One year later, impact of student’s death still felt

Mark Robinson
Managing Editor

In the cavernous sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Gabrielle Atkins clutches a strand of beige rosary beads and a prayer booklet in her hands.

With her head bowed, she closes her eyes, signs the cross and whispers the Apostles’ Creed, then the Our Father. Three Hail Marys follow and a Glory be to the Father.  She is one of two people at the scheduled Monday night rosary.

As dictated by the Catholic ritual, the first mystery is announced: “Agony in the Garden,” the first of the five Sorrowful Mysteries. They dedicate it to all those lost in the past year.

The Our Father and a round of 10 Hail Marys follows. As each is complete, Atkins slides her index finger and thumb up a bead on her strand. She rocks back and forth rhythmically, meditating. The pair’s whispers echo in the empty labyrinth of pews. Two tea candles flicker in front of a cross at their feet.

Carolina Perez was a biology major at VCU when she was killed in a drunken driving accident. Photo courtesy of Princess Anne High School

Carolina Perez was a biology major at VCU when she was killed in a drunken driving accident. Photo courtesy of Princess Anne High School

They complete the Hail Marys and repeat the Glory be to the Father. Atkins kisses the cross on her rosary beads and another round of prayer begins. Her voice blends in unison with the friend next to her, but another voice is missing.

That voice would have belonged to Carolina Perez, a VCU student killed in a drunken driving crash last February. Before she died, Perez would lead the Monday night rosary at the Cathedral.

Atkins recalled how Perez, a native Spanish speaker, would fumble through the prayers in English.

“She’d trip up on her English whenever she’d pray the rosary,” Atkins said. “She’d just give up and do it in Spanish.”

Hearing Perez recite the prayers in her native language gave Atkins a sense of a greater connection to the wider Catholic community. Now, the feeling is different.

“Whenever I hear it in Spanish, I hear it in Carolina’s voice,” she said, quietly. “And it hurts. It hurts now.”

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After a night of bar hopping with friends in Shockoe Bottom, Varinder “Vick” Chahal got into the driver’s seat of his white Mazda to make the short trip home. While driving west on East Canal Street, he accelerated up the steep incline that crests at 3rd Street. He continued through the intersection toward 2nd Street and a changing light.

A blue Toyota Yaris idled at a red light at the corner of 2nd and East Canal Streets. Gabrielle Atkins was at the wheel. Jan Garcia, a VCU student, sat next to her in the passenger’s seat. Carolina Perez was in the backseat behind Garcia.

They were returning from dropping a friend off on Southside after a Fat Tuesday meal at The Village Café and a hangout session at the Catholic Campus Ministry. On the way home, Garcia suggested that Atkins take the Robert E. Lee Bridge home so they could see the lights of the city skyline.

At 12:37 a.m., the red light in front of Atkins turned green. She put her car in first gear and accelerated. Already in the intersection, she looked over her right shoulder and saw a white car coming.

Chahal’s Mazda sped through a red light at the intersection and collided with the Yaris on the back passenger side, where Perez was sitting. The impact sent Atkins’ car careening across the intersection into a nearby brick building. In a parking lot adjacent to the intersection, a Richmond police officer saw the crash happen.

When paramedics arrived on the scene, they pulled Perez from the backseat first, then Garcia and Atkins from the front. They were rushed to MCV to receive treatment for their injuries. The whiplash from the crash fractured a vertebrate in Garcia’s neck. Atkins suffered three broken ribs and a fractured scapula. Her liver and spleen were bruised. Both have since made a full recovery.

Perez died in the hospital. The 19-year-old sophomore was majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry and Catholic studies at VCU. She was a month shy of her 20th birthday.

Neither Chahal, nor any of the four passengers in his car were injured in the crash.

Chahal, a senior at VCU at the time, was charged with felony manslaughter, driving under the influence and refusing to submit to blood and breath tests. The police obtained a warrant for Chahal’s blood, which showed his blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit.

According to his lawyer, Chahal thought he could beat the yellow light.

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Three hundred and sixty-five days have passed since his daughter died, but Rogelio Perez still hurts.

In a short phone conversation, he relayed three things he wants people to know about his daughter and the cause of her death: He wants them to know Carolina was a nice girl. He wants them to know she always tried to be helpful to everyone. Most of all, he wants them to know they shouldn’t drink and drive.

No one deserves to feel the pain he has felt since he lost his daughter, he said.

“This thing is going to be hard for all of my life,” he said. “It’s never going to disappear.”

After the accident, Rogelio and his wife, Floriana, went through a bout of depression. The couple’s two sons, Rogelio Jr., 14, and Adam, 9, are without their big sister, but their father doesn’t think they understand what happened to her.

“They will be more affected when they grow up a little bit more,” he said. “I know when they realize exactly what happened, they’re going to be more sad.”

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His family knows him as Varinder. His friends know him as Vick. The Richmond City Jail knows him as Offender No. 133877.

After facing up to 20 years for aggravated manslaughter, Varinder Chahal pleaded down in July to felony manslaughter and driving under the influence, halving the maximum sentence he could receive. In September, a judge sentenced Chahal to five years in prison with four years suspended. An additional three months were tacked on for the DUI.

He never completed his accounting degree at VCU and withdrew from school following the accident, according to his attorney Ed Riley.

Chahal has already served about five months of his 15-month sentence. He can have visitors three times a week, receive mail and play basketball during his allotted recreation time like he did at the Cary Street Gym.

If it was determined that Chahal would not harm himself when he arrived at the jail, he was likely placed in community custody, according to Jerry Baldwin, a spokesperson for the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office.

A majority of the Richmond City Jail’s nearly 1,400 inmates are placed in community custody, which is broken down into more than 10 groups of up to 130 inmates, Baldwin said. Each of these groups share a large cell, or tier.

Chahal is likely housed with others who have committed similar offenses, Baldwin said.

Inmates in community custody are woken up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. each morning. They wear a canvas, one-piece zip-up jumpsuit each day. The color of the jumpsuit depends on the tier classification of the inmate.

Those who are not scheduled to go to court immediately leave the tier to eat a 15- to 20-minute breakfast in the mess hall. They aren’t allowed to talk during the meal.

After breakfast, inmates return to their tier. The day’s schedule depends on the privileges of the tier, which in turn depend on their custody level and behavior, Baldwin said.

Depending on their tier’s privileges, inmates are allotted time to participate in substance abuse programs, go to the jail’s library or meet with pastors or religious leaders.  Recreation time, too, is afforded by privilege.

Chahal spent his 24th birthday behind bars, but could spend his 25th birthday with his family.  He is expected to be released in August of this year, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections website.

Chahal denied a request for visitation from the Commonwealth Times.

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In the time since her death, Carolina Perez has become the face of a cause on the VCU campus.

Cooperation among the VCU administration, University Wellness Center, Catholic Campus Ministry, Emerging Healthcare Leaders and others who knew Carolina Perez helped establish Carolina’s Pledge, a denouncement of drunken driving in the VCU community.

Ninety-six people signed the pledge at the kick-off ceremony last April. Since then, hundreds more have heard Perez’s story.

Linda Hancock, director of the University Wellness Center, visited 62 classroom sections of UNIV 101 last fall to teach bystander training to freshmen students. The goal, Hancock said, is to teach students how to overcome the bystander effect, the tendency of people to not speak up or help in an emergency situation when other people are present.

In Chahal’s case, each of the four passengers in his car could have spoken up to prevent him from drinking and driving, Hancock said.

In her mind, every student organization, faculty and staff member need to learn how to combat the bystander effect. The push is already underway. Students involved with Greek life and resident assistants have already received training and Hancock is hoping to reach more students with Perez’s story.

“Carolina crystallized something that was going to happen anyway,” Hancock said. “It gave all this power to something we needed to do.”

The Well is hosting bystander training events open to the VCU community on Wednesday, March 13 from 12 to 2 p.m. at the Student Commons in the Forum Room and again from 8 to 10 p.m. in Virginia Rooms C and D. Another training event the following day will be held from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the Commons Theater.

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Gabrielle Atkins will sit in the sanctuary of Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Friday at noon to mark the one-year anniversary of losing her friend: Feb. 22, 2013.

Atkins, who hopes to graduate from VCU in 2014, is worried that the initial impact of Perez’s death hasn’t produced the changes she and others hoped for after it happened. The VCU community is large and Perez was only one member of it, she said.

“(Carolina’s death) had a great impact on me and several other people I know, but if you look at it in terms of 30,000 people … she’s just one person. It happened and it’s very unfortunate and it’s terrible.”

“You have one person in jail, one person dead and other people being affected, but in the end, I feel like that’s all it will be … I don’t want to say it’s normal, but it’s not shocking enough to people to keep a sense of urgency,” she said.

While recovering from the crash, Atkins thought Perez’s death would have a larger impact on the university. One year later, she’s dealing with a preexisting anxiety disorder worsened by the emotional trauma of losing a friend and the day-to-day reminders of the void that’s left.

Atkins still attends mass, rosary and Catholic Campus Ministry meetings at Sacred Heart. She still walks through the hallways of the classroom buildings she and Perez shared on campus. She still eats at The Village Café with friends and can recall the exact place she sat with Perez the night of their crash: the middle booth on the back wall by the bathrooms.

She’s driven through the intersection at 2nd and East Canal streets and wondered how things could have been different, what she could have done differently.

When she sits down in the sanctuary at Sacred Heart on Friday, Atkins will remember a friend whose happiness she truly misses. One year later, a community will mourn with her a death that could have been prevented.

3 Responses to “One year later, impact of student’s death still felt”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful person; I remember Carolina’s friendly, sweet face at Princess Anne High, where I was a librarian and Carolina visited almost daily. She is still missed and loved.

  2. Thank you Mark for remembering! You painted an very touching portrait of an amazing young woman and the people who loved her. It inspires me to continue my life’s vocation of changing the America drinks.

  3. Mark, this is beautifully written. Today is a hard day for a lot of people, and I pray that God will give peace to each of them as they mourn.