Central Avenue curves fast through Kansas City, Kansas, lined with auto-detailing shops, gas stations and panaderias. At 18th Street and Park Drive, it meets a confusing, asterisk-shaped intersection.
Aaron Becerra was 21 when he approached that intersection on the evening of September 30, 2000. This drive was part of his daily routine. He'd just gotten off work at the KCK police garage, where he maintained the cop cars, gassed them up, checked their oil. His father, Hector, lived nearby. Becerra often stopped at Hector's house after work for a shower and a bite to eat. But this night, he might have been heading to his brother Phillip's house. Phillip had been bugging him to return the red Nissan Sentra that Aaron had borrowed while his own car was in the shop.
As Becerra drove south on 18th toward Central, witnesses would later testify, he probably couldn't see the firetruck's lights or hear its siren — a solid bank of buildings obscures the view of oncoming traffic and muffles street noise. Becerra drove into the intersection without hesitation.
Pumper 9 plowed into the driver's side of the Nissan, its massive chrome grill pushing Becerra's Sentra four car lengths before coming to a stop. When an ambulance arrived minutes later, a crowd gathered to watch as responders cut the top off the mangled car to free Becerra.
At the wheel of the firetruck was 38-year-old Anthony Mots. He'd been a driver with the Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department since 1994.
A witness, who had been sitting at the red light on Central when the firetruck passed him from behind, later described the crash as "vehicular homicide."
"I killed a kid," Mots repeated, over and over, to his girlfriend later that night.
But Becerra wasn't dead. Doctors removed his shattered spleen and, in a rare medical procedure, left his abdomen cut open, covered by a sterile plastic bag, to keep his bowels moist. His father, brother and sister kept a bedside vigil, as did Angela Martinez (then known as Angela Perez), the mother of his 5-year-old daughter, Sabrina. Sabrina wasn't allowed to visit her father's bedside; Martinez thought she was too young to handle the sight.
He lived for seven days, improving enough to keep his family and the doctors at the University of Kansas Medical Center hopeful, before his condition suddenly deteriorated. He died of his brain injuries on October 6, 2000. Later on the night of the accident, a Kansas Highway Patrol officer was dispatched to KU Med to pick up a blood sample from Becerra. Testing for alcohol and drugs is standard Kansas Highway Patrol procedure whenever a commercial vehicle such as a firetruck is involved in a crash. Becerra's test came back clean.
Mots also was supposed to have his blood tested. The highway patrol officer investigating Becerra's accident, Mike Gruber, did not test Mots because he believed that Mots' employer, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, would test him independently. But no one from the United Government ever tested him.
After a recent trial against Mots and the Unified Government, a jury's verdict suggests that KCK firefighters helped Mots hide to avoid a blood test that might have detected drugs and alcohol in his system.
Vickie Rehrer was with Mots the night before the accident. This spring, she told her story under oath in front of a Wyandotte County jury and later recounted it for The Pitch.
In 2002, acting on Sabrina Becerra's behalf, Hector Becerra and Angela Martinez filed a federal lawsuit against Mots and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. Represented by Daniel J. Cohen, with the law office of Davy C. Walker in Kansas City, Kansas, they claimed that the accident had violated Becerra's civil rights when it resulted in his death. That suit was eventually thrown out of court. Cohen then filed a wrongful death suit in Kansas court in 2006. It went to trial in March 2008 at the Wyandotte County Courthouse.
Rehrer is an attractive blonde who works as an assistant at a metro law office. She dated Mots for eight months in 2000.
The night before the accident was like most of their Friday nights, she says. She went to his house with a change of clothes, expecting to go out for the evening, and started to get ready in Mots' bathroom. Mots was drinking Crown Royal and Coke and smoking pot out of a pipe, she says.
She was standing in the bathroom in her robe when Mots told her that he had a surprise. He said he was going to the liquor store and would be back. While he was gone, the surprise showed up.
"It was another girl," Rehrer says. "It was kind of awkward."
Rehrer, Mots and the woman partied until early in the morning at Mots' house. Mots gave her an Ecstasy pill, Rehrer says. She says she saw him take two. He drank Crown and Cokes before switching to beer, which he drank out of a coozy printed with the KCK Fire Department's logo.
Rehrer says Mots went to sleep at 4 a.m., and she went to bed a little later.
At 6 a.m., Mots was back up and in the shower, preparing for a 24-hour shift at the fire station.
"He would always get out of bed at 6 o'clock," Rehrer says. "He loved the job that much.... He has an adrenaline inside of him like I've never seen in anybody. So he didn't have any problem getting up, getting the uniform on, heading out the door."
