DENVER (KDVR) — It’s a type of victim that’s often unrecognized, but a group of determined women with the Colorado State Patrol is working 24/7 to change that. FOX31 got an exclusive look at a unique program dedicated to serving victims of car crashes.

Colorado is one of four states in the country that has victim advocates for car crashes on the state’s highways. In Colorado’s eyes, if you or your loved ones are hit, hurt or killed because of someone else, you deserve support.

‘You don’t forget your angel’s voice’

Sean McAfee had never heard about Colorado’s victim advocates until he lost his 15-year-old niece in a crash. 

The crash happened on Feb. 28, 2003, on Ken Caryl Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard in Jefferson County.  Eight teens were in a car that slammed into two other vehicles. Three of the teens died: Caitlyn Craig, 15; Brian Ellsworth, 14; and Michael Heykoop, 15.

“A state patrol officer got on the phone and told me that there had been a car crash and Caitlyn had been killed,” McAfee said. “The word ‘tragic’ is not even close enough to describe. She had two young brothers. They said goodnight to their sister, and then they woke up and she was gone.”

During the darkest night of his family’s life, McAfee remembers meeting a woman on the scene named Delores Poeppel. 

“I spoke to her, and she just immediately took over everything as far as taking care of us,” McAfee said. “You don’t forget your angel’s voice.”

Poeppel is the director of Colorado State Patrol’s Victim Services Unit.

“She walked us through what we had to do with the autopsies and the insurance. I mean, she just helped every step of the way,” McAfee said.

Crash victims ‘matter in Colorado’

“These are not accidents, they are crashes and most of them can be prevented,” Poeppel said. “We’re here to reach out to the families, survivors, witnesses, of these horrific car crashes to be able to let them know that they do matter in Colorado. They matter and they are recognized as victims of crime. That’s very important to the Colorado State Patrol.”

Poeppel wrote a grant and started the victim advocates program for Colorado State Patrol 33 years ago. In June, she celebrated her 44th anniversary working for CSP.

“I started at the State Patrol office in Glenwood Springs as the troop secretary,” Poeppel said. “I was there for nine-and-a-half years and people would come to the State Patrol office and they would need a copy of the report, they couldn’t find their cars, and I would think how awful that was. There was a talk of the Victim Rights Amendment being passed here in Colorado, and I thought, I’ll just write a grant and see.”

With an increased need, the unit has now grown to a team of six advocates and Poeppel.

Advocates are located in the following regions across the state to ensure quick responses to victims:

  • Golden
  • Castle Rock
  • Greeley
  • Grand Junction
  • Durango
  • Colorado Springs
  • Director: located in Golden and still responds to call-outs when needed

Thousands given aid in Colorado each year

For the year of 2021, the Victim Services Unit provided direct services to 2,265 traffic victims across Colorado.

This year, from Jan. 1 through Sept. 18 alone, CSP’s victim advocates have served more than 1,760 victims. 

“We can’t take the horrific crash away, but we can make it just a little bit better, and that’s what we do, we make it a little bit better,” Poeppel said.

The advocates serve victims of traffic crashes from right after the crash occurs until their cases are adjudicated in court. 

“We are with them either on scene or at the hospital,” Poeppel said. “In many cases, we are there for families when their loved one is on life support. The only thing left for that family member to do is get on a plane and come here and say goodbye. We meet them at the airport. We bring them to the hospital. We make sure they have a hotel room, and we are just with them. Many times, we help them with the funeral services here in Colorado and then we put that family member on a plane and send them home.”

Plane tickets and hotel stays get paid for, in large part, with federal and state grants.

Victim services growing in the state

When the program first started, there were five different types of crash victims served. There have been new crimes added to the Colorado Victims Rights Act that impact who the CSP victim advocates serve. The complete list of crimes includes:

  • Trooper-involved incidents, line of duty death, trooper-involved shootings
  • Vehicular homicide (C.R.S. 18-3-106)
  • Careless driving resulting in death (C.R.S. 42-2-1402)
  • Hit and run resulting in death (C.R.S. 42-2-1601)
  • Hit and run causing serious bodily injury (C.R.S. 42-2-1601(b))
  • Vehicular assault (C.R.S. 18-3-205)
  • Manslaughter (C.R.S. 18-3-104)
  • Criminally negligent homicide (C.R.S. 18-3-105)
  • Assault 1st, 2nd, 3rd (C.R.S. 18-3-202, 18-3-203, and 18-3-204)
  • Menacing (C.R.S. 18-3-206)
  • Aggravated robbery of controlled substances (C.R.S. 18-4-303)
  • Child abuse (DUI/D, reckless/negligent) (C.R.S. 18-6-401)
  • Sexual exploitation of children (C.R.S. 18-6-403)
  • Crimes against at-risk adults or at-risk juveniles (C.R.S. 18-6-403)
  • Domestic violence and any crime having underlying factual basis of domestic violence (C.R.S. 18-6-800 or 18-6-801)
  • Human trafficking (C.R.S. 18-3-501)
  • Any criminal attempt (C.R.S. 18-2-101) and conspiracy (C.R.S. 18-2-201) and any criminal solicitation (C.R.S. 18-2-301) involving any of the crimes specified above.

In 2021, the top crime victims included:

  • Child abuse (DUI/D, reckless/negligent) (C.R.S. 18-6-401)
  • Vehicular homicide (C.R.S. 18-3-106)
  • Vehicular assault (C.R.S. 18-3-205)
  • Careless driving resulting in death (C.R.S. 42-2-1402)

Deadly car crashes considered violence

“People don’t recognize traffic crashes as a violent crime, but think about this, being in a car and someone’s going over 100 mph and your loved one is in that car and killed,” Poeppel said. “Is that not violent? To the Colorado State Patrol, that’s violent. “They deserve it and they need to be recognized and they they need to be no longer overlooked.”

Poeppel’s program has caught the attention of other states. Most recently, she’s been working with Utah and South Carolina to help both states mimic the program Colorado has.