Hell on Wheels

updated 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Of all the social ills that bedevil us, drunk driving is one we seem to be able to do something about. Thanks to increased public awareness, stiffer penalties and higher drinking ages—not to mention air bags and greater use of seat belts—the number of fatalities caused by drinking and driving has dropped sharply over the past decade. In 1982 more than 25,000 people were killed in alcohol-related car accidents. Last year that number was down more than 30 percent, to just over 17,000.

Yet while the number of deaths has diminished, a troubling problem remains. Government and law-enforcement officials see a worrisome percentage of accidents caused by a hard core of repeat offenders, many of whom have multiple arrests for driving under the influence. "The incorrigible driver is where the major problem lies," says James B. Jacobs, a New York University law professor and the author of the study Drunk Driving. "They are the hardest people to control. The social drinkers are the ones who listen to the television ads."

Although nationwide statistics are not available on repeat offender drunk drivers, individual states have compiled their own sobering figures. In Ohio, for instance, 32 percent of drunken drivers are repeaters, and they are responsible for 55 percent of all drunk driving convictions. In recent years a host of remedies aimed at such hard-core drunks have been tried, from strict alcohol-treatment programs to devices that require a driver to pass a Breathalyzer test before his car will start. Lately popular sentiment has seemed to favor longer prison sentences for repeat offenders. As the following cases suggest, however, simple solutions are elusive. The frightening truth is that drunk drivers are deadly—and often utterly heedless of society's sanctions.

A week's reprieve enables a drinker to turn into a killer

Circuit court Judge Peter Dearing thought he had made an impression on Keith Jones. In June 1992, Jones, then 31, a landscaper from Jacksonville, Fla., had pleaded guilty to driving under the influence after he had rear-ended another car. It was the second time that Jones had been arrested for drunk driving, so Judge Dearing, known for meting out tough punishment, sentenced him to 90 days in jail.

As part of Jones's plea bargain, Judge Dearing gave him a week to get his personal affairs in order before starting to serve his time. But just three days before his sentence was to begin, Jones was out drinking with a friend. The two met Sandy Johnson at a bar, and shortly after 1 a.m. on June 7 offered to give her a ride home. As they traveled along Jacksonville's Atlantic Boulevard in Jones's red Toyota pickup, Jones and Johnson got into an argument about where to make a turnoff. When Jones tried to make an abrupt turn too quickly, he swung wide and veered into oncoming traffic. The truck hit a Ford Crown Victoria driven by Arthur DeLoach, 73, who had been out dancing at a local Moose Lodge with his wife, Virginia, 69, and their friends Guerry and Earleen Joiner. The collision killed both DeLoaches and Guerry Joiner, 61. Jones, who suffered minor injuries, climbed out of his truck and left the scene. Arrested shortly after the accident, he eventually pleaded guilty to multiple counts of motor-vehicle homicide and received a 20-year sentence, of which he will probably end up serving 12.

While acknowledging he had several beers that night, Jones insists that alcohol had nothing to do with the accident. "I was definitely not impaired," he says, though the alcohol level in his blood was measured at .19 percent, nearly double the legal level for intoxication, which was .10 in Florida at the time and is .08 now. In his view, the whole tragedy should be chalked up to bad luck. And while he readily voices regret for the victims and their families, he is inclined to see himself as a victim as well. "I had it made, and I blew it all for a simple mistake," he says. "I didn't go out to hurt anybody. I'm not a bad person."

All the same, former assistant state attorney Wayne Ellis, who prosecuted the case, left little to chance. If Jones should violate the terms of his 15-year probation once he gets out, by either drinking or driving, he will go straight back to prison, perhaps for as much as another 27 years. One way or another "the public has been protected," says Ellis, now in private practice. Perhaps so, says Barry Sweedler of the National Transportation Safety Board, but there is a limit to the number of repeat offenders who can be put away for long stretches. "You can't put these people in jail, except for the egregious cases," he says. "There's no room in the jails." For his part, Jones vows that when he is once again a free man, he will buy a limousine and hire a chauffeur to drive him around.

