This is the story of Shirley Goetz, a 50-year-old Avila Beach resident who is staring down the barrel of losing everything she has due to a 19-year-old traffic ticket she received in Arizona.
Shirley’s story begins with her birth in Atascadero and upbringing in Paso Robles. She attended Paso Robles High School but left before getting her diploma, just one of several poor decisions she made early in life.
By October 1989, she moved to Phoenix to build her life anew. She got work as a bartender and had plans to attend graphic design school in Tempe.
That wasn’t to be.
Three months after moving to Arizona on Feb. 18, 1990, she was a passenger on a motorcycle when a driver of a car ran a red light in Phoenix. Her injuries were horrific. According to doctor reports, Shirley was a “code blue,” meaning life or death was a matter of moments either way when she was admitted.
Her medical reports noted that her left hip joint, left arm and left leg were broken, ligaments in her left knee were stripped, her spleen was ruptured and she had multiple face and head traumas.
Two days after the accident, she regained consciousness but spent the next 56 days in Phoenix Memorial Hospital and later St. Luke’s Hospital. Her body was held together with multiple metal pins and rods. Later, she had a total hip replacement.
It was during those long days in traction in the hospital that Shirley Goetz made a deal with her God: If she were allowed to live and get through her ordeal, she’d atone for past poor decisions and live a life of positive influence.
But her trials weren’t yet over. On May 20, 1993, her home in Phoenix was burglarized. Gone were savings, personal belongings, all of her safety net that she’d managed to hold onto for her physical care and needs.
Yet, the fates weren’t quite finished. Four months later on Sept. 17, 1993, she was given a traffic ticket for lacking proof of insurance and an Arizona driver’s license.
Perhaps she was still suffering from residual head trauma; whatever the reason, she didn’t pay the tickets. Two years later, when she learned that her father had suffered a second crippling stroke, she returned to the area and was his nurse for the last two years of his life. He died in 1997.
Now, fast forward 15 years to January 2012.
Shirley has made good on her hospital vow: She’s earned her high school GED, learned graphic arts skills, attended classes at Private Industry Council to sharpen her abilities (she was honored as one of the program’s most promising students), has been using her graphic skills to produce a program on Channel 2 called “Music in Motion” for the past six years and has worked for a charity called Guitars Not Guns.
In this last capacity, she has asked recording stars such as Grace Slick and Dave Mason to sign guitars, which are then auctioned with the proceeds going to GNG’s music program, where disadvantaged kids first learn guitar and are then given their own instruments upon graduation.
Shirley’s life is remarkable in its positive outlook, actions and resiliency in light of her disabilities: Her left leg remains “unstable,” meaning she has to wear a brace on it; her 20-year-old artificial hip is now worn down to the nub and needs to be replaced, having excruciatingly popped out of place five times in the past year (she uses a walker and/or her wheelchair if she’s going to walk or stand for any length of time); and if that weren’t enough, she underwent surgery for cancer last year.
Her finances are scant. She receives $874.40 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance. Out of that, she pays $445 in monthly rent for subsidized housing. What’s left goes to gas, electric, water, insurance, food and clothing.
Needless to say, she’s learned to live a frugal life that includes food banks and thrift stores. Every penny is precious.
So imagine her surprise when she went to the local Department of Motor Vehicles at the end of January and was told that she couldn’t renew her license because Arizona had put a hold on it. Indeed, it was the traffic ticket from 1993. Nineteen years later, the traffic court in Phoenix wanted more than $1,200 in fines to clear up the matter. The fine had to be paid in full, no monthly payments, by Oct. 12.
She contacted the Phoenix court and pled her case: A 50-year-old woman with disabilities eking by. To pay the full amount in one sum would mean that she’d probably lose her small one-bedroom apartment, effectively relegating her to living in her car, which she couldn’t drive because of an impending suspended license.
The court wrote back. They dropped the fine to $907 and said that it would still have to be paid in full by the October date; however, they took the hold off her license so she can be mobile and they offered 130 hours of closely supervised community service in lieu of the fine.
Shirley spoke with Chris Pucciarelli of Pucciarelli Consulting, who has clients who use community service, and was told that her physical condition, insurance and liability issues precluded her from working for them.
Also, according to Social Security Administration/Medicare personnel, she can make only $65 more than her monthly stipend; anything more than that would have 50 percent deducted.
She then contacted the Sheriff’s Office to see whether she could serve her fine in County Jail. They, too, said no for reasons of liability and her health.
Shirley has kept records of every hospital form, Social Security letter, even X-rays of her injuries of the past 20-plus years. I know because I’ve read all of her documents. She’s two things: honest and scared to death that she’ll lose her housing and have to live in a disabled condition in a car she won’t be able to drive to doctor appointments or the food bank.
She’s tried to make restitution for her past discretions but simply doesn’t see a way out.
One last thing: If you thought that sending a check to Shirley will help her out, it won’t. Once again, the folks at Social Security will ding her for that as extra income.
That isn’t to say we can’t help. This is how: I’m looking for an attorney who will act in a pro bono capacity by accepting any donations to satisfy Shirley’s fine. If you’re out there, get in touch with me at either 781-7852 or email me at bmorem@thetribune news.com.