to return for the next hearing.

In a brief address, Reese stood at a podium just a few feet from Canas Portillo and told the judge, “We forgive the man.” He asked Moorhead to sentence Canas Portillo to prison so he has time to turn his life around.

Reese said he prays for Canas Portillo. “Hopefully he will be in heaven with God” when this life is over, Reese said.

While Reese concentrated on how the judge could help transform Canas Portillo’s life, Grove outlined how the violent collision had such a dramatic effect on her and her husband’s lives.

“Jeff and I both felt it’s important you hear from us,” she told the judge.

Grove recounted how she and Reese were returning from a Colorado Rockies baseball game the night of May 8 to their house in Basalt. They were less than 2 miles from home when their SUV was hit head-on by a vehicle driven by Canas Portillo at Emma Curve on Two Rivers Road.

Grove and Reese were knocked unconscious; she remained in a coma until late June while he was out until July. They both suffered traumatic brain injuries. Grove suffered numerous broken bones and still must wear a brace on her right leg. Jeff has difficulty using the right side of his body and has trouble speaking because of ongoing numbness in his mouth. They are recovering in Aspen with the help of family and friends.

Their medical bills have topped $1.3 million, of which about 80 percent is covered by their insurance. They face additional visits to doctors and work with physical therapists, and must take several medications.

“This man and his careless behavior have taken nearly everything from us,” Grove said.

She spoke forcefully but without evident anger. She expressed disbelief that Canas Portillo had been convicted of previous drunken driving charges without being deported even though he allegedly is an “illegal alien.” If he hadn’t been in the country he couldn’t have caused them so much pain, she said. Grove said the only silver lining was that Canas Portillo didn’t kill someone.

Basalt Sgt. Stu Curry, who arrested Canas Portillo for the May 8 accident, confirmed that the man’s driver’s license was under revocation at that time for an alcohol-related driving offense. Canas Portillo had no documentation that he was in the United States legally at the time of the accident. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is investigating Canas Portillo’s legal status, according to Eagle County Detention Center records. He has remained in jail on $25,000 bail since his arrest. The federal agency has put a hold on him, meaning he would be held even if he posted bond.

Grove asked Moorhead to send Canas Portillo to prison for an unspecified amount of time, and she expressed hope that he is deported once he is released.

Canas Portillo, of El Jebel, attended the hearing in a orange jumper that all jail inmates wear. An interpreter translated the comments of Grove, who spoke first, then Reese. Canas Portillo showed no emotion except when Reese expressed forgiveness. Canas Portillo fidgeted, and it appeared that he teared up.

After the hearing, Reese said it is easier to forgive Canas Portillo than to hate him over the incident. Bitterness would just lead to depression, he said.

Grove said she understood from talking to the District Attorney’s Office that Canas Portillo could receive six years in prison on each count. The sentences could run concurrent. She said she wants to see them run consecutively instead.

Susan was a nurse at Aspen Valley Hospital before the accident. Her position in the surgery room was filled at the start of ski season, but she is talking to the hospital about a different position.

Reese is an accountant with the Marolt brothers’ firm in Aspen. He said he is probably about a year from returning to work. The Social Security Administration initially rejected his request for disability but reversed itself after his therapist provided additional information on his injuries.

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