Cynthia Bales still cries when she recalls the day, more than three years ago, when someone from the coroner’s office came looking for her at work to deliver the news that destroyed her life plans.
Both she and her husband had left for work that morning in 2008, but Cynthia soon learned that 50-year-old Frank Bales wouldn’t make it back home to his family that night. An unlicensed driver ran a red light at Fain Street and Aviation Avenue, according to a S.C. Highway Patrol report, striking Bales on his Kawasaki motorcycle as he headed to work at Global Aeronautica.
He died at the scene. Cynthia Bales pulled her 7-year-old son out of school that morning and, after wondering how to tell him, she soon worried about the future: How would she afford his college education?
She hired an attorney. “It’s been rough trying to figure out how to raise him alone,” Bales said. “I want to get him through school and make sure he has a good education.”
A circuit judge recently awarded $1.9 million in damages against the stranger driving the Toyota truck that morning, 31-year-old Abel Martinez-Martinez. The only problem: No one can find him.
Bales’ attorney, Akim Anastopoulo, said he’s glad to have the case behind him, but “whether she gets compensated is debatable.”
That’s because Martinez-Martinez might have returned home to his native land, according to Anastopoulo.
“You have a child who’s left without a father, a lady who’s left without her soul mate and her husband,” Anastopoulo said.
A 2011 study from travel club AAA found that nearly one in every five fatal car crashes nationwide between 2007 and 2009 involved a driver with no license or an invalid license. More than 21,000 people died in those wrecks.
The collision also raised questions debated at the Statehouse and across the country last year. The American Civil Liberties Union moved to block a law that would require law enforcement officers to check immigration status during a traffic stop if they suspect that the person is in the United States illegally.
A federal judge in Charleston ruled in January that the case would halt until the Supreme Court makes a decision on whether to allow a controversial Arizona law that cracks down on illegal immigrants.
In the wreck that killed Bales, he headed west on his motorcycle on Aviation Avenue. Martinez-Martinez turned left on a red light from Fain Street, according to the collision report.
The motorcycle hit the truck on the driver’s side, killing Bales before paramedics could arrive.
Frank and Cynthia Bales met on a blind date and quickly discovered their shared love of outdoor sports. They spent time together riding dirt bikes, snow skiing and whitewater rafting.
They owned horses and camped. Frank took their son along for rides in a sidecar when he took out his older motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson.
Eric Poulin, an attorney at the Anastopoulo Law Firm who represents Bales, said no one from his office ever spoke to Martinez-Martinez. The attorneys hired a private investigator to try to find him and eventually published the summons against him in the newspaper, when they couldn’t serve him the papers in person.
Although Martinez-Martinez lacked a driver’s license, he did carry insurance. His attorney could not be reached for comment.
A certified public accountant weighed in for the court case, putting a value on Frank Bales’ life, based on his income and life expectancy. The accountant estimated $1.5 million, but that excluded the painful void he left behind.
A judge ordered $1.7 million in actual damages and $200,000 in punitive damages against Martinez-Martinez.
Asked what she hopes to get out of this court case, Cynthia Bales shrugged and said nothing about money.
“I feel like it would bring some closure,” she said.