Ten Years Gone
A version of this originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on March 31, 2017.
Traffic whizzed past the sun-splashed intersection of Virginia Beach Boulevard and Kings Grant Road Thursday morning. Most drivers didn’t notice the man in the blue blazer and khaki slacks carefully placing a pot of white mums on a tiny triangle of grass.
Once the flowers were just so, Ray Tranchant straightened a cross that was propped against a light pole at the makeshift memorial.
Then he stood, silent and pensive, near the spot where his 16-year-old daughter Tessa Tranchant and her best friend, 17-year-old Ali Kunhardt died 10 years ago.
That was March 30, 2007, a Friday. A day Tranchant – a Naval Academy grad, former Navy fighter aviator and now director of operations and administration at Tidewater Community College’s Advanced Technology Center, will never forget.
The phone call from Virginia Beach police came in the wee hours of March 31, telling him there had been a wreck and he should get to the hospital.
There, his daughter and her best friend lay side by side on gurneys with a thin curtain separating them.
There would be no more dances for the vivacious Tessa, who attended Kellam High School, or the witty Ali, who attended First Colonial.
No graduations. No weddings. No more Christmases. No more birthdays.
There would be just grieving for four parents.
The accident was in the headlines for weeks. At first, simply because two innocent teens waiting for a traffic light to turn green had been killed by a speeding drunk who never applied his brakes.
Later, the stories took a different turn when it was discovered that not only did 22-year-old Alfredo Ramos plowed into Kunhardt’s car at more than 65 mph, but that he was what was then called an “illegal immigrant” – a term most newspapers have abandoned in favor of unwieldy euphemisms.
The news got even worse. Not only was the driver in the country illegally, but his blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was three times the legal limit for driving. And it was his third alcohol-related offense.
Ramos already had a 2007 DUI conviction in Chesapeake and a suspended jail sentence. Yet it appeared that no attempt had ever been made to deport him.
“Why is this guy still in the country?” many of us demanded.
The answers from local officials were rich in bureaucratic buck-passing and excuse-making. Some, including Tranchant, accused both Virginia Beach and Chesapeake of being “sanctuary cities.” That is, places where local law enforcement don’t even bother to ask about the immigration status of offenders, let alone notify the feds when these serial lawbreakers are in custody.
That’s changed, says Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, who was elected in 2009, and who claimed that when he tracked notifications to Immigration and Customs Enforcement from his jail over a period of time, he found that of about 1,400 inmates who werereported to ICE, the feds picked up just eight.
“Things were lagging some in the past,” Stolle said through a spokeswoman Thursday. “They’ve evolved a lot since Trump came in.
“Now they’re picking up everybody.”
While the other three parents mourned privately, Tranchant became a vocal critic of American immigration enforcement.
If the laws had been enforced, he believes, his daughter would still be here.
He’s right. She would.
In November 2007, when a Beach judge sentenced Ramos to 40 years in prison – 24 to serve and 16 waiting for him if he tried to re-enter the country – Tranchant told The Pilot that he would work tirelessly to spare other families the suffering his had endured.
“It is only the beginning here with me,” he vowed.
The grieving father kept his word. But it wasn’t until 2016, he says, that that he found a politician who shared his concerns. Tranchant met with Donald Trump several times last year and campaigned with him.
The crash site was Tranchant’s third stop of the day. He’d begun his morning in a studio at Regent University, where he was interviewed via satellite on “Fox & Friends” to talk about his support for the president’s immigration policies.
From there, with pots of flowers on the seat of his Audi, he headed to Princess Anne Memorial Park Cemetery on North Great Neck Road to leave flowers on the girls’ graves.
Tranchant attributes his cheerfulness to a dream he had shortly after Tessa died.
In it, she told him not to worry, that she was happy.
“That means she’s surfing,” he said with a grin, “that was her favorite thing to to.”
Ray Tranchant, the son of an immigrant mother from Ireland and the grandson of immigrant grandparents from France and Belgium, told me he has nothing against legal residents of the United States. More importantly, he said he isn’t motivated by hatred when he lobbies for the government to enforce existing immigration laws.
“I don’t hate anyone,” he said softly as he sat on a granite bench at Ali’s grave. “Ramos was an ignorant, uneducated drunk from Mexico. I long ago forgave him.
“Unless he’s a sociopath, his pain is a lot worse than mine.”