Chronic drunken drivers leave a trail of tragedy on Texas roads

Eugene Lee Standerford had at least eight DWI convictions on his record when he drove drunk again in 1993 and killed a Fort Worth police officer.

Jake Aaron Strickland was a twice-convicted drunken driver when he got drunk and got behind the wheel in 2003, killing a Fort Worth father of infant twins.

More recently, John Patrick Barton was on parole for his third DWI when, police say, he drank again and caused an Easter morning wreck that killed an Argyle mother and her 13-year-old daughter.

When it comes to chronic drunken drivers, experts say, the story doesn't change.

At some point, someone is going to die.

"I think there is a statistical probability that, if nothing is done to separate chronic drunk drivers from their ability to drive motor vehicles, they will eventually be involved in a wreck that will hurt or kill themselves or someone they encounter -- or both," said Richard Alpert, Tarrant County assistant district attorney and an expert in prosecuting DWI cases.

The Barton case, the latest to make headlines and create public outrage, occurred in Denton County but underscores a statewide problem involving offenders who repeatedly drink and drive. Mechanisms are in place to prevent and deter repeat offenses, experts say, but if people want to drink and drive, they're going to find a way.

"The number of repeat offenders is enough to scare the beejeevies out of you," said Mary Kardell, executive director of the North Texas branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We are not taking them off the roads. ... The average drunk driver gets behind the wheel 70 to 80 times before they are arrested."

The numbers are staggering, experts say.

Statewide, 78,395 people have three or more DWI convictions, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In Tarrant County, the number of people who have been charged with and prosecuted for felony DWI, which means they have been convicted twice before, has steadily increased during the past five years. Last year, Tarrant County prosecuted 641 defendants for felony DWI, compared with 414 in 2005.

Alpert attributes the increase, in part, to offenders' choosing to serve time in the county jail -- usually on weekends or on labor detail -- on their first and second offenses, which are misdemeanors, rather than accept a probation term with court-mandated treatment.

For example, he said, 34 percent of those convicted of misdemeanor DWI took county jail time in 1992. From 2005 to 2009, 75 percent of those convicted of misdemeanor DWI chose the county jail. Without treatment -- or real punishment -- they are destined to drive drunk again, he said.

"That is not because we stopped offering probation but because most defendants won't take an offer of probation," Alpert said. "Without probation, they are not being exposed to the counseling and treatment programs that are available. Add to that the fact that the jail time they are ordered to serve most often involves them being allowed to do labor detail so they never actually spend any time in jail.

"Therefore, we have a pattern of offenders getting no treatment and no punishment, and that combination is a recipe for recidivism."

New legal tactics

In the past 13 years, Barton, 30, has had three DWIs. He picked up the first one in 1997 in Denton County when he was 17. His second conviction was in 2001 in Denton County, and his third was in 2008 in Tarrant County.

The last one, a felony, landed him in prison. He was sentenced to three years but was paroled after serving nine months.

As a condition of his release, Barton was ordered not to drive unless the vehicle was equipped with an interlock device that required him to breathe into an analyzer that tested for alcohol before the engine could be started.

On Easter morning, police said, Barton was driving a relative's car.

It didn't have an interlock device.

Shortly before 2 a.m., authorities said, Barton plowed into the back of a car on Interstate 35E in Lewisville, killing Kandace Hull, 33, and her daughter, Autumn Caudle, 13, and injuring her husband and their two other children.

Fort Worth resident Julie Jones said she was outraged when she heard about the wreck.

"These habitual drinkers are going to drive whether they have a license or a Breathalyzer," she said. "They are going to drive regardless. This guy found a way to drive. Jake found a way to drive."

"Jake" is Jake Aaron Strickland, the repeat drunken driver who killed Jones' husband.

Seven years ago, Jones and her husband, Brent, 37, were returning home from a Christmas party, their first outing together since the birth of their 9-month-old twins, Lauren and Jacob, when they were struck by Strickland, who was speeding and driving the wrong way on Airport Freeway. Her husband died at the scene.

Strickland had twice been convicted of driving while intoxicated and had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20 -- 21/2 times the legal limit of 0.08.

