LAKESIDE — Two weeks ago, Lori Cramer sadly recounted to students at El Capitan High School the grim consequences of drunken driving that had touched the school in a particularly eerie way.
Her husband Phillip, 34, a 1975 alumnus of El Capitan in Lakeside, had been killed on his bike last July when a Volkswagen bug took a 40 m.p.h. curve very close to the school at 70 m.p.h. and slammed him off the road and into the middle of Interstate 8. The driver, 18-year-old Renee Reid, a graduate of El Capitan just the month before, was in jail serving a year's sentence, Cramer told the students.
But, as Cramer finished her March 11 talk along with Bonnie Helander, a representative of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in San Diego County, a student approached Helander.
Didn't Mrs. Cramer know that Renee Reid was no longer in jail? she whispered. The student said she had seen Reid at a local mall three weeks before.
Cramer was dazed. She called the jail and found out that, indeed, Reid had been released.
She called the state attorney general's office, which prosecuted the case because Reid's father was an investigator with the county district attorney's office, creating a conflict of interest. They confirmed the news.
Because Reid was permitted to spend the holidays with her Lakeside family, she did not enter the jail until Jan. 17 of this year. All in all, she spent 31 days of her year's sentence in jail and was released to a county electronic surveillance program, in which she was permitted to leave her house only to visit her doctor.
"If someone can step out of jail after 31 days for killing someone, it's crazy," Cramer said Monday. "What can I say? I think you should get punished for what you do."
Sheriff's Capt. Benny McLaughlin, who runs a crowded county jail in Las Colinas, said it was an easy call to release Reid early on electronic surveillance.
The county is under a court-ordered cap on jail population. McLaughlin said Las Colinas can have no more than 478 inmates and now has from 450 to 470. Even though the facility has not reached its cap, McLaughlin said the jail is always on the lookout for those who can be monitored at home.
"She fit the criteria," he said. "She comes from a good family. She has no history of problems. She's not a threat to the community. She has permission to go for medical interviews, and that does not include stopping at the mall. If she's doing that, she's liable to be right back in here."
Reid is supposed to wear a radio transmitter on her ankle that sends a signal to the Sheriff's Department if she leaves the house. If she calls her "correctional counselor" and is given permission to visit the doctor, the signal is turned off. About 50 inmates countywide are in the program.
Renee's father, Frank Reid, denied that his daughter could have been seen at the mall. "She has followed the rules of the program to a T," he said.
Cramer, a 31-year-old Santee mother of a 7-year-old boy, had pleaded with Municipal Judge Terry Knoepp during the trial concerning her husband's death "to consider what's been taken away from us." She described before a packed courtroom how she spent nights alone in bed thinking about exactly how he was killed.
"I can see his face, his eyes," she told the judge. "And I pray that he never saw Renee's car bearing down on him, that he never knew. But I know. His friends know. And some day his son will know."
At the time of the accident, Reid's blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. Her front bottom teeth were knocked out from the impact.
Reid pleaded not guilty but was convicted of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, which could have brought up to 10 years in prison. And, at her sentencing, she told Cramer, that "if I could turn back time, I swear to God it would have been me."
Prosecutor Rhonda Cartwright said she thought a year's sentence was unusually light.
"I'm not real happy about all this," she said. "This sends a terrible message about drinking and driving."
Judge Knoepp said Monday that he had not been informed of the decision by the Sheriff's Department to place Reid on electronic monitoring.
"My sentence speaks for itself," he said. "As for what the Sheriff's Department does to relieve overcrowding, that doesn't involve me."
Lori Cramer said her husband's death hit her hard, even though they were separated at the time he was killed and were planning to divorce. The Cramers had been married 11 years.
At El Capitan's "teen issues" day, she spoke to three groups of 25 to 30 students about what happened the night her husband died.
"This is the first time I had spoken out, other than in court and during MADD's candlelight vigil," she said. "I choked up a few times. I wanted to get across to them that it's just not worth it for a few beers."
When she first heard that Reid had been released, Cramer said it added to her sense of disillusionment with the judicial system. She had been stunned twice: first during the sentencing that meant one year in jail; and second that the jail term had lasted a month.
Court officials had told her she could write to the jail to request information about Reid's release date.
"I figured I'd have a few months, that she would be in there six months at least," she said. "Then she's out in a month. I was blown away."
Cramer is still upset that, although Reid also received five years' probation and a $1,000 fine, she has not paid restitution for her and her son. There are funeral, coroner's and counseling costs.
"I don't think it's too much to ask her to pay for my husband's funeral," she said.