New Year’s crash kills Ramsey County deputy’s wife

  • Article by: LORA PABST, COURTNEY BLANCHARD and TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 1, 2008 - 11:22 PM
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A law enforcement official checks the Ramsey County squad car involved in the fatal accident on Hwy. 10 near 35W in Arden Hills.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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On her last night alive, Margaret Lopez sat next to her husband of more than 20 years in his Ramsey County Sheriff's squad car and listened as music from the radio synced to the blinking of thousands of Christmas lights outside a Shoreview home.

"Maggie had the biggest smile on her face, and an hour later she was gone," said Deputy Kristi Pavek, who worked with Lopez's husband, Joseph, for 18 years.

Shortly after 3:30 a.m., as Lopez drove west on Hwy. 10 in Arden Hills, a 23-year-old woman driving the wrong way collided head-on with Lopez's squad car.

Margaret Lopez, 56, of Shoreview, died at the scene, said Ramsey County Sheriff's spokeswoman Holli Drinkwine.

Authorities have not released the name of the wrong-way driver.

The black sedan that the woman was driving is registered to Elizabeth R. Rhodes, and a woman by that name was in critical condition with a torn aorta on Tuesday afternoon at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Rhodes -- whose MySpace Web page listed her as a 2002 graduate of White Bear Lake High School, South Campus -- received support from friends online, including comments about hope for a "quick recovery."

Authorities said Tuesday that alcohol was detected in Rhodes' system and that it might have been a factor in the crash.

Driving records show that Rhodes, known as Elizabeth Gondek during her brief marriage, has received four traffic citations since 2003: one for careless driving in February 2007; one for driving after withdrawal in 2004; and two speeding tickets in 2003.

A hospital spokeswoman said the Rhodes family declined to comment, and attempts to reach friends were unsuccessful.

The accident happened in the dangerous hours after midnight on New Year's Day, a night when additional officers were on the roads looking for drunken drivers as part of the state's Safe & Sober campaign, said Lt. Mark Peterson of the Minnesota State Patrol.

Deputy Lopez survived the accident, and was released from Regions Hospital on Tuesday after being treated for minor injuries.

Joseph Lopez, 61, is a 27-year veteran of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office, Drinkwine said.

He worked midnight shifts in the patrol division for more than 20 years and trained other deputies as a field training officer.

"Cops are all very close to one another, so a loss to one of them is a loss to everyone," Drinkwine said.

Pavek said Margaret rode along with her husband many times, and enjoyed gaining insight into his job. It was the second marriage for both of them, and she had three adult children and three grandchildren.

A registered nurse, Margaret Lopez was "a very nice person. She always had a smile on her face, and laughed when we'd tell our dumb jokes."

Pavek said Deputy Lopez was planning on retiring within the next year, and considering moving with Margaret to New Mexico, where the two had vacationed last summer.

Pavek said she couldn't imagine what Lopez is going through now, but knows it took incredible strength to get through the night.

"He went right into police mode, and was calling out instructions, even though his wife was critically injured," Pavek said.

At the hospital, he seemed focused on trying to make Margaret's family and the other sheriff's deputies feel better.

"He's the kind of guy who's going to break down and deal with this thing on his own," she said. "But he's got a lot on his mind."

Drinkwine said it's common for spouses of law enforcement officials to go on ride-alongs.

"You're putting your life on the line everyday," she said. "It's important that your family understands what you're doing."

Most Minnesota police departments allow and encourage ride-alongs, often inviting the general public or members of the media, Drinkwine said.

At this time, there's no reason to believe that Lopez violated any rules when he invited his wife to ride with him on New Year's Eve, Drinkwine said.

Lopez and his wife were wearing seat belts when the accident occurred, the patrol said. The wrong-way driver was not wearing a seat belt.

lpabst@startribune.com • 612-673-4628 cblanchard@startribune.com • 612-673-4921 tharlow@startribune.com • 612-673-7768

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