- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2020

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Like many 7-year-olds, Luther Deroche has a limited menu of what he’s willing to eat - red beans, yes; rice, no - but not because he’s a picky eater.

The Mandeville boy suffered a serious head injury a year ago when he and his big sister were struck by an SUV. He hasn’t regained his sense of taste or smell. He tells his father, Tracy Deroche, that he remembers he liked red beans but doesn’t remember whether he liked rice.

Serving the same meal - sometimes even for breakfast - is one of the smaller changes that Tracy Deroche, his partner, Winston Garfield, and their four adopted children, Doug, 14, Catherine 13, Luther and Christopher, 5, have faced since Catherine and Luther took an ill-fated bicycle ride in Beau Chene subdivision where they live.

The two were riding together on Catherine’s bike on Dec. 6, 2019, when they were hit by a vehicle driven by Joel Cairns, 31, another Beau Chene resident who fled the scene. Cairns surrendered to authorities hours later.

What followed was a nightmare for the family. Tracy Deroche, who was in Oklahoma at a gymnastics tournament with his eldest child, learned of the wreck by phone and struggled to find a flight home. Catherine, whose hand was broken, pelvis chipped and skin peeled from her arm and thigh, remained hospitalized on the north shore. A distraught Garfield called his partner to say they were waiting to ensure Luther could survive a flight before airlifting him to the south shore.



“The whole time, I was really afraid for him,” Catherine recalled. “He’s smaller than me. He had worse injuries. We were so worried about him and so relieved that he was still alive.”

Now, Catherine says, she watches her little brother struggle with schoolwork. “It’s heart-breaking to see him have to deal with those problems, and he’ll probably have them the rest of his life,” she said.

Three days before the first anniversary of the crash, Catherine appeared in 22nd Judicial District Court with her father to give a victim impact statement as Cairns, who pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run driving, was sentenced by Judge Raymond Childress.

“I was a little nervous,” she said. But the Mandeville Junior High eighth grader said she also felt confident in what she had to say. “I knew it was his fault,” she said.

Cairns will serve three years’ probation, with two years under home incarceration, according to the district attorney’s office. At the family’s request, prosecutors had asked for a 10-year-sentence, with the first three in prison. The judge handed down a 10-year prison sentence but suspended all of it, DA’s office spokesperson Lisa Page said.

Cairns’ attorney would not comment.

The Deroches, who have also filed a lawsuit, were disappointed at the outcome of the criminal case. “I hoped he would get a higher sentence,” Catherine said, adding that his punishment didn’t seem enough for what happened to her and her brother.

“She was surprised about it,” Tracy Deroche said, “because he left them there. How could he have left them there to die, and the judge only gave him probation and two years’ home incarceration?”

After the wreck, Catherine had to hold off on her favorite activities such as horseback riding and volleyball. She still faces several rounds of plastic surgery in 2021 for scarring from her injuries.

“She was so worried about him, and all that was going on” Tracy Deroche said. “She remembered everything. She remembered.”

He considers it a blessing that Luther doesn’t remember being hit or the subsequent weeks in the hospital. But Luther lost other memory as well: A bright 6-year-old who was already reading by the time of the wreck, he now can’t decipher two- or three-letter words.

After three weeks in second grade, he had to return to first grade at Pontchartrain Elementary and is being tutored. He’s afraid to sleep alone at night or to ride a bike, his father said.

“He lost a year of his life.”

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