THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED

THIS SUNNYSLOPE HIGH STUDENT WAS HEADED TOWARD THE GRAND OLE OPRY. THEN HE STEPPED INTO PHOENIX'S MOST DANGEROUS CROSSWALK.

One reason is that marked crosswalks lull pedestrians--especially schoolkids crossing in droves--into a false sense of security, a belief that drivers will stop for them. An open school gate gave hundreds of students each day easy access to and from a Circle K across Central. And the crosswalk comes so soon after the major Central-Dunlap intersection that it sneaks up on unsuspecting drivers.

Carolyn Roberts wasn't the only person raising a stink with the city about the perilous crosswalk. Unbeknownst to her, Merylee Golden had already warned the city--about a year before Roberts watched a car kill Maryann Gutmans.

Golden often drove her daughter to and from school past the crosswalk. By mid-1985, she had seen one close call too many and ordered her daughter not to cross there. She also phoned Sunnyslope High. School officials referred Golden to the City of Phoenix, where she ran into a bureaucratic brick wall.

"I felt it was very dangerous and that someone was going to get killed there," Golden says. "I told them that the crosswalk should either be taken away or there should be a light there or a different sign."

Later in 1985, Golden drove up to the crosswalk moments after a girl on a bicycle had been hit by a car. She again called the city, but to no avail. City files make reference to both of Golden's calls.

"I wanted her to put up a signal there, something to show there is a crosswalk," Golden says of her conversation with a city official. "Somebody was going to get hit. And she said, `That runs into a great deal of expense.' I saw a kid almost get hit, and that's what concerned me. It was just a matter of time."

And it was. Even after Maryann Gutmans' death, however, Phoenix chief of traffic operations Jim Sparks seemed more concerned with the city's legal liability at the crosswalk than anything else.

In internal memos, Sparks expressed concern about the implications of putting a signal at Central and Townley. One memo he wrote shortly after Maryann Gutmans' death decries "gadgetry" such as "flashers and many other devices that could induce liability because their use is not provided for under law." Sparks added, "Seattle has affirmed that flashers cost money [and] have not reduced pedestrian accidents."

The situation demanded a political solution, a compromise between the city's bureaucrats and those whose children were at peril. But Paul Johnson, then in his premayoral days and the councilmember responsible for the neighborhood, failed to rise to the occasion. "The information that I received was that a problem did not exist in that particular crosswalk," Johnson said of his discussions with city staff.

Under pressure from his constituents, however, Johnson did what politicians often do in times of crisis: He put together a committee. But rather than focusing on the deadly Sunnyslope crosswalk, Johnson's task force looked at potential dangers for pedestrians around the city, ignoring the uniqueness of the Sunnyslope crossing.

The task force "came to the same conclusion I came to," Johnson said. "The problem of crosswalks is a citywide problem and not a specific problem."

So, in early 1987, the Phoenix City Council appropriated $102,000 for a "Crosswalk Safety Program." Two thirds of the money was for the painting of solid white lane lines in front of about 1,000 crosswalks without traffic signals. Another $15,000 was to go toward a "public information campaign."

The people in the neighborhood knew that it wasn't enough. Maryann Gutmans' mother, Gloria, says Sunnyslope High principal Jack Barry visited her around this time: "[He said] he had tried many times to no avail with the city to try to get some better traffic signals or crossing control for the children there."

Not only was the city unresponsive, city lawyers later shifted the blame for the accidents to the school and the injured children. They argued at Coby Perkins' trial that Principal Barry should have locked the school gate near Central and Townley. That, they contended, would have shrunk the numbers of students trying to cross to the Circle K at that intersection. But Barry wouldn't budge.

"You'd have some numbers walking down to Dunlap and crossing at the light," Barry says, "[but] you'd have many others simply jaywalking . . . thereby increasing the possibility for injury at a much higher rate." And so the gate stayed open until after Coby Perkins was hit in September 1987.

The city did make a few changes after Maryann Gutmans' death, changes Coby Perkins' attorneys later called "sugar-coated pills." It dropped the speed limit from 35 mph to 30, put up a second set of pedestrian crossing signs in the median and installed slightly elevated marks in the crosswalk.

For almost a year, no one got hit at the killer crosswalk. Then Coby Perkins' luck ran out.

AT ABOUT 8 P.M. on September 17, 1987, Coby, his brother Scott and two female friends went to Sunnyslope High to watch a junior varsity football game. The mother of one of the girls dropped the quartet off at the Circle K, warning them to be careful as they crossed Central.

Coby led the way toward the crosswalk, trailed by his brother and the girls, and by players from Washington High, Sunnyslope High's opponent that night. Coby made it safely to the median strip, then paused.

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