THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED
Coby Perkins is talking about the days when he could play his bluegrass banjo like a champ.
"I loved to play," the nineteen-year-old says in a sluggish monotone. "I was fast. I was good. I played `Foggy Mountain Breakdown' and `Cripple Creek,' all of them. I played with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. They are the best. But I can't remember them. I can't even remember my accident. I just remember far back, way back."
Coby gets upset when his dad, Kin, takes the banged-up banjo out of its case. That's because he can't do more these days than pick a few lonely notes with his right hand. His left hand, which used to "flog" the neck of his instrument in time-honored bluegrass style, is useless.
"Maybe I could play if my brain was better," Coby says in that disturbing drone. "I used to know how to read music, but it looks like a bunch of dots and lines now. I just want my brain to be better."
But his brain isn't going to get better. Coby hasn't been the same since a van struck him in September 1987 as he walked across Central Avenue to a football game at north Phoenix's Sunnyslope High School. The boy was in a coma for several weeks, his survival in doubt. Doctors say he's doing about as well as he'll ever do.
"He doesn't know how to laugh," says his mother, Judy. "He doesn't know how to cry. He doesn't know emotions. He's not like he was before. He's just not the same. And he'll probably never be the same."
Coby's IQ has dropped from the normal range to borderline mentally retarded. His concentration level is pitifully low, and his job prospects--even in a structured setting for the handicapped--are questionable. Coby can hobble around on a crutch for short distances, but is wheelchair-bound whenever he leaves his parents' home.
If a Maricopa County jury gets its way, the City of Phoenix will pay Coby Perkins and his parents handsomely for their pain and suffering. On June 8, the jury awarded the trio $6.3 million--$3.7 million to Coby and $1.3 million to each parent. It marks the largest personal-injury verdict ever rendered against the city. The jury determined the city was liable for unsafe conditions that caused the van's driver to barrel through a marked crosswalk and ruin Coby's life.
Underpinning Coby's tragedy is a tale of political ineptitude and an intractable city bureaucracy more concerned with saving face than in fixing an intersection that was hell on wheels. Well before Coby Perkins' accident, the marked crosswalk at Central and Townley was among the most dangerous in the Valley. Coby was far from the first student to have been struck by a vehicle there.
IN MARCH 1986, Carolyn Roberts' grandson, a student at Sunnyslope High, was nearly hit by a car in the Central and Townley crosswalk. Roberts phoned City Hall to complain about it.
"You would hear brakes squeal, children would be in the crosswalk," Roberts recalls. "Cars seemed to be accelerating after coming off of the stoplight from Dunlap. It needed something to slow down the traffic. I was thinking that we needed a stoplight there."
Roberts also contacted the office of then-Councilmember Paul Johnson, in whose district the crossing lay. She says an aide to Johnson told her "the city engineers did not think it was necessary to do anything else in that area."
Seven months later, they were proved wrong. On the evening of October 3, 1986, Carolyn Roberts was parked in a Sunnyslope High lot. As she waited for her grandson, she saw Maryann Gutmans and a friend laughing as they walked to the Central-Townley crosswalk. Then she "heard the horrible thud" as a southbound car hit Maryann. The fifteen-year-old Sunnyslope High student died hours later. The girl's death sickened and angered Roberts.
"I called the school, I called Paul Johnson's office, I called the city engineers," Roberts says. "I wanted to know how many more had to be killed before we could have something done out there."
But just two days after Maryann's death, another student had both his legs broken as he tried to cross the busy thoroughfare.
Dozens of area residents--most of them Sunnyslope students--picketed, hoping to force the city to do something to avert another tragedy. Toting signs that said "STOP THE PAIN," "NO MORE BLOOD," and "DEATH TRAP," the protesters captured the media's attention for a day or two.
The Central-Townley crosswalk had long been the stuff of legend among Sunnyslope students and their parents. Police records indicate that cars struck five pedestrians and one bicyclist at the crosswalk during 1985 and 1986. All but one of the accidents involved student-age pedestrians and southbound vehicles in the lane closest to the median strip separating Central's north-south traffic.
Phoenix's traffic engineers didn't bother to piece together this information until after Coby Perkins was hit. Until then, they relied on faulty data which they said demonstrated no need for changes at the crosswalk.
It's easy, however, to see why so many kids were being struck by cars there. While it goes against common sense, national studies indicate pedestrians are twice as likely per capita to get hit in marked crosswalks as in unmarked crosswalks.
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.
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.
