When bicyclist Margaret "Meg" Gottlieb was struck by a car and killed in Continental Ranch Oct. 20, the case seemed like a slam dunk for prosecutors: the driver, an ex-convict with a history of substance abuse, was booked into Pima County Jail pending $175,000 bail on charges of driving under the influence, aggravated assault and manslaughter.
Witnesses at the scene described their horror at witnessing Gottlieb fly through the air after being struck, and the strong smell of alcohol coming from the driver who reportedly popped gum in her mouth as soon as her vehicle came to a stop.
Today, the driver, Shawn McCreery, is working as a waitress at an IHOP restaurant in Marana while her lawyers negotiate a plea agreement seeking to further reduce the handful of misdemeanors she now faces in Marana Municipal Court.
Her friends say she, too, has become a victim, her life reduced to shambles for something that was nothing more than an accident.
Exactly what happened to a case that seemed destined for an ironclad conviction remains in dispute.
The initial blood evidence taken from McCreery tested at a concentration of .13, high enough above the state's limit of .08 to garner McCreery an "extreme DUI" charge, according to a pretrial services report a month after the crash.
But Bruce Chalk, who heads the Pima County Attorney's Office Vehicular Crimes unit, said testing at the state's crime lab indicates McCreery's blood alcohol concentration was .01.
"That's a practically insignificant amount of alcohol and that's why the case was sent down (to a municipal court). We couldn't charge that as a felony," Chalk said. "I don't know why the level changed. We go with the evidence that is provided to us by the (police) agency and go with the results that come back from the crime lab."
Marana Police Department Detective Tim Brunenkant, who oversaw the initial investigation, said he had no idea how the level dropped so dramatically.
"I agree it doesn't make sense. The initial information we got from the hospital had put it at a DUI, somewhere around .08. We knew we had a serious case. I saw all of (Gottlieb's) blood when I arrived. We made sure we had our blood drawn (from McCreery) at the hospital within two hours and I personally witnessed it. We notified the Pima County Attorney's Office almost immediately that we had a serious case. I really can't explain how it dropped to the alcohol level that barely registered,"
With neither Chalk's nor Brunenkant's agencies able to explain the discrepancy in the blood alcohol percentages, friends and family on both sides of the case have been left angry and frustrated.
"It's unfathomable to me that in this day and age you can essentially murder someone and get cited for a bunch of tickets," said David Glasgow, Gottlieb's boyfriend who was riding beside her and witnessed her being struck.
"They have no case because Shawn did nothing wrong. She's also a victim in this. She wasn't drunk and (Gottlieb) rode out in front of her and now her life is ruined. This is a harassment case, plain and simple," said McCreery's ex-boyfriend Keith Martin, who arrived at the scene after the accident.
"The whole situation just stinks," said Holly Robles, a senior advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "They were unable to prove that the offender was impaired. That was the biggest problem with the case. It's now a misdemeanor DUI and that doesn't compute as far as we're concerned and we're not happy about it, but that's the way they're telling us it happened. We're just furious, but that's what we've got. We're going to be there (at the sentencing) with bells on, I'll tell you that."
McCreery's initial charges that could have sent her to prison for up to 20 years have been reduced to a misdemeanor DUI under a state statute that allows "impairment to the slightest degree" if any alcohol is detected while driving.
In addition, McCreery has been charged with a similar, second DUI charge for trace amounts of marijuana that were detected from urine samples obtained from her shortly after the accident.
According to Marana police, a small amount of marijuana was found in McCreery's car after the accident, although McCreery wasn't charged with possession.
The remaining charges, which are classified as civil traffic infractions, are reckless driving, failure to obey lane direction markings, and no mandatory insurance.
McCreery declined comment on her case.
McCreery's public defender in Marana court, Robert O'Leary, did not return telephone calls requesting comment, but court records indicate he has begun plea bargaining to try and have the charges reduced.
"I have never seen this defender take any case to trial," said Marana Municipal Court Magistrate James West, who began hearing cases in Marana in September. "It's no surprise that plea negotiations are going on."
Gottlieb, a 55-year-old Oro Valley real estate agent and mother of two grown children, was bicycling with Glasgow in the bike lane along North Silverbell Road shortly before 6 p.m. when she was struck.
"It was the most indescribable sound," said Glasgow. "Just horrible. I heard it and turned around to ask her what the noise was and she was gone."
According to Marana Police reports, McCreery's 1991 Mitsubishi Mirage had extensive damage to the front grill, windshield, hood and roof after it struck Gottlieb's Trek racing bike at what witnesses estimated to be 45 mph.
Police said Gottlieb died from head injuries shortly after she was transported by paramedics to University Medical Center.
At least two of the witnesses saw McCreery drink from a water bottle and place something in her mouth shortly after her vehicle came to a stop. Police indicated in their reports that it was gum.
Of the four witnesses, two said they approached McCreery after the accident. Both said they smelled alcohol.
According to the report, so did the first Marana police officer who arrived at the scene.
"There was evidence of the use of alcoholic beverages by the driver," the officer wrote in his report. "I detected a strong odor of alcohol coming from the driver's breath and person. Her eyes were also red, watery and bloodshot."
Martin said McCreery had left his home in Picture Rock's only a matter of a few minutes before the accident.
"Of course they smelled alcohol. She had a drink before she left my place. But just like the blood test showed, she wasn't drunk. I know for a fact that she had one, maybe two drinks," Martin said.
In a letter to the Pima County Superior Court judge who was considering lowering McCreery's bail when she still faced the manslaughter charge, Martin said he met his girlfriend while both were in work release programs after serving terms in Arizona prisons.
"You are looking at a woman who has turned her life around. She went to prison 10 years as a junky, a heroin addict, and then she came out and became a productive member of society,' Martin wrote.
Other friends, primarily co-workers from restaurants, attested to McCreery's work ethic and reformation in their letters to the court. The former manager of the IHOP, who no longer works at the restaurant, said she would be happy to welcome McCreery back to her job.
According to Arizona Corrections Department records, McCreery was sentenced to five years in prison in 1990 after being convicted of trafficking in stolen goods. She was paroled in December of 1995.
"That was all in the past," Martin said. "She was determined to get her life together. That's all gone out the window now."
Glasgow said he believes Gottlieb, a native of England and a world-class distance runner, would have been sympathetic toward McCreery's battles with substance abuse.
"Meg was very successful in her career and had a huge appetite for life. She loved painting and literature and the desert. I don't think she would have held McCreery's past troubles against her, the same as I don't. Meg had quit drinking 15 years ago after her troubles and had a strong belief in Alcoholics Anonymous. She was a long time member," Glasgow said.
"But still," he added. "This was someone's life. Nobody seems to be able to tell exactly what happened here. I think that she deserves more than that."