Family grapples with 3-year-old’s death
Rocky Mountain News
Marten Kudlis had the type of evening any 3-year-old would love. He went to the park with his mom then stopped at Baskin-Robbins for an ice cream treat.
But as the little boy sat at a table by the window Thursday night, a hit-and-run driver without a valid license slammed into a pickup truck outside. The pickup then went scraping against the ice cream store’s facade, dragging debris from a utility box and pulling Marten to his death.
“I loved him so much. He was my only child,” Marten’s father, Vito Kudlis, 36, said Friday as he wept where his son died near East Mississippi Avenue and South Havana Street.
Two women in the pickup truck, driver Patricia Guntharp, 49, of Centennial, and Debra Serecky, 51, of Aurora, also were killed. They were turning left into a hamburger restaurant when they were broadsided.
Serecky and Guntharp were “best friends,” said a man at his Aurora home who identified himself as Serecky’s husband. He said he didn’t want to talk. “Her kids don’t know yet,” he said. “Just give me a day or so.”
Calls to Guntharp’s home went unanswered. “She was super nice,” said neighbor Jacob Luck. “Her son came over to talk to us a little bit.”
One of Guntharp’s former neighbors, Barbara Buss, of Aurora, said she was too distraught to talk. “I’m in shock,” Buss said. “They lived next door for years.”
Two women and a 10-year-old girl, who was a friend of the Kudlis family, also were inside the ice cream shop and suffered minor to serious injuries.
Friday, a child’s camouflage hat, candles and a small, stuffed dalmatian toy leaned against the light pole where Marten drew his last breath. His parents also placed a photo of their smiling son. Another photo leaned on a ledge, with flowers, beneath the shattered window where he had sat.
Marten, a playful child with a constant smile, had just celebrated his birthday on Aug. 22.
“Why, Jesus, why?” Vito Kudlis wailed as he visited the scene of the accident. “I just don’t understand why God let this happen. I don’t know what to do. My son was such a good boy.”
Kudlis and his wife, Eneily, 33, immigrated to the United States from Russia. The couple moved to Colorado eight years ago from Coney Island, N.Y.
‘Nothing we could do’
“I loved him so much,” Eneily Kudlis said. “You would think he would be safe in a building. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why he wasn’t safe.”
Tom Rudy, who owns a liquor store nearby, said he heard a loud crash about 8 p.m., called 911 then went to help.
He saw a woman come out of the ice cream shop, her leg red with blood. She said she was OK. One of the vehicles had gas pouring out of it. Rudy could smell the fumes and worried it would explode.
“It was pretty chaotic,” Rudy said. “There was nothing we could do.”
The driver accused of causing the crash ran from the scene and called a friend to pick him up, police said. Police arrested Francis Hernandez, 23, more than four hours later, about 5 miles away, in southeast Denver.
Lt. John Sopranuk said detectives were able to trace Hernandez’s whereabouts based on evidence they found from the Suburban he was driving. He did not disclose what the evidence was.
The vehicle didn’t belong to Hernandez or his friend, nor was it stolen.
Detectives also were looking at the possibility that Hernandez may have showered and destroyed his clothing after the crash, Sopranuk said. Hernandez allegedly told the friend that he fled because he didn’t have a driver’s license or insurance. Hernandez’s friend, who picked him up, is cooperating with police. Hernandez suffered cuts and bruises to his torso and forehead from the collision, the lieutenant said.
Hernandez, who has a lengthy rap sheet, is being held on $100,000 bail. He faces three counts of vehicular homicide, hit and run, vehicular assault and numerous other charges.
Before the wreck, Hernandez was speeding and moving in and out of traffic south on Havana Street, witnesses said. At least three witnesses told detectives that he ran a red light at Mississippi before broadsiding Guntharp’s pickup truck.
Both vehicles careened into the Baskin-Robbins, the pickup ripping out a utility box. It was the debris from that utility box that somehow snared Marten.
Vito Kudlis buried his face in his hands as he paced back and forth in front of the memorial to his son.
“I never thought something like this would happen,” the father said. “Please come back. Please come back.”
Even strangers stopped to place flowers and stuffed animals at the memorial.
“I have twins his age. It’s so hard,” said Jennifer Clayburn, 21, who lives nearby. “I just keep thinking . . . what if it was my kids. To think his family came here to have a good time and ice cream, and now they have nothing.”
Jason Pierce, who owns the Baskin-Robbins franchise, said his customers are “like family.”
“This hurts when something like this happens,” Pierce said.
Friday, he was still “pretty much speechless.”
“My heart goes out to the families that were tragically affected by this,” Pierce said. “It’s the last place you think it would happen.”
Staff writers Bill Scanlon, Hector Gutierrez and Tillie Fong contributed to this report.
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