By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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On a frigid Sunday evening, Daniel Hopkins and his girlfriend pasture his sorrel quarter horse, crank the heater in his Astro van and set off with a load of five children for his house in Shepherd. Hopkins is rolling down the blacktop and crossing the divided lanes of U.S. 59, a fast stretch of dark, rural freeway, when he fails to see a packed Grand Marquis speeding south.
The car smashes into the van and sends it spinning. Rolling over in a whirl of shattering windows, the van grinds 20 feet across the pavement, trailing sparks, glass and screams. The impact sends Melissa Brame off the front seat into her boyfriend.
Scrambling for their children through the machine's mangled belly, Hopkins and Brame find his seven-year-old son, Bradley, crying and bleeding from a crescent-shaped gash atop his head. The young father worms through the van's broken rear window while Brame unbuckles the other children and notices that her three-year-old son, Chevy, is missing.
A woman in an approaching car spots the boy on the freeway lying in a pool of blood and wailing. Hurled 20 feet from the van, his body is scored with road rash, his head gashed with puncture wounds.
Shepherd Volunteer Fire Department first responder Cindi Nicklas, No. 1606 on the emergency band radio, speeds to the wreck within minutes and cradles the writhing boy in her hands, shouting immediately for a medevac. "Get me a bird and get me a bird now," she says to a deputy constable. "I don't care what color it is, I don't give a shit who it is, but get me a bird. This child has got to go."
The deputy radios a dispatcher who calls GoldStar EMS, an ambulance company that holds exclusive contracts with many Houston-area counties. GoldStar's local chopper is based nearby, eight minutes away in Lufkin. Its ground ambulance is based even closer: two miles away at a station in Shepherd.
But 15 painful minutes pass and the road is black, the sky empty.
Nicklas barks to the deputy: "Got an ETA on that bird?" Ten minutes pass, then 20, and there's no word from dispatch. Chevy bleeds into bandages. The deputy dials on his cell phone straight to GoldStar's corporate headquarters in Port Arthur, yelling, cajoling, begging for a helicopter.
No matter. Chevy waits alongside the freeway for 55 minutes before two GoldStar ambulances arrive with medics, Nicklas says. And only then does GoldStar radio its chopper. The cops are already calling the response a "cluster" -- cop-speak for clusterfuck -- and the chaos gets only more obscene. The pugnacious medics squabble over how to treat the patients and where to land the chopper. Hopkins, bruised and dazed from the accident, breaks them up. "You take care of my kids and then y'all can take care of whatever some other time," the 25-year-old construction worker tells them. "I will not stand by and listen to this."
Chevy is flown to Memorial Hermann Hospital, but most of the children are across the highway huddling in an extended-cab pickup. The ambulance drivers refuse to cross the road to inspect them. They make young Bradley, who most likely has been hit in the head by a tool box, walk back across the freeway, dodging cars. Only then do they strap him onto a wooden board to immobilize his spine. For this alone, GoldStar will bill his father $200. "This was like a three-ring circus," Nicklas says. "The worst possible things that could happen were happening right in front of me."
But the biggest outrage came later that month in a public meeting packed with hopping-mad county officials, Nicklas says, when a company spokeswoman claimed the ambulances had arrived in a mere 20 minutes. "I called her a damn liar to her face," says Nicklas, herself a volunteer firefighter.
It was far from the first time doubts had been cast on the honesty of GoldStar, whose administrators failed to return repeated calls from the Houston Press for this story. Under investigation for Medicare fraud by the FBI, the company has repeatedly doctored ambulance logs, ignored the safety complaints of its own employees, and maximized profits and growth at the expense of the injured, say first responders and former workers.
And yet GoldStar still carries patients in Houston. In fact, it is the largest private EMS company in southeast Texas.
In 1998, Jason Boever, a onetime aspirant to medical school, and Ralph Crall, a transplant from California, bought two ambulances and founded GoldStar in Beaumont. They had worked public relations for American Medical Response, the largest ambulance company in the nation, and they put the experience to use. GoldStar grew fast, perhaps too fast.
A family of six companies, GoldStar now operates two helicopters, two Learjets and 91 ambulances, 16 of them based in Houston, according to state officials. A GoldStar attorney said the company is even larger: It consists of seven subsidiaries that operate 190 vehicles, most of them ambulances.
What is clear is that GoldStar has expanded to serve Texas cities ranging from Corpus Christi to Galveston and Beaumont to Jasper, offering affordable rates and a squeaky-clean image. "Our values reflect our commitment to exemplify the 'service before self-interest philosophy' at every level of our organization," says a mission statement on its high-tech Web site, "to treat everyone we meet -- including each other -- with compassion, dignity and respect, to deal fairly and honestly, and to honor all of our commitments."