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.

Scott Perkins recalls that the football players commented rudely about his bright-red 501 jeans. "I hate jocks," he told Coby. "I know what you mean," Coby replied, then stepped off the median onto the west side of the street.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Riggs had turned his parents' Toyota van south off Dunlap onto Central. He and some pals had planned to cruise the popular street. He was traveling about 45 mph--over the speed limit, according to police who cited him for failing to yield to a pedestrian.

"I was just going straight," Riggs testified, "and then I saw a group of kids, and then there was one. He ran over to the median, looked at me. I thought he was going to stay there, so I proceeded, and then he ran." Riggs, a stranger to the Sunnyslope neighborhood, said he never saw a crosswalk.

This is how Scott Perkins remembers what happened next: "The van hit Coby and flung him up on the van just like a rag doll and threw him around . . . I looked at him and I started yelling at him, and he had, you know, blood coming from his head. And his eyes were open and I thought he was dead."

Coby was barely alive when paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital. When Gloria Gutmans heard what had happened, she hurried over there. (Gutmans also sued the City of Phoenix in connection with her daughter's 1986 death, but settled before trial for about $87,000.)

Gutmans didn't know the Perkins family, but she wanted to comfort Coby's mom.

"It's just ridiculous how many children had to get hurt there," Gutmans says, "and I knew what that lady might be feeling."

Coby Perkins' tragedy touched someone else, too--Paul Johnson. The councilmember also went to the hospital to console Kin and Judy Perkins after Coby's accident. He spoke there with Kin, a self-employed painter who had done work over the years for Johnson's father.

"Paul told me, `If I had done something before this, it wouldn't have happened,'" Kin Perkins remembers.

PHOENIX TRAFFIC CHIEF Jim Sparks tried to put the best face on the Coby Perkins tragedy. He noted in a letter to a member of Paul Johnson's task force, "The absence of or presence of a flashing light or a traffic signal or more signs would not have mattered regarding the likelihood of the September 17th accident occurring."

The jury at Coby Perkins' trial against the city disagreed with that in a big way. It said by its $6.3 million verdict that the city had the duty to protect Coby by trying to make the crosswalk safer.

Sparks and other city officials continued to balk at a signal after Coby's accident. By now, however, the public was in an uproar. Paul Johnson had to do something to save his political life. Facing what he called "the most difficult issue I've been through with the council," Johnson backed installation of a self-activated blinking light at Central and Townley.

In a court deposition, Johnson said the hospital visit convinced him the light was the "appropriate political action": "[Kin] had tears in his eyes. He looked at me and said, `I heard you could have put in a light that could have saved my kid's life and you didn't do it.'

"I don't believe that it works," Johnson's deposition continued. "I didn't care if it works. I put it in because I couldn't go out and look another parent in the eye and have them blame me."

The city soon struck a deal with Sunnyslope High's administration: It would install the light if the school would lock the gate to cut down pedestrian traffic at the crosswalk. The school's new principal agreed, and the light was up within days. (The jury in the Perkins case was never told this.) The city also put in a bright street lamp over the crosswalk, and made other minor changes.

According to Phoenix police, there hasn't been a pedestrian accident at Central and Townley since Coby Perkins was hit almost three years ago. The city attributes that primarily to coincidence and the closing of the school gate.

The jury in Coby Perkins' case didn't buy that for a second.
"I don't think the seriousness of the injuries was the sole deciding factor," says Bill Drury, who with Gordon Cook represented the Perkins family. "The jury saw that the city had the data available to put in a traffic signal and they didn't do it. They certainly didn't want Coby to get hurt, but they didn't do what they could have or should have done to try to keep it from happening. It was sloppy at best, and the results were extremely tragic."

Drury says he offered to settle the case with the city for $1.2 million. He says the city countered with a $700,000 offer. A trial was inevitable.

(The Perkins family had previously settled lawsuits against the Glendale Unified School District and against driver Matt Riggs for undisclosed sums. Judy Perkins says the settlements call for the money to be used solely for Coby's medical care.)

Bill Jones, the city's lead lawyer in the Perkins case, confirms Drury's settlement figures. Jones says he doesn't understand the jury's rationale in awarding $6.3 million to the Perkins clan.

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