Above: Lori Johnson is shown here in her Mesa Middle School photo taken in 2015. (Submitted Photo)
Below: Lori Broughton Johnson as a young woman. (Submitted Photo)
Lori Broughton Johnson was a beloved mother, daughter and wife and a longtime Roswell teacher considered by some students as their special mentor.
She was 55 when she died April 20, 2015, as the result of a three-car accident just east of the Roswell city limits, and some members of her family are saying that they feel stuck because the man charged with causing her death has yet to stand trial.
They also wonder whether justice is being served by the accused being out of jail while the case proceeds.
“I really feel that the world is still going, but we are stuck,” said Audrey Knudsen of Roswell, one of Johnson’s adult daughters.
Her sister, Ashlea Daniels, now of Ohio, added, “Two years and others are able to enjoy what I would give anything to enjoy — a hug, a kiss, a Christmas together.”
Victor M. Torres Jr., 37, of Roswell, has entered a not guilty plea to a charge of vehicular manslaughter in New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial District Court of Chaves County.
New Mexico State Police investigators have said the accident was caused not only by the excessive speed Torres was driving at but probably involved alcohol use as well. The first trial set for Dec. 16 was postponed until May 8. But that trial also has been delayed indefinitely.
“Most recently [auth] there entered a new defense attorney from the Public Defender’s Office,” said Fifth Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce. “They filed (a motion for psychiatric evaluation), and we don’t want to move forward until that motion is completed.” She said her office is prohibited from commenting on the motion itself.
Whether Torres was intoxicated at the time of the 2015 accident — and he was previously convicted of a DWI offense in Chaves County in November 2007 — is complicated by the fact that the injuries he sustained in the crash caused him to be airlifted to Lubbock for medical treatment. The results of any tests done there were not automatically made available to police or courts. (The driver of the third vehicle, which also struck Johnson’s car, was not injured.)
In the criminal complaint, police investigators allege that they smelled alcohol on Torres at the accident scene and spoke to a witness who said Torres had purchased two eight-packs of beer and had consumed at least four of them prior to the crash. The statement also alleges that investigators were informed that blood tests at the hospital indicated “high levels of alcohol.”
When Torres was finally able to be questioned in June after the accident, police stated, he indicated that he was unable to recall the accident or events of that day. He was arrested in October, but was released after posting bond. If he is convicted of the charge, he could serve between two to three years in prison.
Johnson’s friends and families want the public to know that their family, which includes a husband of 32 years, Steve Johnson, and Roswell students have lost someone important to their lives.
Johnson was teaching sixth grade at Mesa Middle School in 2015 but had been at Washington Avenue Elementary for about 14 years before that.
“Her students were her children, too,” Knudsen said. “She loved them so much.”
Former student Jacquie Best of Magdalena called Johnson “phenomenal.”
“She is probably the best teacher I ever had,” Best said, who had been in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade class. “She was my once-in-a-lifetime teacher, for sure.”
Best said that Johnson would stay after school to tutor her in math.
“She wasn’t doing it for a paycheck,” Best said. “She was doing it for kids to succeed. … I wish every student could have had her as a teacher. I think they would have gotten a lot out of it.”
Jennifer Peach of Roswell said she remembers a teacher who “had the most loving laugh. She just cared so much. She cared for every student.”
Peach said she was held back a year for fifth grade and credits Johnson for her progress. “With all honesty, I don’t think I would have gotten to move on if not for her.”
Best and Peach kept in touch with their teacher even after they left school, and they stay in contact with Johnson’s family. They said they understand their frustration about the trial not occurring yet.
“I did call and express my feelings to the court at one point,” Peach said. “I told them that I don’t think they are doing the right things by the victims.”
Audrey Johnson said she’s been told that the courts are underfunded and understaffed, but she and other family members still deal with anxiety, grief and uncertainty.
“I really feel like my biggest problem as a victim — and I am, too — is that everything seems to favor the defendant.”
Knudsen and Daniels said that their seven children have lost an amazing grandmother, one who valued spending time with them, who was loving, kind and giving, and known for reading inspirational or Scriptural quotations to them.
Johnson was on the way home to Roswell from visiting her grandson in a Lubbock hospital on the day of the accident. Daniels said that one of her sons has a genetic disorder that causes seizures. Johnson had talked about taking another grandchild home with her that day, but that instead that boy had traveled with Steve Johnson.
That spring day two years ago remains for the family a time of great sorrow, and they said they want a trial that they think is important not only for them but for the community.
“I want people to be aware,” said Knudsen, “because I don’t want another family to go through what we have gone through.”
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.