About 12 hours later, Rehrer was at her father's home in Leavenworth when she got a phone call from Mots.
"Turn on the TV," he told her. When she did, she saw footage of the firetruck accident at 18th Street and Central.
"I need you to get to Wally's house," Mots told her. Then he gave her directions to the Bonner Springs home of his fire captain, Walt Stephen. Rehrer was apprehensive about driving in the dark to an unfamiliar address, but she followed Mots' directions.
At trial, Cohen questioned Rehrer about what happened next. Rehrer testified that the firefighters who had gathered at Stephen's house asked Mots if there was someplace he could go. Couldn't he stay at her house, they asked? Rehrer said it was obvious to her that they were telling him to hide.
Cohen says Rehrer testified that the next day, she heard Mots replaying voicemail messages from his co-workers. The messages, she said, were warning him that the Unified Government wanted him to come in for drug and alcohol testing. She testified that Mots told her it was too late, that 24 hours had passed, and that he wasn't going to get tested. He stayed with her for two or three days, she testified.
Rehrer tells The Pitch that after she heard the messages from Mots' cell phone, "It was becoming clear to me: Yeah, you don't want to be drug tested, for obvious reasons."
When Rehrer (then Vickie Billingsley) met Mots in early 2000, she was working at the court clerk's office in Leavenworth. Besides working as a firefighter, Mots owned a lawn-care business. He had sued a client who refused to pay for his services. He won the suit but was waiting on his check, and he often called the court clerk's office about his money. When the check arrived, Rehrer called Mots to let him know. He was so pleased, she says, he told her, "I want to come up there and take you to lunch." Rehrer, who was single, giggled with the other women in the office and wondered what Mots looked like.
He turned out to be muscular, handsome, charming and divorced. They went to a fast-food restaurant for a quick lunch. Rehrer noticed a picture of a little boy in Mots' truck and asked if it was a photo of his son. Yes, Mots told her, but the boy had recently died of an illness. Another child, a baby, had died previously of sudden infant death syndrome. Rehrer, who had three healthy children from a previous marriage, didn't know what to say.
They decided to see each other again. Neither was looking for anything serious, Rehrer says. She'd just moved to Leavenworth after living for 36 years in Idabel, Oklahoma. Rehrer had been working for the government, teaching grant writing in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and was at the office when Timothy McVeigh bombed the building on April 19, 1995. She spent two days under the rubble, a piece of rebar piercing one leg, before she was rescued. Her father, concerned about her recovery, moved her and her children into his Leavenworth home in 1999 so that she would be closer to the rest of her family.
Mots met Rehrer's family three weeks after their first date. Then he took her to his fire station, at 11th Street and Central, to meet his family of firefighters.
The squat, one-story Pumper 9 station faces Central Avenue. A barbecue grill and a smoker sit on a small patio just outside the door.
Mots' fellow firefighters were friendly and welcoming. They nicknamed Rehrer "Miss Okie." The ones closest to Mots pulled her aside. "Tony's been through a lot," she says they told her. "That was always one of the first conversations you had with anyone you met [who knew Mots]," she says.
After a few dates, Rehrer noticed that Mots drank often. When she showed up at his house on Friday nights, he usually had a Crown and Coke in hand.
But Mots wasn't abusive when he drank, and she believed that she could help him work through his grief over the deaths of his children. Mots kept the children's rooms exactly as they'd been left, and he observed every holiday at the cemetery. She helped him pick out stuffed animals and toys to leave. After a few months, Mots invited Rehrer to the cemetery, but she stayed in his truck while he crouched by the graves.
Rehrer says that Mots was an unusually fast driver, even in his civilian vehicle. He was also a fan of demolition derbies. He had a banged-up, spray-painted sedan with a stuffed Dalmatian affixed to the roof that he took to fairs and derbies on a flatbed trailer hooked to his truck.
After one derby in July 2000, Rehrer saw another side of Mots. She, Mots and a fellow firefighter had driven to the event together. She says Mots drank the entire afternoon and agreed to let Rehrer drive his demolition car. She crashed it, wrecking it beyond recognition. Mots was angry — he'd wanted to drive it in another event the following weekend. The three got in the truck to drive home.
"He got on this binge where he decided he was going to take his life, and we just happened to be in the vehicle with him," Rehrer says. "We have a demolition car on a trailer, and we're driving in excess of 100 miles an hour and I'm screaming, 'I'm a mom! I don't want to die!'"
The other firefighter talked Mots into slowing down long enough to let Rehrer out on the side of the highway. He finally did and then drove on. She found a pay phone and called her sister for a ride.
