Drunken driver killed her daughters and she's suing: '0.25 — are you kidding me?'

Sister that was killed by drunk driver opened up in graduation speech

Kelsey Richardson delivers a graduation speech at Collaborative College Technology & Leadership in 2016. She and her sister, Karli were killed by a drunk driver during a trip to the Grand Canyon.
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Kelsey Richardson delivers a graduation speech at Collaborative College Technology & Leadership in 2016. She and her sister, Karli were killed by a drunk driver during a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Cathy Hocking says it's not greed that has driven her to start a legal fight 2,000 miles away from her Mooresville home.

It's respect.

Respect, she says, for her two children. Respect for other families who, she says, would desperately want to avoid the hell in which she finds herself today.

"Nobody wants my life," Hocking says bluntly. "I don't want another mother to live my life."

Kelsey Richardson, left, and Karli Richardson, right, with their mother, Cathy Hocking, in an old prom photo. Courtesy Cathy Hocking

On the night of Good Friday 2017, Karli and Kelsey Richardson called home at 11 p.m. Mooresville time to tell Hocking that they loved her, and that they planned to leave Phoenix, Ariz., and drive through the night to watch the sun come up over the Grand Canyon.

Six hours later, the sisters who had been inseparable for most of their lives, died together, too, — killed by a wrong-way driver who investigators say had been drinking for 4 1/2 hours at a nearby restaurant. Karli was 20; Kelsey was 18.

The other driver, 21-year-old Keaton Allison, also died. He attended the same Christian college in Phoenix as Karli. The police report says that at the time of the collision, Allison was traveling at 80 mph in a 65-mph zone down the wrong side of Interstate 17, with only his parking lights on. There were no skid marks at the crash scene. The Richardson girls never saw Allison coming.

A friend who had been drinking with Allison that night at the nearby Mellow Mushroom on Happy Valley Road told an Arizona investigator that he was so worried about Allison's sobriety that he waited outside the restaurant to make sure he didn't drive home.

Instead, the friend says he fell asleep in his car. When he awoke, Allison was gone.

Within minutes, he was headed southbound down a northbound exit ramp onto I-17. Sarah Hanson, a passenger in a car at the same intersection, told police that her companion had to leave the road to avoid a sedan driven by a lone male, the accident report says. She said she thought the other driver would realize his mistake, stop and turn around.

He never did. At 2:10 a.m., Allison's car slammed into the Richardsons' 2003 Pontiac Sunfire, leaving it "unrecognizable," according to the police report. Allison's blood-alcohol level taken after his death was .25, more than three times Arizona's legal limit. The medical examiner's report says the sisters had not been drinking.

"Point-two-five — are you kidding me?" Hocking said this week during a phone interview with the Observer. "If you are point-two-five you are really drunk. They should have stopped serving him. It's that simple. ...

"My precious children were not allowed to live their lives because no one paid attention, and no one followed the law."

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Now, a year after the accident, Hocking and the girls' biological father, Perry Richardson, have sued the owners of the Mellow Mushroom in Phoenix, holding them responsible for over-serving Allison and then allowing him to get behind the wheel. Hocking says any business that serves liquor has a legal responsibility to their customers and the public to know when someone has had enough.

The parents' complaint appears buoyed by the findings of an investigator with the Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control, who says the restaurant violated state liquor laws on April 13 and 14. That's when Allison and a group of his friends came to Mellow Mushroom for its 11 p.m. half-price, happy hour after spending the evening at a spiritual gathering for junior high students.

"Allison, who by all witness accounts, arrived at the Mellow Mushroom Restaurant in a sober condition, left ... four hours later with a blood-alcohol content of .25%," Detective Steve Schrimpf wrote in his March 28 report, which cites the restaurant for selling liquor to an intoxicated or disorderly person, failure to protect the safety of patrons and having an intoxicated customer on its premises for 30 minutes.

Phoenix attorney John Norling, who is representing the restaurant owners in the case, did not respond to an Observer email seeking comment for this story.

Hocking says the new documents add details to the long-distance horror she experienced the night of the crash.

"The more we learn, the worse it gets," she said. "I am so ready to fight this. I don't think anybody would sit back and not do something. Not me. I'm not that kind of mother. I truly believe this could have been prevented."

Schrimpf's interviews with 10 of Allison's companions on the night he killed the Richardsons and himself, present a portrait of an outgoing, occasionally "goofy" college student who was a regular at the Mellow Mushroom.

The waiter who served Allison's table told authorities he brought Allison only a beer sample and a single Hangar 24 pint.

However, Michael Sawyer, who juggled soccer balls with Allison earlier that night to see who would pay the bar or food tab for their night out, told Schrimpf that Allison already had a beer in his hand and had opened a tab when Sawyer arrived at Mellow Mushroom around 9:30 p.m.

Sawyer said he saw Allison drink at least two beers and a shot of Crown Royal. Another companion, Austin Schleier, said Allison combined beers and whiskey shots, and that he made regular trips to the bar or to join another group where additional drinking may have been taking place.

Both said Allison became clearly intoxicated as the night wore on, the state liquor control report says.

"Dude, you can't drive," Schleier says he told Allison at one point.

By midnight, according to Sawyer, Allison was "slushed out." Sawyer said he told his friend three times that he was too drunk to drive, but Allison said he was OK and refused the offer of a ride, the state liquor report says.

Just before 2 a.m., Sawyer and Schleier left the restaurant to wait for Allison in the parking lot, according to the state report. When Sawyer awoke after dozing off in his car, it was 2:10 a.m.

Allison's 1999 Chrysler Sebring, according to Sawyer, was no longer outside the restaurant. Not far away, the Richardson sisters headed north on I-17 toward the sunrise.

In their lawsuit, the sisters' parents allege that the restaurant violated a series of Arizona liquor laws, including "the duty to furnish, serve or sell alcohol in a reasonable manner so as to not create an unreasonable risk of harm to others." The complaint, which also alleges negligence, calls for a jury trial and compensatory damages.

Keaton Allison's family is not named in the suit. Last year, around Mother's Day, Hocking says she received a card and a hand-written note from an unfamiliar Colorado address. She opened it to find that it had come from Allison's parents. Hocking says she was shocked by the gesture.

"I mean, the last thing I expected to happen was for them to reach out," she says.

She describes the letter as "kind, and sad, and I believe it was heartfelt."

"But no, I didn't respond," Hocking says, and she hasn't heard back.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095; @MikeGordonOBS