Just Another Traffic Death Proves to Be Anything but Common

Times Staff Writer

Samantha Bass, 24, blond and beautiful, and her boyfriend, Ken Mingus, a self-assured 23, were on their way to a nostalgic reunion with the Monkees.

Antonio Garropo, 54, newly arrived from Argentina, was taking his pickup truck on a freeway test run only hours after buying it at auction. Joy Hudson, 25, and her girlfriend, Michelle Seward, 20, were leaving one trendy restaurant-bar and heading for another.

It was more than a year ago, at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 4, 1986, when the paths of these five people crossed on the Costa Mesa Freeway in a crash just north of Main Street in Tustin.

Samantha Bass was thrown from the white 1982 Toyota Corolla that her boyfriend was driving. She landed face down on the pavement and died, in a coma, a few hours later at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana.

Pain, Frustration, Anger

It was what the California Highway Patrol calls a traffic fatal, No. 09-86-076, one of 277 traffic deaths in Orange County during 1986. Five sentences in the following day's Times recorded the accident, stressing that it brought traffic to a standstill for more than an hour.

None of the others involved was seriously hurt. There were no chemical spills, dense fog or other such elements involved.

But what makes this traffic fatality noteworthy cannot be summed up in brief newspaper accounts. The ingredients of this distressingly common story--pain, frustration and anger--defy easy classification.

Like the hundreds of others left behind to mourn senseless death on the freeway, the people who loved Samantha Bass still suffer.

Family, friends and the man who hoped one day to marry her search for logical explanations where none exist. They have tried, not very successfully, to lessen their pain.

Mingus, feeling rejected by the Bass family, turned inward. David Bass, Samantha's father, turned to the legal system, and Judith Ann Dalbeck, Samantha's mother, to an early grave.

"Yeah, we get a ton of them," said Ron Brame, the CHP officer who was first on the scene of traffic fatal 09-86-076.

But Brame remembers this accident, and especially beautiful Samantha Bass. She lived with her mother in West Covina and worked as a receptionist at a chic hair-cutting salon in Orange. She wasn't wearing a seat belt.

Mingus, according to the CHP report, was speeding, with his eyes on his passenger instead of the road.

Mingus says today that he doesn't remember what they were talking about but that he and Samantha, his girlfriend of about four months, were on their way to a concert by the Monkees pop group in Costa Mesa. They were to meet first with Bass' sisters and friends. It was going to be a great time.

Car Struck Pickup

Instead, Mingus' car crashed into Garropo's 1983 GMC pickup, which cut in front of him as it changed lanes after its hood popped open. Hudson's car, the CHP said, then slammed into the Mingus car, springing open its front passenger door through which Samantha Bass flew. Mingus and Garropo were not hurt. Hudson left the scene and was treated for a cut lip.

More than two weeks later, Hudson came forward with a lawyer to tell of her involvement. She said it was confusion, not intentional hit-and-run, that led to the delay.

The CHP said neither Hudson, Mingus nor Garropo had auto insurance. And neither Mingus nor Garropo had a valid California driver license. Mingus' car had not been registered for more than two years.

Brame and other CHP investigators recommended that the three drivers be charged with vehicular manslaughter in addition to being cited for violations of the vehicle code. Hudson, they said, should also be charged with felony hit-and-run.

But almost none of that has happened. And most likely, it never will.

Garropo, who had been in the United States only three days at the time of the accident, has long since disappeared, apparently leaving the country.

Hudson, unemployed and living with her mother, has not been cited. The Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento said that her driving record, aside from some tickets she paid in 1985, is clean.

Mingus, a furniture salesman in Anaheim, was issued a ticket in connection with the accident--for driving without a license--but he paid that in court in February. Two other license suspensions dating from before the accident--for driving without a license and insurance--are still outstanding.

Dennis Bauer, the deputy district attorney assigned to the Bass case, took some time to recall the specifics of Bass' death. For him, there was nothing noteworthy about traffic fatal 09-86-076.

"It's just another case," he said. "It's not special. It's not rare. It just came up."

Bauer said he decided not to prosecute for vehicular manslaughter, which can carry a prison sentence of up to six years, for plain and simple lack of evidence.

"Not every death is criminally liable," he said. And as for the CHP recommendations, he added, "sometimes emotions get involved."

"We are a team," Bauer said of the highway patrol. "They investigate, and we prosecute, but we don't always agree with each other.

"True, we aren't out there looking at bloody bodies draped over car hoods, but they aren't in the courtroom with judges telling them that we can't use that evidence."

Bauer said information gathered by the CHP failed to show that either Garropo or Mingus caused Bass' death by driving a motor vehicle in the commission of an unlawful act--in Garropo's case, an unsafe lane change, and in Mingus', speeding and not paying attention to the road.

Garropo, he said, was in an emergency situation, changing lanes after his hood popped up and cut off his view of the road. Garropo was slowing down as he cut across traffic in an attempt to reach the right shoulder. And although Mingus, who was in the second lane from the right, admitted he was speeding, Bauer said his word was not corroborated by witnesses.

"And are you precluded from looking at your passenger?" Bauer added. "I remember when I was in (driver's education), they told me that you should not look away from the road for more than six seconds. But even if we held Mingus up to that standard, how many people drive that way?"

Bauer said that because Hudson delayed coming forward to tell of her involvement, her name was not even included in the file when he looked at it. Nonetheless, he said, the emergency situation would have applied to her as well.

He said he would not prosecute her for hit-and-run because she told the medical personnel who treated her for slight injuries from the crash that she had been involved in a highway collision.

