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Phone records get charges dropped in deadly I-49 collision

by TRACY NEAL NWA DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | April 18, 2022 at 3:01 a.m.

Tristan Colvin was a pariah for more than a year to many people he knew.

“They thought I was the drunk driving monster that killed his girlfriend,” Colvin said.

Colvin, 25, of Springdale, bore that label and avoided crowds because he felt convicted by public opinion and social media sites.

He was accused of being intoxicated and driving the wrong way two years ago on Interstate 49. London Holmbeck — his girlfriend and a passenger in his car — died in a collision with another vehicle. She was 22 years old.

Colvin woke up days later in Mercy Hospital and learned not only of Holmbeck’s death, but also that he was suspected of having been drunk and causing the crash. He didn’t remember details of the crash, but, “I knew there was no way possible it happened that way,” Colvin said.

Benton County prosecutors charged Colvin with negligent homicide, aggravated assault and third-offense driving while intoxicated.

Then on March 15 — about 20 months after the crash — the charges against Colvin were dropped.

Jonathan Nelson, Colvin’s attorney, said his client’s cellphone records showed he wasn’t driving the wrong way. Police arrested the wrong person, he said.

The news shocked Michael Holmbeck, London’s father, who has been awaiting justice for his daughter’s death.

“For 20 months, we were told that Tristan was guilty,” Holmbeck said. “London loved Tristan. This was London’s love. They were going to be engaged.”

THE CRASH

Colvin’s saga began at 8:53 p.m. on July 27, 2020. He remembers Holmbeck asking him to drive her to visit a friend in Bentonville. The two were on their way back to Springdale in a Chevrolet Cruze when the wreck occurred near the Pleasant Grove Road exit in Rogers.

Zenda Staab, a trooper with the Arkansas State Police, was driving north on the interstate and saw a wreck in the southbound lanes, Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said.

Staab, based on her observations, concluded Colvin had been driving the wrong way and was responsible for the accident, Smith said.

Off-duty firefighters were trying to help Colvin when Sta-ab arrived on the scene. London Holmbeck was also in the car.

One firefighter asked Colvin how much he’d had to drink. Colvin admitted to drinking before leaving his house, according to court documents. Staab said she could smell intoxicants coming from Colvin and his eyes were bloodshot and watery, according to the probable cause affidavit.

Colvin was taken to Mercy Hospital in Rogers. Holmbeck was pronounced dead at the scene, according to court documents.

Colvin woke up a week later in the hospital, his parents standing over him. They told him his girlfriend was dead. He was then shocked to learn police believed he was responsible.

Colvin remembered taking a shot hours before the accident, but maintained he was not intoxicated nor driving the wrong way.

Any statements he made at the crash scene did not come from being intoxicated, but from suffering a serious head injury, he said.

He believes wrong assumptions led to his arrest. He had two previous DWI convictions and an ignition interlock device installed in his car. The device has a breath alcohol analyzer and prevents the motor from starting if the driver’s breath alcohol content exceeds the preset limit.

Colvin believes the trooper saw the device and it reinforced her belief he had been intoxicated.

Staab completed state police training in 2019 at the age of 22 and was assigned to Highway Patrol Division Troop L, based in Lowell, according to a July 2019 news release from the Arkansas Department of Public Safety.

THE CHARGES

Colvin turned himself in at the Benton County Jail after his release from the hospital. He spent a short time at the jail since his attorney and prosecutors had agreed on his bond.

A test done at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory didn’t find any alcohol in a blood sample from Colvin.

The other driver in the collision — Melina Cano-Gonzalez of Rogers, who was 18 at the time — did a portable breath test, which showed a 0.18 result, according to a report from the crash. The legal limit in the state is 0.08. She was arrested at the scene.

She stated in an accident report that the other person was coming the wrong way and caused the crash. Cano-Gonzalez, who was driving a Chevrolet Tahoe, told another trooper she had left Springdale and was on her way to a motel in Rogers where she was living, according to a report.

The trooper observed that her eyes were red, bloodshot and watery and Cano-Gonzalez appeared upset and emotional, according to the report. She told the trooper she had consumed one-fourth of a bottle of whiskey, the report states.

She pleaded guilty in Rogers District Court in December 2020 to driving while intoxicated that night.

The criminal case against Colvin continued.

Nelson said he worked with Thomas Gean, deputy prosecutor, to get the cellphone forensics on his client’s phone, which led to the discovery Colvin had been driving in the right direction on the interstate.

“It’s a mixed bag of emotion,” Colvin said. “I’m glad I’m not in prison, but London is still not here.” Bill Sadler, a spokesman for the Arkansas State Police, said the case involving Colvin is not formally closed, as evidence is being reexamined, and Staab’s supervisors will soon request a meeting with Smith.

Sadler said he’s been told there’s an analysis report indicating Colvin’s direction of travel could not be proved based on insufficient data.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY

Smith, the Benton County prosecutor, said cellphone location data collected after the accident showed Colvin north of the accident prior to the wreck.


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