Retired DUI Task Force officer reflects on crash with drunken driver

Operator of car that caused crash gets 1 year in jail

Eric Lee Correa – Injured in car crash

WAILUKU — When he reads about the spate of recent drunken driving crashes that have killed innocent people, retired police Sgt. Eric Lee Correa said he can’t help but think of his own family’s near-death experience.

Correa, his wife and their 3-year-old son were severely injured in a head-on collision caused by a drunken driver nearly three years ago.

“When you have been through that experience, every time you read the paper, it’s a jolt,” he said Wednesday. “You feel something inside you, and it’s not comfortable.

“You feel for the families that are going through it because you have been through a very similar situation.”

On June 19, Ivan Poepoe, 24, of Kihei was sentenced to a one-year jail term for causing the crash that injured the Correa family.

Correa was driving his wife and son on a family outing when their vehicle was hit by a white sport utility vehicle that “came out of nowhere” and crossed into their lane at about 8 a.m. Oct. 1, 2016, on Honoapiilani Highway in Waikapu, said Deputy Prosecutor Shelly Miyashiro.

“No one escaped injury,” she said at Poepoe’s sentencing.

Both vehicles were totaled, Miyashiro said.

After being transported to the hospital, Angela Correa immediately went into surgery for injuries including fractures, lacerations and contusions, Miyashiro said.

“She almost bled to death from internal injuries,” she said.

Correa also was seriously injured and hospitalized.

The couple’s 3-year-old son suffered a broken neck and collarbone, as well as other injuries, Angela Correa said at the sentencing.

She said the family had just left home and was on the way to the beach in Kihei. “We didn’t even get more than a mile or so,” she said.

Miyashiro said Poepoe suffered a broken sternum and right ankle fracture.

He told police he had been drinking alcohol at a party, then slept for several hours, Miyashiro said.

She said that less than an hour after the collision, Poepoe’s blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.133 percent, well above the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

At the crash scene, Poepoe told police he was the passenger, despite being the only occupant of the sport utility vehicle, Miyashiro said.

While Poepoe also told police he didn’t know what happened after falling asleep at the wheel, Angela Correa said she never lost consciousness and remembered details about the collision.

“He was so far over the centerline that the impact was mostly on my side,” she said.

She remembered her husband climbing through a small console space to reach their son in the back and an off-duty fireman pulling her out of the vehicle and placing her on the ground.

“I will never forget that morning,” Angela Correa said.

While paramedics worked on her and her husband, a police officer held their son.

“He was crying and crying for me,” she said. “I was in so much pain, and it was breaking my heart that I couldn’t hold my son.”

She said her husband began singing “Amazing Grace,” bringing a sense of peace.

Before that morning, “I had never in three years been away from my child for more than a couple of hours,” Angela Correa said.

At the emergency room, she said her son was alone in a room until her husband “had to almost break through his gurney straps” to reach the boy.

The child had to learn to walk again and wore a neck brace.

“We won’t know until he grows up whether he will be impacted by the injuries,” Angela Correa said.

She said her injuries included a shattered spine, multiple other fractures, a fractured sternum and broken right hand.

The surgeon who operated on Correa told her that if she had been brought to the hospital an hour later, “I probably wouldn’t have made it,” she said.

“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to walk again,” she said.

When she went home from the hospital, she couldn’t be up for more than five or 10 minutes at a time, she said. “I couldn’t play with my son,” she said. “I couldn’t go trick-or-treating with him that year. I couldn’t pick him up.”

She couldn’t work for months.

Eric Lee Correa said his body throbbed as he helped care for his wife and son, with assistance from many family members.

“In spite of everything we went through, I know God will use it for good,” Angela Correa said. “I am a walking miracle. I wasn’t going to let defendant’s actions define us or our future. I forgive defendant. Anger and bitterness never bring healing. But what’s really sad to me is he’s chosen to deny the harm he has caused.”

Eric Lee Correa, who worked on the DUI Task Force and Vehicle Homicide Unit as a police officer, said: “We’ve come back from this the best we can.”

“At the time, my goal was to reach a place of forgiveness,” he said in court. “I find myself still trying.”

He said Poepoe had minimum insurance, and damage to Correa’s vehicle and the family’s medical bills “far exceeded the policy limits.”

Defense attorney Hayden Aluli said Poepoe had shown remorse, including shortly after the crash when his mother went to Angela Correa’s hospital room with flowers and a card he wrote saying he was sorry.

Poepoe had pleaded guilty as charged to three counts of first-degree negligent injury and DUI. “By pleading guilty, he has expressed his remorse,” Aluli said.

Poepoe said he didn’t want to speak in court.

Aluli asked that Poepoe be given a chance to keep the felony convictions off his record.

The prosecution opposed the request.

“This is not the kind of behavior that can or will be tolerated,” Miyashiro said. “His decision to drive was careless, alarming and inexcusable and did cause serious harm.”

She noted that after pleading guilty in August 2018, Poepoe was initially set to be sentenced Nov. 30. But he fired his attorney, leading to delays while he reported trying to find another attorney. After hiring Aluli, Poepoe unsuccessfully sought to withdraw his guilty pleas.

Second Circuit Judge Richard Bissen granted Poepoe’s request for a chance to keep the felony convictions off his record if he complies with court requirements for the next four years. Bissen noted that Poepoe has no prior criminal record and found he was unlikely to reoffend.

The judge said the crash wasn’t what Poepoe intended to do.

“What was intentional, however, was his decision to get behind the wheel that morning and to put his key in the ignition and put his hands on the wheel, put his foot on the accelerator and to direct that car in whatever direction he was going,” Bissen said.

Poepoe was ordered to pay a $200 fine and $14,196 in restitution. His driver’s license was revoked for one year.

Correa, who is a volunteer for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he was disappointed that Poepoe didn’t acknowledge the family in court to apologize. Correa said he had called Poepoe to see if he was OK, and Poepoe asked what his family could do.

Correa said he asked if Poepoe could apologize in person to the Correas’ son, which Poepoe didn’t do.

“I count my blessings every day that I have my son and my wife,” Correa said Wednesday. “Every day is a celebration of them, being able to be with them.”

He said he hoped the community would come together to try to stop drunken driving.

“People are still dying,” he said. “Let’s try not to have any more this year.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.