"He drove like that all the time," Rehrer says. "He was on a mission, no matter where he was going. There were so many bells and whistles going on that I was like, 'You're on a death wish, and I'm not going to be a part of it. I've already been through this.'"
Their relationship ended about two months after the accident.
Rehrer is now married to a conservative man; their family blends his three children and her three. Recounting, in front of strangers and her family, her days partying with Mots was embarrassing, but Rehrer kept it in perspective. "A child lost her father," Rehrer says. "Maybe this is my way of saying, you know, I'm sorry I didn't ask more questions back then."
Mots' second wife also testified against him. Tracy Mots, who dated Mots before he met Rehrer, began dating Mots again after he and Reher broke up. She married Mots in February 2002. According to depositions in the case, Mots drank heavily and smoked marijuana daily throughout their marriage. She filed for divorce in October 2003. "He was an everyday drinker," Tracy told attorneys in her deposition. If Mots went more than 12 hours without drinking, Tracy testified, he would start sweating and shaking.
At trial, however, Judge Wayne Lampson barred any testimony, references, evidence or suggestions regarding the possibility of Mots' habitual alcohol and drug use. Witnesses called by Cohen, the Becerras' attorney, could testify about Mots' drug and alcohol use only as it pertained to the 24 hours before the accident.
But Cohen was allowed to ask questions regarding Mots' failure to get drug-tested.
So Tracy could say, in front of the jury, that a friend of hers called her on the night of September 30, 2000, to report having seen Mots' accident on the news. Tracy said she called Mots to see if he was OK. On the phone, Tracy testified, "He told me that he was going to need to lay low for a while. He was afraid he was going to be drug tested." Tracy said she took that to mean that Mots had something in his system; otherwise, he would have volunteered for a drug test that night.
She was also allowed to talk about a cooler full of beer that Mots regularly transported to and from work in his truck, to which he would have had access the day of the accident.
The jury didn't hear one other detail in Tracy's deposition: While married, the couple was fighting about Mots' drinking, Tracy said. "And it was pretty heated. And I said, 'Are you going to wait until you kill somebody before you quit this?' And his response was, 'I already have.'"
Two jurors spoke to The Pitch on the condition of anonymity.
Because they didn't have the results of a drug test to prove he was impaired, the jury eventually decided to disregard Rehrer's testimony and all the testimony about Mots' drug and alcohol use. Instead, they focused on the facts of the case.
At trial, Mots testified that he had a green light, that he slowed before he entered the intersection and that he checked to make sure all the cars at the intersection had stopped before proceeding. He denied hiding at Rehrer's father's house to avoid drug testing, telling the jury that he stayed with Rehrer and her father all the time. He said that his fellow firefighters wanted him to stay with Rehrer because they didn't want him to be alone, and he didn't want to be alone, either. He denied that he'd had anything to drink or that he had used any drugs before the accident.
Also testifying were then-Capt. Stephen, firefighters Brian Smith, David Lynn, Craig Duke and now-retired Assistant Fire Chief Tony Novak. Novak claimed that he was upset and regretful that Mots' blood was never tested. He blamed confusion at the accident scene.
But a witness for the defense refuted Novak's testimony about confusion at the scene.
Before the trial, Cohen had deposed Patty Kroll, a Unified Government employee knowledgeable about the UG's policies. "Following an accident while on duty or operating a city vehicle," Kroll told Cohen, "alcohol and drug tests will be administered to each surviving employee whose conduct contributed to the accident or cannot be completely discounted as a contributing factor in the opinion of a supervisor, or in the case of an accident involving the loss of human life."
The supervisor at the scene of the accident was now-retired Assistant Fire Chief Tony Novak. Based on the UG's policy, Cohen expected Novak to testify that he had surveyed the scene and conclusively determined that Mots couldn't be blamed for the accident and that no testing was necessary.
At trial, Novak surprised Cohen by testifying that he'd wanted Mots to get tested and was upset when he found out, weeks later, that Mots hadn't been tested. Cohen says Novak also testified that, on the night of the accident, Novak had called in the Kansas Highway Patrol so that there would be no allegations of conflict of interest at the scene, and that Novak expected Highway Patrol employees to test Mots. Mots must not have been tested because of "confusion" at the accident scene, Novak testified.
But Novak's story was contradicted when Kansas Highway Patrolman Mike Gruber, a witness for the defense, testified that he was told on the scene that the Unified Government would test Mots.