The case enraged the public. For the first time in Tarrant County history, prosecutors pursued a murder charge against a repeat drunken driver rather than an intoxication manslaughter charge. Under the Texas penal code, a person can be charged with murder if, while committing a felony (in this case driving drunk for the third time), he also performs an act that is "clearly dangerous to human life and causes the death of another person."

The jury convicted Strickland of murder and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

Since then, Tarrant County prosecutors have charged at least four other chronic drunken drivers with murder. Two have been convicted of murder, with one receiving 30 years in prison and the other getting 40. The third defendant died in jail before his trial, and the fourth is awaiting trial.

"A habitual offender's range of punishment should be greater than first offenders," Alpert said. "The fact that jurors have, throughout the state, assessed punishments in these cases that's far beyond the 20 years maximum that is available with an intoxication manslaughter charge demonstrates that there is public support for charging murder in intoxication cases."

Barton will be prosecuted in Denton County, where the wreck occurred.

Officials there said they will purse a felony murder charge -- the first time such a charge has been sought in their county for a death caused by a repeat DWI offender. If convicted, Barton would face up to life in prison.

'Just the names change'

By the time Eugene Lee Standerford killed Fort Worth police officer Alan Chick, he had been arrested at least 12 times -- and convicted eight times -- for driving while intoxicated in Texas.

Officials said he had even more DWI arrests outside the state.

"His first arrest was when my husband was 2 years old," said Lisa Chick, Alan Chick's widow and a retired Fort Worth police officer. "He lost his leg in a motorcycle accident in which he was intoxicated, but even the loss of a limb did not deter his behavior."

Alan Chick had just finished helping a woman jump-start her pickup when Standerford clipped the woman's truck. Chick never had time to react and was thrown headfirst to the pavement. Alan Chick was in a coma for five days before dying Dec. 27, 1993.

Because Standerford was a habitual offender, he faced 25 years to life in prison.

A jury gave him life.

Lisa Chick said Standerford should have been off the road long before he killed her husband and believes that tougher legislation is needed for repeat offenders. History, she said, continues to repeat itself.

"Just the names change," she said. "The innocent aren't protected. When I hear it year after year, it is a disappointment. ... Why is this person out there operating a vehicle? And the answer is, because we let them."

Chick said she supports having sobriety checkpoints, suspending the driver's licenses of offenders with three or more DWIs, even ordering them to have a specialized license plate.

"If you have been convicted of DWI, you get a pretty plate that says you are a DWI offender," she said.

Jones said she would like to see "Convicted of DWI" stamped on the driver's licenses of repeat offenders, which not only would be embarrassing but also would raise red flags to those serving the person alcohol.

Alpert said he supports those ideas, too, but stresses that sober drivers have to be vigilant, drive defensively and report erratic driving.

"Between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., I will not go out on the road unless it is absolutely necessary," he said. "If the suspect won't weigh the risk of driving drunk, then the sober individual needs to weigh the risk of sharing the road with the drunken driver."

Searching for solutions

Michael Swafford, 48, said it's nothing short of a miracle that he hasn't killed himself or somebody else.

He has been convicted of DWI five times.

"You don't want your teenager driving with me on the roads," he said.

After his last arrest, he was given a choice: serve a seven-year sentence or enter Tarrant County's Felony Alcohol Intervention Project.

The project, overseen by state District Judge Sharen Wilson, is an intensive four-year program focused on treating chronic drunken drivers.

Swafford chose the program but said he had no intention of getting sober.

"I didn't want to stop drinking and when I got into the program, my intentions were, 'When I get done with this, I can legally drink again,'" he said.

But along the way, he said, his attitude changed.

The participants, who are closely monitored by probation officers, have their driver's licenses suspended for at least a year, must wear ankle monitors that can determine whether they have been drinking, attend alcohol treatment and counseling at least four times a week, and have interlock devices installed in their vehicles, among other things.

If they misstep, they can go to prison.

"The program is so intense you are forced to stop drinking," said Swafford, who is scheduled to graduate from the program this year. "It changed my attitude. I don't want to drink again."

Swafford believes that intensive treatment is the answer to chronic drunken drivers.

"I'm speaking as an alcoholic with five DWIs and drinking for 30 years," he said. "If you want to keep the drunk drivers off the road, you don't take their car away from them. You take the drinking away from them."

MELODY M cDONALD, 817-390-7386