The cold reality of the system Bauer describes has been hard to accept for the people that Samantha Bass left behind. What makes traffic fatal 09-86-076 noteworthy to them is the anger, grief, fear and sadness that have come in its wake.

There were moments when the Bass family tried to channel those emotions into a lawsuit for wrongful death that was filed against Garropo, Mingus and Hudson. The suit asked for damages of more than $1 million. But that too has gone nowhere; the defendants, all of them uninsured, have no assets.

In April, Bass' mother, Judith Ann Dalbeck, died of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. There was no history of heart disease in her family. David Bass said his former wife "and damn good friend" died of a broken heart, the stress of realizing that no one would be held accountable for their daughter's death.

"It was extremely frustrating to her to know that irresponsibility was being nurtured by the D.A.'s office," Bass said. "By their inaction, they were condoning vehicle-code violations and death on our freeways."

David Bass, who lives in Hawaii, called the aftermath of his daughter's death "the ultimate tragedy: a sad but true story." He wrote about it in a recent letter to The Times.

"We will continue to ask why Samantha had to die and why those who killed her have never received so much as a slap on the wrist," he said. "I wonder if it had been (Deputy) Dist. Atty. Dennis Bauer's daughter whose brains and blood were splattered across the . . . Freeway that September evening if things might have been handled a little differently."

In the living room of her Costa Mesa apartment, Lisa Bass, 27, shows some of that same angry frustration when she talks about her sister and best friend, Sam. They were just a year apart in age when Samantha Bass was killed en route to Lisa's apartment that September evening.

"What gets us is that nobody even got a slap on the hand," Lisa Bass said. "That's what gets us."

"I still have anger in me," said Teri Katzman, 29, Samantha's eldest sister. "And I don't want to have this anger."

Samantha, who her sisters say aspired to marriage and motherhood, was one of five siblings, part of a close family accustomed to looking first toward each other to share their problems and their happiness.

"We probably had more love than any normal family," Teri Bass said.

"And in our adult lives, we were all like best friends," Lisa added.

Boxes of family photographs show group shots of happy, good-looking people with their arms around each other in front of Christmas trees, or grinning for the camera with the glistening Pacific Ocean to their backs.

The evening that Samantha was killed was a typical one for the Bass family. Mingus had picked Samantha up from work, and the two were planning to meet sisters Lisa and Teri and Tami Leonard, as well as two other close girlfriends, before all headed to the concert.

But Lisa and Teri said the carefree family closeness so natural before the accident began to change with Samantha's death and changed even further when their mother died, still obsessed by the death of her daughter, less than eight months later.

"It's strange when you have such a tight family," Lisa said, her eyes rimming with tears, "and everything, I don't know the right word for it, it's like an explosion and you try to pick up the pieces."

Teri said it was her mother "who held us all together," a role that she later tried to fill by moving into her mother's West Covina home after her death. But that didn't work out, Teri said.

"It hasn't been the same family," she said. "We've had arguments. People have been moody."

Mingus said the death of Samantha Bass "is a sore subject."

He doesn't want to talk about it, but when he does, his words come out in angry spurts.

He said he doesn't understand what Samantha's family wants from him, why they are "stirring up emotions," why they seem to blame him for her death.

"I have no money," he said. "I'm poor. They just want to get somebody, just to make them feel better. I think that's wrong. Do they want my hand cut off, or what?"

The Bass family, he added, has no monopoly on pain.

"I'm hurt about it," Mingus said. "It's screwed up everybody. I'm suffering just like everyone else. It's hard for me to get close to people. It's hard on dates. I just don't trust anybody."

Mingus, whom Samantha's sisters describe as "a real confident, macho-type guy," said that he lost his job after the accident because he "couldn't function," that the daily drive to work past the Forest Lawn cemetery where Samantha is buried was too emotionally taxing.

For about eight months after the accident, he said, he spent his evenings sobbing as he listened to the songs he and Samantha enjoyed together.

"I loved her," Mingus said. "I was even tossing around the idea, in my head, of spending the rest of our lives together.

"I'm going through some private hell myself."

"I'm a good person, hard working," he added. "That is what Sam saw in me and what I saw in her."

Mingus said his mother also was killed in a car crash, when he was 13 years old.

"There's been a lot of death in my family," he said. "I know how I have to deal with it. I can't just keep living in the past."

David Bass said he can understand what Mingus means when he talks about the pain of "stirring up emotions."

He said it would have been easier for him to have grieved in private, tucking away his pain somewhere in the recesses of his mind. But he said his drive to hold people accountable for breaking the law, what his daughters call "his mission," is aimed at exposing a system that ignores victims like Samantha and those, like his family, that keep suffering long after their deaths.

"I have no wish to avenge (Samantha's) death," he said. "Nothing can bring her back to this world. I do believe, however, that each of us should be responsible for our own actions. I believe that these three human beings (Garropo, Mingus and Hudson) should be responsible for theirs."

Bass added that he has never had a bad word for Mingus, someone he said he still "feels for." Against the wishes of Samantha's mother, Bass recalled, after their daughter's funeral he invited Mingus to come home with the family, hugged him and tried to make him feel better.

"I would want Ken Mingus to have a good life," Bass said. "But I also want him to learn from his mistakes, to be held responsible for his actions."

Christmas for the Bass family will be different this year. They won't be getting together to add another photograph of happy people with their arms around each other in front of the Christmas tree. The family home of 25 years in West Covina has just been sold.

"I feel empty," Teri said.

"I just want 1988 to come," Lisa said. "I want the holidays to be over."

Lisa said she may go skiing. Teri isn't sure what she'll do. Their father will stay in Hawaii.

The family said they will make sure to put poinsettias on the adjoining graves of Samantha Bass and her mother.

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