"That's where the claim of confusion fell apart," Cohen tells The Pitch. Gruber's testimony was supposed to help make the Unified Government's case but instead weakened it. "Novak's saying, 'Gee, people just assumed. We assumed they'd test him.' Gruber's saying, 'No, somebody with the government either told me they'd test him or told one of my troopers, and then my trooper reported it to me.... We did not simply assume the government would test him. We were told.'
"That's not confusion," Cohen says. "That's deception."
The jurors apparently believed that the firefighters were standing up for one of their own.
"I have no problem with Tony Mots. I think he ended up being the scapegoat," says a male juror. "There were policies and procedures that the Kansas City, Kansas, fire department didn't follow through on. One thing that really swayed the jury was this mandatory policy of drug testing that fell through the cracks."
He recalls firefighters testifying, "We don't go out to hurt people. We go out to help. Tony Mots was the first guy out of the truck and to the Becerra vehicle before other help arrived ... if this [Mot's alleged impairment] was really going on, we wouldn't want him on our crew. We wouldn't want to be fighting fires with him.
"When guys work together the way those people do," the male juror continues, "when their lives depend on each other, they're going to protect one another, no question about it."
But one female juror says the firefighters' testimony lacked heart. "They were in a position, you know, damned if you do and damned if you don't," she says. "This is their job. This is the Unified Government on trial. That's their employer. They were in a position where they had to say what they had to say. I don't think the defendant's lawyer was able to get them to be wholehearted about anything. He got as much out of them as he could."
The jury heard testimony from accident reconstruction experts and witnesses from the accident scene. Pages of drawings and dozens of photos of the intersection at 18th Street and Central were passed in front of them. Several witnesses reported that Mots could not have avoided hitting Becerra's car. But one witness, Kenneth Lee, a railroad engineer who was 55 at the time of the accident, told a different story.
Lee said he wanted to turn left off Central but became impatient with a car in front of him, driven by an older man who was slow to make the turn. Lee pulled into the through lane instead and stopped because the light had turned red. Lee watched in his rearview mirror as the firetruck came up fast behind him. The truck pulled around Lee and the older man's cars and entered the intersection going the wrong way, into oncoming traffic. Lee said the truck didn't hit the brakes until after running into Becerra.
Lee told his version of events to the emergency response crew at the scene of the accident, then drove to the office of the Kansas Highway Patrol the next day to report it again, to make sure his account was on the record.
The testimony of Mike Macek, the older man who had been in the left-turn lane, backed up Lee's report — that the firetruck went through a red light without braking.
To his deposition, Lee added a statement: "The firetruck driver, in my opinion, is guilty of vehicular homicide and negligence because he came through the intersection with no regard for public safety, and he took a life, when all he had to do was slow up and see what was coming through the intersection."
Mots seemed quiet and remorseful in the courtroom, the female juror says. But, she adds, "In my mind, you can feel bad and you can look sad, but are you feeling sad for the victims or sad for yourself?... He said he was sorry, but is it, 'I'm sorry I'm in this mess' or 'I'm sorry you lost your loved one,' you know?"
The jury was also influenced by the testimony of pain experts who described what Becerra would have suffered.
"The thing that weighed so heavily was the fact that the young man was at the hospital, cut open because of all the swelling, and they left him like that for six or seven days, couldn't even close him up," the male juror says. "That was hard to listen to."
The jurors ruled against Mots and the Unified Government and awarded Sabrina $1.7 million. Later, Lampson reduced that sum to $500,000, in compliance with Kansas state law's cap on legal awards against government entities.
When the verdict was read, the male juror recalls that Mots and his fellow firefighters looked stunned. "Tony was pretty devastated when the verdict came down," he says. "You could tell by the look on his face. I think the firefighters thought they'd win. But you could tell by looking, they were hurt. Surprised."
He says he approached Mots as the lawyers gathered up their paperwork and people moved out of the courtroom.
"I told Tony, 'I want to tell you, you don't need to take this totally on your shoulders.' I told him we'd thrown out the drug stuff.... I think that meant something to him.
"I think about this trial everyday," he adds.
Mots, Stephen and current KCK Fire Chief John Paul Jones declined to comment for this article. Michael Shunk, the attorney for Mots and the Unified Government, told The Pitch that it was up to the Unified Government to comment. A Unified Government public affairs spokesman, Edwin Birch, says, "This was an unfortunate incident for all parties involved. The trial is over, and the jury has rendered the verdict."
Stephen still works for the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department in its Fire Suppression Division.
Mots, now 46, later got a promotion. He has been captain of Station 9 since March 2004.
Last week, the Unified Government filed an appeal.
Click here to send a letter to the editor.