Without lights or a license, a driver wipes out a family

When it came to his family's safety, Giovanni Vaccarello, a retired machinist from New York City's borough of Brooklyn, never took anything for granted. He often drove his daughters Maria, 18, and Concetta, 17, to their part-time jobs. He insisted that his son John, now 14, wear a beeper so he was never out of touch. He routinely walked his wife of nearly 25 years, Cathy, 45, the one block from their home to her job in a beauty salon. "I was afraid," says Giovanni, 51. "I didn't want anything to happen to them."

Yet none of his precautions could protect his family from Abraham Myers, a 55-year-old janitor. Around 11:40 p.m. on May 1, Vaccarello left the Russo's on the Bay catering hall in Queens with Cathy, Maria and Concetta. John remained behind as the rest of the family began to walk across the street to their car. Meanwhile, Myers, allegedly going more than 70 mph with the headlights of his 1982 Lincoln Continental turned off, ran a red light and slammed into them, scattering the Vaccarellos like duck pins. The impact hurled Giovanni and Concetta into the air. Maria hit the front windshield and was carried 150 feet, and Cathy was dragged 180 feet before Myers' car came to a stop. She and Maria died instantly. Concetta lingered for a few hours on life support before dying. Giovanni's left leg was broken in three places, and he suffered a heart attack, which required more than a month of hospitalization. "If he came at me with a gun, I've got a chance," says Giovanni, "but not with a five-ton car."

Myers' blood alcohol was later tested at .2, double the state's legal limit for driving while intoxicated. Myers already had a previous conviction for drunk driving, and dating back to 1967, his license had been suspended 26 times. Not that Myers probably cared—he continued driving without a valid license. Despite that clear record of recklessness and disregard for the law, he had never served a day in prison. Finally that may change. Now awaiting trial on charges including murder, manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol, Myers faces up to life in prison if convicted. That, of course, is no consolation to Giovanni, who feels only hatred for Myers. "I wonder if he sleeps," says Giovanni bitterly. "Not only did he kill them, he made a mess out of them."

Acting under a New York State law passed almost a year ago, police can now charge with a felony those caught driving without a valid license if they've had 10 or more license suspensions. "Driving without a license really has to be taken as a serious offense," says safety expert Barry Sweedler. "Right now, it's just a slap on the wrist." Indeed, in just the first six months of 1994, some 5,589 people were arrested in New York City for driving with suspended licenses.

In Philadelphia, a blind spot in the system proves fatal

It was 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 2, and Michael Graham, 36, who ferried elderly and disabled passengers in a van for the regional transit authority in Philadelphia, notified his dispatcher that he had made his last run of the morning. What he did for several hours afterward is unclear. But the next thing anyone knew, Graham was at the wheel of his empty van at 2:30 p.m.—legally drunk according to police—and smashing across the median barrier on Interstate 95 North in Philadelphia. Soaring over two lanes of oncoming traffic, he landed on top of a 1992 Mitsubishi Eclipse, shearing off its roof.

Inside were Kelly Sweeney, 26, a nurse, and her sister Cassie, 23, a student teacher, both of Pennsauken, N.J., who were on their way home from a dress fitting for a cousin's wedding. The impact killed Cassie and severely injured Kelly, who suffered serious brain and head injuries (both her ears were sheared off). Ten weeks later the victims' parents, Dennis and Catherine Sweeney, still cannot fathom the utter capricious horror of what has happened to their family. Local transit officials were shocked by the collision as well, especially after discovering that, unknown to them, Graham had compiled an appalling driving record.

Police learned, for instance, that Graham, using the alias James Mason, was wanted on bench warrants stemming from two DUI arrests in 1991. (He also had convictions on drug charges and for firearms possession and auto theft.) Just last July he had been arrested for DUI twice under his own name within three weeks. Why would anyone risk serious injury or criminal prosecution over and over again? "A lot of times a driver will drink and nothing bad happens to them, so it makes it easier the next time," says Tom Culpepper, a safety expert for the American Automobile Association. "The more you do it, the easier it is not to think about the possible consequences."

