Justice Lost -- and Found

For years, Donna Ringoringo railed against the corruption that she believed infested the Harris County Family Law Center —and the notoriously long time that it took to obtain a semblance of justice there. In a sad irony, some of Ringoringo's family and friends have had occasion to feel the same mixture of outrage and helplessness over the past few months, as they waited on the Austin Police Department to make an arrest for the hit-and-run accident that claimed the 46-year-old Ringoringo's life — an arrest that was unnecessarily delayed due to miscommunication between the police and the Texas Department of Public Safety's crime lab.

"Nobody is telling us anything," said one of Ringoringo's three grown children, 20-year-old Stan Ringoringo. "It's been seven months ago that she was killed, and we're still waiting for something to happen."

Until last week, the Austin Police Department had maintained that it needed to receive the results of tests conducted by the DPS on crime-scene evidence before it could file charges in Ringoringo's death. But last week, after inquiries by the Press to both law agencies, the APD realized the DPS test results had been in its possession for months.

"You'd think that they would have bothered to check," said Ringoringo's son after the Press informed him of the blunder.

On May 17, Ringoringo was nearing the conclusion of her "walk for justice," a two-week, 160-mile trek by foot to Austin to bring attention to her crusade against Harris County's family court judges. While in Austin, Ringoringo had hoped to discuss her concerns with Governor George W. Bush.

But just before 11 that night, as she walked along the inside shoulder of the busy intersection of East Ben White Boulevard and Interstate 35, Ringoringo was struck from behind by a late-model Ford Bronco and knocked about 20 feet by the impact. She was pronounced dead a short time later. She was less than a block from the Austin motel where she had planned to spend the evening.

The driver of the vehicle fled the scene without stopping. But witnesses gave police a license plate number and a description of the fleeing vehicle.

After that, the Austin police refused to say much about what they described as an "open and ongoing investigation." But according to a friend of Ringoringo's who spoke with the police, investigators quickly traced the Bronco to an Austin woman and determined that the vehicle was in her boyfriend's possession at the time of the accident.

"You would think that if they know who owns the vehicle and who was driving it, someone would be in jail by now," says that friend, Marinelle Timmons, who directs an organization that aids victims of violent crimes. "And even if they can't prove who was behind the wheel, you'd think they could at least take it to a grand jury, indict him and then let him plead out to a lesser offense."

Yet seven months after Ringoringo's death, no suspect had been arrested, no charges had been filed and no indictments had been returned. Last week, APD spokesman Mike Burgess said investigators had questioned a suspect but were still awaiting the DPS test results. He would not elaborate on what tests were being conducted, saying only that the results would help determine "whether the driver was under the influence" at the time Ringoringo was killed.

But DPS crime lab director Ron Urbanovsky told the Press that the lab results had been forwarded to the Austin police four months earlier. "According to our computer records, all of the tests were completed and returned in August 1997," he said.

Burgess has since confirmed that the APD did indeed receive the lab results in August, explaining that the case just fell through the cracks because the results were sent to the department's crime lab instead of the detective investigating the hit-and-run.

Burgess says his department was unable to determine whether the suspect was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident, so the suspect will likely be charged this week with failing to stop and render aid — instead of the stiffer charge of intoxication manslaughter. The harshest punishment for failing to stop and render aid is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine; intoxication manslaughter carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Ringoringo, a plump woman with a mane of sandy hair that always appeared windblown, first had contact with the family courts in 1989, when her 18-year marriage ended in an acrimonious divorce. Her experience in the system led her to believe that family court judges favored the clients of lawyers who had contributed to the judges' campaigns. Ringoringo was always fond of the symbolic gesture: In 1992, she staged a hunger strike while living on the sidewalk outside the Family Law Center. (After 34 days of fasting, Ringoringo became ill, and her courthouse vigil was taken up by a fellow activist.) Although the impact of Ringoringo's protest was debatable, almost all of the incumbent family court judges had either retired by, or were defeated in, the 1994 election.

But while Ringoringo was capable of attracting public attention to her cause, Timmons mostly remembers her friend for her frequent private acts of kindness. Ringoringo didn't have much, Timmons recalls, yet she would often take her small paycheck and spend it all on food or clothes for some of the crime victims she worked with.

"Many, many times she did without," says Timmons. "There just aren't very many people who cared as much about other people as Donna did."

Timmons, who worked with Ringoringo at the Victim Assistance Center, has never bought into the theory of some of Ringoringo's more conspiracy-minded friends and family, who've suggested that she was murdered to silence her criticism of the family courts. If someone had wanted to kill Ringoringo, she notes, there would have been plenty of opportunities to do so before the activist arrived at a well-traveled intersection where there would be lots of witnesses.

Timmons believes there is a simple explanation for the delay in the investigation: Because Ringoringo was not an Austin resident, police had little incentive to make solving the hit-and-run a priority.

"If that had been her hometown, I think this would have been handled differently," says Timmons.

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Steve McVicker