Bud Kennedy

One of Texas’ toughest on DWIs, prosecutor adjusts to retirement

Then-Tarrant County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert enters the courtroom for an Ethan Couch adult court hearing at the Tim Curry Justice Center.
Then-Tarrant County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Richard Alpert enters the courtroom for an Ethan Couch adult court hearing at the Tim Curry Justice Center. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

He might be Texas’ toughest DWI prosecutor. He sent dozens of killer drunken drivers to prison.

Now, after 30 years, Richard Alpert just retired. But he still worries during the holidays.

“God forbid, you never know when a police officer will get hit by a drunk driver,” said Alpert, 56, of North Richland Hills, retired as a prosecutor and litigation expert in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

“If that happens, I know I’ll call the investigators and help. I won’t sit by.”

Ever since three officers were killed within five weeks in 1992, Alpert has worked long hours to punish drivers whose drinking killed an officer, leaving innocent families and victims behind.

“No refusal” blood tests make proving that easier.

“But intoxication cases are still complicated,” Alpert said.

“Imagine a case where the person on trial never meant to hurt anybody. You have to articulate to the jury why this accident deserves punishment.”

For Alpert, his career was an extension of drama classes and Shakespearean productions at the University of Texas. He grew up in Dallas and worked briefly in Collin County before landing in Tarrant County in 1987 under the late District Attorney Tim Curry and chief deputy Steve Chaney.

He arrived just as the Mothers Against Drunk Driving watchdog group emerged. Curry and Chaney wanted to shake the label “Tolerant County.”

“Tim wanted to make Tarrant County a model, the place where other counties sent everybody for training,” Alpert said.

In large part, Curry succeeded.

Alpert tried more than 100 cases before juries. He was honored with both MADD and State Bar of Texas “prosecutor of the year” awards.

He continues as a consultant, working several weeks next year with the Texas District & County Attorneys Association.

“I have no political aspirations,” Alpert said: “I have no interest in being a judge. My greatest interest is in serving the state on law enforcement matters.” He hopes to help Sheriff-elect Bill Waybourn, Alpert said.

Alpert said 10 years of mandatory blood tests for alcohol have turned up surprising numbers of other substances.

“We see prescription drugs that are not illegal being combined with alcohol, and we might need the Legislature’s help on that,” he said.

About one-third of blood samples show a mixture of alcohol and drugs, he said, particularly sedatives such as Xanax.

“It’s real prominent in drivers from about age 30 to 60,” he said.

“They don’t think they’re ‘on drugs.’ They don’t think it affects them. But it does. … Driving is a series of unanticipated events, and you have to be ready to react instantly.”

He wants those unsafe drivers locked up.

Alpert’s successor as misdemeanor chief is prosecutor Lloyd Whelchel, also a pioneer of no-refusal blood draws. Just last week, Whelchel helped send Fred Couch, father of drunken-driving delinquent and unsuccessful escapee Ethan Couch, to a short jail term over false Lakeside police ID.

District Attorney Sharen Wilson sent a statement praising Alpert: “Richard was instrumental in shaping the early career of hundreds of attorneys. … Richard’s stalwart commitment to seeking justice for Tarrant County’s crime victims has not wavered throughout his almost 30 years.”

It’s not wavering now.

“I’m a prosecutor,” he said: “I will never be a defense attorney. If I were going to do that, I would have done it long ago.”

He retired from the courthouse. But not from justice.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.