Suspect in deadly crash has lengthy criminal record

School system employee leaves behind two children, husband

When 39-year-old Darlene Cortez of Des Allemands recently lost her life on Old Spanish Trail, she became the latest fatality on a road known for being hazardous and was killed by a man suspected of driving while intoxicated.

Cortez, a Luling Elementary School bus monitor was driving eastbound on the road in early morning of March 19, on her way to work. Her co-workers said she was typically in the transportation office early making coffee for the staff. On this morning, when she did not arrive at work, they learned that she had been hit head on by Robin Gassenberger Jr., 37, also of Des Allemands.

On March 28, Gassenberger was arrested and booked into the Nelson Coleman Correctional Facility. He is charged with vehicular homicide, reckless operation of a motor vehicle and no seatbelt in use. He remained in custody on $1 million bond as of Friday, April 10 with an arraignment hearing set April 21, according to the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office.

 According to court records, Gassenberger has an arrest record that dates back 20 years which includes two felony and three misdemeanor charges. The three misdemeanor charges occurred in 1994 and include disturbing the peace, simple damage and simple battery of which all charges were  eventually reduced, making Gassenberger eligible for in-active probation and required him to pay fines and restitution.

In December of 1998, he was arrested and charged with unlawful entry of an inhabited dwelling, a crime in Louisiana that could carry a sentence  of  not more than a $1,000 fine, in addition to imprisonment with or without hard labor for not more than six years, or both. In Gassenberger’s case the charge was thrown out of court.

Also, that same year, Gassenberger was arrested and charged with indecent behavior with a juvenile. Gassenberger pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and again received in-active probation and a $250 fine, according to court records.   

At the scene, Cortez’s car spun around and came to rest in a ditch alongside the road, according to Louisiana State Police.

“I lost the love of my life,” said Cortez’s husband, Ryan, who spoke of her death on Facebook. “She was the left to my right for the last 18.5 years of marriage and the 3.5 years before. I went from planning a 40-year birthday party to planning a funeral. Without the support of everyone around me, I never could have done it.”

The Paradis Volunteer Fire Department used the Jaws of Life to extricate both Cortez and Gassenberger, who suffered severe injuries, according to Oliver Dufrene, Paradis Volunteer fire chief.

Gassenberger was transported to the Interim LSU Hospital Level 1 Trauma Center with severe injures, according to State Police. 

Impairment is suspected for Gassenberger and toxicology tests are being performed by the Louisiana State Crime Lab. Results are expected in four to six weeks.

Cortez died on a road that area residents say they’ve been trying to get fixed for years.

A resident, who asked not to be identified, said he heard the crash and ran to the scene.

“Both cars were off the road and neither driver was moving,” he said. “A male nurse was driving by and stopped to see if he could help. He checked the lady in this car (Cortez) and told me he didn’t feel a pulse.”

Neighbor Donnie Hills, a retired Dow Chemical production employee who has lived on Old Spanish Trail for years, said he’s seen at least eight or nine people killed on the road in the past 10 years.

“There is no place to go even if you see someone coming right at you,” Hills said.

“Along with the shoulders being too narrow, the ditches are way too deep and if someone crosses that yellow center line even a little bit you’re going to get hit,” he said. “Those ditches need to be raised at least a couple of feet. The parish lines them with gravel every now and then, but the gravel always disappears within a month or so. They need to fix those ditches permanently.”

Hills, along with his neighbors, also maintain speeding traffic is another issue that makes the road dangerous.Although the road is posted at 45 mph, they maintain this is too fast for this state highway’s poor condition and layout.“People go by my house doing at least 55 to 60 mph,” Hills said. “Sometimes, they go even faster than that. I give the police credit – they do monitor it. I see them sitting down there at the First Baptist Church of Paradis, but they can’t be there all the time.”

What is known is Old Spanish Trail has claimed another life – the mother of two children and Ryan Cortez’s beloved wife.While he could not yet comment about the accident to the Herald-Guide, Cortez did express on Facebook what this tragedy has meant to his family.

“You should never have to tell a 13- and 11-year-old their mother is gone,” he said. “It’s the worst feeling ever and they don’t deserve this fate.”

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