To get his job, Graham had gone through a three-month screening process that included a drug and alcohol test and a background check of convictions. The trouble, says Carol Lavoritano, the official in charge of Philadelphia's Paratransit network, is that in too many cases red flags don't show up in such reviews. Prospective employers have access only to court records of convictions, which, because of plea bargains and provisions for expunging offenses after a certain period, are often incomplete or misleading. They do not have access to arrest records, which give a clearer indication of potentially unsuitable employees. Even now, sitting in the Philadelphia Detention Center and facing a possible 30 years if found guilty of all charges, including vehicular homicide while intoxicated, Graham could conceivably apply for another driving job and not set off any alarms since he has yet to be convicted of anything. "To this day, Michael Graham has a clean driver's license," says Lavoritano. "If you ordered it up today, none of this would appear."

The revolving door of rehab leads to tragedy in Utah

Around the Gentner Communications Corp. in Salt Lake City, Paul Bredehoft, 39, was known as a model employee. In the two years he worked at the plant, he almost never failed to show up for his 7 a.m. shift assembling teleconferencing equipment. "He came in, quietly did his job each day and left," says manufacturing manager Mike Slaugh. "He never discussed his personal life." Bredehoft's reliability was remarkable considering that he apparently spent many of his off-hours pounding down one beer after another. "I'd see him sitting on the front porch of his apartment, drinking beer all day," says neighbor Jordan Dew. "Drinking was his main pastime."

And, it would appear, his fatal flaw. Beginning 10 years ago, Bredehoft was convicted six times of drunk driving. But in contrast to many repeat offenders, Bredehoft didn't slip through any bureaucratic cracks. In fact his experience provides a depressing illustration of the limitations of the criminal justice system even when it does work.

After his very first drunk driving conviction, in November 1984, he had his license suspended and was sentenced to six months in jail. When Bredehoft agreed to complete an in-patient alcohol-recovery program, his jail term was suspended. Less than three years later, though, he was busted again for DUI, which led to yet another in-patient treatment program. In 1989 and 1990, after three more arrests, Salt Lake County Court Judge Phyllis Scott sentenced him to six months in jail or further in-patient treatment. "I don't see how you can be more harsh than I was," says Judge Scott. "I gave him the maximum sentence under the law."

While endorsing the need for rehab programs, many experts caution that they are far from cure-alls. "Most programs can only boast a 50 percent success rate, if that," says Earl W. Patterson, a professor and substance abuse authority at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "Remember, you're not only changing a particular habit, often it's a lifestyle as well." Thus it shouldn't have been surprising when Bredehoft was arrested again in August 1993 for DUI. This time he spent 10 days in jail and participated in DUI education classes and group counseling at Alcoholics Anonymous, both 12-week programs.

Any hope that he had finally kicked his habit of drinking and driving came to a horrific end a few months later. At 7:30 p.m. on March 1, 17-year-old Sean Adkins and six of his friends were stopped in the emergency lane of Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City trying to fix a flat tire. According to police, Bredehoft was legally drunk and doing 60 mph in his red Mustang when he hit Sean, who was standing by the side of the road, and plowed into the disabled car. Sean's friends all escaped serious injury, but Sean, an honor student at Highland High School, was killed almost instantly.

Found guilty on Sept. 7 of second-degree felony automobile homicide while intoxicated, Bredehoft could be sentenced to 15 years in prison. Even that wouldn't satisfy Sean's 20-year-old brother Brad. "I don't know if there is any just punishment for what he did," says Brad. "Life in prison isn't enough. I don't know what is." Sean's father, Michael, an attorney, is certain now what measures society shouldn't bother to take in dealing with hard-core drunk drivers—namely, trying to cure them. "Bredehoft should never be out of jail," he says. "The reality is, we can't send messages to drunks."

BILL HEWITT
DON SIDER in Miami, LORNA GRISBY in New York City, CATHY FREE in Salt Lake City and BOB CLANDRA in Philadelphia

From Our Partners