"I was shocked at the size of the verdict," says Jones, a veteran trial attorney unaccustomed to losing so dramatically. "I would not have been shocked had the verdict been $2.5 or even $3.5 million, and had found Coby partially at fault. I suggested $1.3 million in my closing arguments as a proper verdict. One juror commented to us that they had difficulty understanding why we were so upset about the verdict when the week before there had been the $28 million verdict in the AIDS case.
"Number two, the jury just did not understand that a pedestrian at a crosswalk still has some responsibility to look out for his own safety. Obviously, the jury didn't appreciate that it's the law, in part because the judge [Philip Marquardt] refused all of our instructions that would have told them that it's the law."
Jones is well-aware of the emotional impact Coby Perkins and his parents had on the jury: "Quite candidly, the Perkins family is a fine, fine group of people that made a very strong, sympathetic impression on the jury. Still, I don't know how you can prevent accidents when people walk out in crosswalks and don't look for oncoming traffic. It's a mystery to me." IT'S A TYPICAL MORNING at the Perkins household in north Phoenix. Kin and Judy Perkins are rushing around the home they moved into about twenty years ago, fixing food, chatting up a storm. The couple has six children, but Coby and his sister Angel are the only ones living at home. A witty 21-year-old, Angel suffers from spina bifida and is confined to a wheelchair.
Though this family has suffered more than any should, its members' spirits seem healthy. Family unity, church and bluegrass are what they are about. And Kin and Judy Perkins can still smile when something moves them.
Kin--the nickname comes from his given name of William McKinley--was born 46 years ago into an Appalachian coal-mining family. He met his Ohio-born wife-to-be when he was barely a teenager. The couple married almost three decades ago. They say the tragedies that have befallen them have brought them closer together. Their faith has helped.
"He must be putting us through some kind of big test," Judy Perkins says, somehow able to laugh at the thought of it. "If it hadn't been for the Lord, I don't think I would have survived."
Coby's small bedroom is dominated by a poster of country star Patty Loveless. He and sister Angel met Patty recently at a local K mart before an autograph session. "The way she was dressed," Coby says, "it flipped your brain. She's smokin'."
Coby's days have a sameness to them, and meeting Patty Loveless was a thrill.
"I wake up, I take a shower, I eat, I do my exercises," he says of his life. "Then I watch TV and play Nintendo in my room. I eat a lot. `Mom, can I have seconds? Mom, can I have thirds? Mom, can I have fourths?' I'm gonna end up like Fat Albert--a big bowling ball."
The Perkinses haven't seen a penny of the $6.3 million. The city plans to appeal, and that will take months or years to resolve. Kin and Judy say they are deep in debt, and that they haven't gotten any work--she paints with him--since the verdict.
"People think we're millionaires now, I guess, but we're still in limbo," Kin Perkins says. "Tapped out ain't the word for it. We're having trouble even makin' our house payment, and it's only $190 a month."
The Perkinses will keep Coby with them until they can find a "safe, healthy environment" at a group home. "Unless we do that," Kin says, "we're gonna be taking care of him for the rest of our lives."
On rare occasions, Coby's parents go out by themselves for a few hours. If they're a few minutes late in returning, Coby dials 911 for help.
"Who else do I call?" Coby explains. "I have to call someone."
Kin Perkins stares hard at his son. His wife has tears in her eyes. Kin walks over to the cassette machine and flips on a hot bluegrass tape.
"That's Coby playing in our backyard," Kin Perkins says. "I would have had him in the Grand Ole Opry by now, and that's not just a dad talking. Instead, we've got a kid who got hit by a car when he shouldn't have. He's reattached that umbilical cord, physically and emotionally. It's a cryin' shame."
end part 2 of 2
"I wake up, I take a shower, I eat, I do my exercises," he says of his life. "Then I watch TV and play Nintendo in my room." "I used to know how to read music, but it looks like a bunch of dots and lines now," Coby says.
It marks the largest personal-injury verdict ever rendered against the city.
Well before Coby Perkins' accident, the marked crosswalk at Central and Townley was among the most dangerous in the Valley.
Phoenix chief of traffic operations seemed more concerned with the city's legal liability at the crosswalk than anything else.
"The van hit Coby and flung him up . . . he had, you know, blood coming from his head. And his eyes were open and I thought he was dead."
"I don't believe that it works," Johnson said. "I put the light in because I couldn't go out and look another parent in the eye."
They say the tragedies that have befallen them have brought them closer together. Their faith has helped.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter