A monthlong American vacation that included visits to Niagara Falls and a Broadway play ended in tragedy on South Tryon Street early Saturday, when a 79-year-old grandmother from South America was killed by a drunken driver with two previous impaired convictions and third case listed as pending.
Cecilia Buitrago de Gonzalez of Bogota, Colombia, died of internal injuries sustained in the crash, police said. She was in Charlotte visiting four daughters who live in the community, among them Claudia Gonzalez Griffin, an official with the McColl Center for Art + Innovation and the wife of retired WSOC-TV reporter Don Griffin.
Charged with killing Gonzalez is Kelly Ann Conkin, 23, of Clover, S.C., who was convicted of DWI in Mecklenburg County in July 2014 and DUI in York, S.C., in October 2014. Conkin received community service and probation in the North Carolina case and paid fines in the South Carolina case. A December 2012 DUI case in Clover, S.C., is listed as pending in court records.
Conkin now faces yet another DWI charge, along with felony death by motor vehicle, felony serious injury by motor vehicle, careless/reckless driving and possession of marijuana. She was taken to Carolinas Medical Center on Saturday in serious condition and warrants for her arrest were to be served on her release, police said.
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The wreck occurred about 2 a.m. Saturday, when Conkin’s vehicle crossed over a grass median into oncoming traffic on South Tryon Street in the Steele Creek area, police said.
“I can’t believe this person was back on the road,” said Don Griffin, who retired three years ago after a 31-year career as a reporter for WSOC-TV.
“You would think (Conkin) would have learned her lesson the first time... but we are going to make sure we do everything in our power to teach her a lesson this time. This will not go away lightly. We will be in the courtroom and do everything we can do legally.”
Griffin says Gonzalez, a mother of eight, was returning to Charlotte on Saturday after spending a few days in Hilton Head, S.C., with a daughter, Sonia Rocio Gonzalez, and son-in-law, Farshad Hosseini. Four people were in the car at the time and Gonzalez was in the back seat, with a granddaughter asleep in her lap, Griffin said.
“This was a self-made woman who had only a third-grade education but ran her own clothing design business,” Griffin said. “She was also a saint who worked with homeless and abused teenage girls in the most dangerous ghettos in Bogota.”
Farshad Hosseini, who owns a business in the medical field, was driving the night of the crash and remains hospitalized with serious injuries. Griffin reports Hosseini has had three surgeries and is scheduled for a fourth.
Hosseini’s wife, Sonia Rocio Gonzalez, also remains in the hospital. Their daughter, Shophia Hosseini, 11, was hospitalized with minor injuries, police said.
Sonia Gonzalez said her mother worked more than 25 years as a Sears store manager in Bogota, but is best known in that city for decades of charity work. That includes bringing Christmas gifts annually to children in an orphanage, and coordinating a community food program that delivered groceries monthly to an entire neighborhood of low-income families in Bogota.
“My mother had a very tough childhood and she never forgot it. Her parents were poor and she was not allowed to finish school, because she was considered too small,” said Sonia Gonzalez, noting her mother never grew taller than 4-foot-7.
“She ended up getting her first job at age 9, learning to do embroidery. She had so little education, but she was the smartest woman I’ve ever known in my life. She was small and quiet, but very powerful.”
Cecilia Buitrago de Gonzalez’s trip to the United States was scheduled to end Monday, after a series of road trips taken separately with each of the four daughters living in the area. Plans now call for her to be cremated in Charlotte and her ashes returned home to Colombia after a funeral Wednesday, Griffin said. The funeral was held Wednesday, Aug. 24, at St. Mark Catholic Church in Huntersville.
Sonia Gonzalez says their mother would have wanted them to forgive Conkin.
“We are very loving and forgiving people and we are praying for her,” she said. “We are praying she will never do this to anybody else. That’s what my mom would have done.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed.