Highway to Hell

A head-on collision leads an impoverished young widow into a legalistic cul-de-sac. She'll be circling the courts for years.

Rayann could stay mad at anybody in her life except Brandon O'Bier. Brandon had this sweet cowboy plain talk and unbowable optimism and screwball humor that let him hover above bad days or sidestep his occasional naughtiness. Besides, she had seen his good heart too often. She would get mad and he would make some joke and the heavy anger would just blow away. She married him in 1996 because he brought a calm joy and playful levity to life that she had never before felt.

They planned to have four kids. She would stay home with the children as he got his graphics design business up and running. She would help with the bookkeeping between diaper blowouts and school activities.

To save money, he worked at the Harrah's casino south of Phoenix. She worked there for three years, too, but got a job closer to their home in the northwest Valley around the time she became pregnant with their first child.

Brandon and Rayann O'Bier in 1996, the year they married.
Brandon and Rayann O'Bier in 1996, the year they married.

The first ultrasound was scheduled for early November 1997. He wanted a boy he could name Brandon O'Bier Jr. She thought the junior thing was a little self-absorbed, but she protested mainly to get naming leverage if the baby was a girl.

Three weeks before the ultrasound, Brandon bought a pair of blue-and-white Nike booties and a miniature Emmitt Smith jersey. Brandon had the endearing but wasteful habit of lobbying fate.

Fifty-first Avenue runs through the grit and industrial hum of South Phoenix into the Sonoran silence of the Gila River Indian reservation. The highway snakes to the southwest between the saw-toothed Estrellas and the molar mounds of South Mountain, then straightens and releases eastward into the vast baking sheet of the lower Valley desert.

Four miles west of Sun Lakes, the road comes up a slight rise to an intersection -- the four-lane Maricopa Road. But because of the way Maricopa Road slopes, it's difficult to see the second set of two lanes beyond the rise.

Kenneth Dietrich saw only two lanes -- and no signs warning him otherwise -- as he turned north onto the southbound lanes of Maricopa Road after a long cruise from Phoenix. It was about 2:50 p.m., October 22, 1997.

The 73-year-old Dietrich draped his right arm over the passenger seat of his Cadillac Seville, began tapping the seat to the music and accelerated to 60 miles per hour. To his left, a crop duster banked and dove toward a field. Watching the plane, Dietrich didn't see the man to his right, who was waving frantically at him from a truck speeding down the correct side of the road.

Dietrich continued on this way for more than a mile.

Brandon O'Bier was driving his Mustang south on Maricopa Road at the same time, on his way to work. He may have been changing radio stations or watching the same plane. He, too, was going about 60 mph when the two cars hit, head-on.

The heft of the Cadillac saved Dietrich from serious injury. Brandon was pried from his crumpled Mustang and rushed to the hospital unconscious and bleeding internally.

Before leaving for work, Brandon had taken the month's rent check to the landlord. When the landlord called Rayann at work, she at first figured Brandon had forgotten to deliver the check. Instead, the landlord said everybody was looking for her and that she needed to get to the hospital real quick.

Doctors performed the CAT scan soon after she arrived. Brandon was brain-dead. Doctors disconnected his life-support system a few hours later.

Rayann left the hospital and headed to her old room in her parents' house. She lay in her childhood bed for several days, went to the funeral, lay in bed for several more days and then went for her ultrasound.

There on the doctor's monitor she saw a ghostly little figure with a nub on its crotch. She cried and named the fetus Brandon O'Bier Jr.

Nearly four years have passed since Brandon O'Bier's death. Rayann still has dreams in which he comes home from work to hugs from his wife and 3-year-old son.

Initially, she was angry at God and Kenneth Dietrich. Over time, her broken faith scarred over and her hatred for Dietrich evolved into sympathy. Mr. Dietrich made a mistake. Accidents happen.

What wasn't an accident, she believes, was what she calls three years of price-gouging and deception by her former attorney, a man who now says she and her family owe his law firm more than $74,000.

And because of that attorney's actions, she could be looking at five more years of legal battles to reach a final settlement in her husband's wrongful-death case, money that might go mostly to paying legal bills instead of establishing a trust fund for her child.

Rayann first hired John McDonald, a senior partner in the powerful and respected Tucson firm of DeConcini, McDonald, Yetwin & Lacy, because his firm was so well known, still carrying the name of one of its original partners, former U.S. senator from Arizona Dennis DeConcini.

McDonald began a legal action against Dietrich, the driver, but steered Rayann away from another obvious potential defendant -- the State of Arizona and its highway department that may have been remiss in failing to post signs that clearly marked the proper way to get onto Maricopa Road.

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