Out of Control


Houston is ‘ground zero’ for drunken and drugged driving

By St. John Barned-Smith and Dug Begley
Multimedia by Godofredo A. Vasquez

Second in an occasional series

Mishann Childers slowed as the flashing lights came into view.

Telge Road in northwest Harris County was closed. A crash, a sheriff’s deputy said. Someone hit a silver Buick.

Her husband, Wayne, drove a silver Buick. He often took that road.

Owen McNett’s blood-alcohol content was nearly four times the legal limit when he crashed into Wayne Childers’ car, killing him, police said. Five times before, McNett had been arrested for driving drunk, with two lengthy prison stays. That rainy Friday night in February became the sixth. He had a valid Texas driver’s license.

Consider the tragedy for the Childers, then multiply it by more than 300 each year. Drivers impaired by booze and drugs are dying — and killing — in the Houston area at a startling rate, an epidemic unchecked by police, prosecutors or public-awareness campaigns.

The nine-county region tallied more fatal drunken-driving crashes during the last 16 years than any other major metropolitan area in the country, a Houston Chronicle analysis of federal highway data shows. Drivers and passengers died in more than 3,000 wrecks caused by drunk or drugged drivers, roughly 1,000 more than Los Angeles, which has about twice the population.

PART 1: Houston’s roads, drivers are country’s most deadly

Among the 12 largest metro regions in the country, only Dallas/Fort Worth — with 2,425 alcohol- or drug-related fatal crashes over the same time period — even comes close. The top two spots show that the cliché holds: Everything is bigger in Texas, including the body count.

The Houston region has broader trouble on its roads. The nine-county area is the most deadly major metro area in the U.S. for drivers, passengers and people in their path, the Chronicle reported earlier this month.

But the wreckage left behind by impaired drivers is a significant reason that Houston outpaced the others. Since 2010, the Houston area has averaged more than 5,000 crashes caused by impaired drivers annually. That’s roughly 14 a day, or more than one every other hour. Fatalities across the region remain above 300 each year.

“Houston is ground zero for DWI fatalities …,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “No family should live with the pain of getting that knock on the door in the middle of the night.” Earlier this year, Ogg lamented that the area “really couldn’t do worse.”

Some were killed in crashes of their own making. Roberto Antonio Alas, a 47-year-old father of four, died early one June morning while driving on the North Sam Houston Tollway around 3 a.m. An autopsy found his blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.

Numerous other drinkers spread tragedy in their wake. One spring night two years ago in northwest Harris County, Jeremy Paul Valdez sped through a red light at 103 mph, prosecutors said. He slammed into a black Honda containing Emilio Avila-Blanco, 33, Hilda Avila, 42, and Mauricio Ramires, 18, killing all three and turning their vehicle into mangled scrap.

AN AVERAGE WEEK: In Houston, 11 fatal wrecks, 12 deaths

“We are the worst state in the nation for drunk-driving fatalities and crashes,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “And we happen to be the worst of the worst in Harris County. We can’t afford to have an ‘it’s not important’ attitude.”

But Texas is not doing enough to stop impaired drivers, according to a Chronicle analysis of court records, state highway crash data, police staffing records and state laws and dozens of interviews with police, prosecutors, traffic safety experts and those left grieving.

Law-enforcement leaders deploy inadequate numbers of officers to drunken-driving enforcement. Prosecution remains uneven, hampered by complicated and costly probation programs so arduous that many drunken drivers choose jail time instead of treatment. Texas prisons provide beds in treatment facilities for just a small portion of the offenders serving time for drunken and drugged driving. And state laws provide little recourse to supervise chronic drunken drivers once their prison sentences are completed — and don’t allow use of measures proven to reduce crashes and fatalities.

If caught — even after killing passengers, other motorists or pedestrians — impaired drivers sometimes receive little or no punishment. Since 2015, for example, more than a dozen drivers convicted in intoxication manslaughter cases in Harris County got off with no time served.

A lack of consequences, coupled with Texans’ near-religious connection to their cars and trucks, leads to an ingrained culture of drinking and driving that doesn’t carry the same stigma it does in other states.

“The citizens of Harris County aren’t scared to get arrested for a DWI,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kirby Burton, who oversees the department’s DWI task force.

Drivers in Houston and local officials acknowledge more must be done. Many believe traffic laws take a back seat to other priorities.

“People here just drink and drive,” said Ron Micklewaite, 77, a lifelong Houstonian and cab driver, who often carts revelers from bar to bar. “Every weekend I’m out I see someone sliding all over the road.”

Mike Davis, a trainer at the Alamo Area Regional Law Enforcement Academy in San Antonio, has a similar observation from a statewide perspective.

“We are big, and we drive everywhere,” he said. “But we like to drink.”

A knock at the door

At the roadblock, police wouldn’t tell Mishann Childers anything. She stood in the rain for hours, a churn of dread rising, before returning home to wait.

Finally, at 1:30 a.m., two police officers knocked on her door. She saw them, and she knew.

She and Wayne, 54, had met 31 years before at a movie theater. They had raised four children. The night he died, they had dinner at Aguirre’s Tex-Mex in Tomball around 6 p.m., then left for home in separate cars. Mishann arrived and waited for him.

As Wayne was driving home shortly after 8 p.m., police said, a 45-year-old wastewater technician driving a company pickup tore through the stop sign at Telge and smashed into his car. Owen McNett had a blood-alcohol content of 0.312, according to prosecutors — nearly four times the legal limit. At the time of the crash, he was on parole for his latest drunken-driving conviction. The term of his license revocation had run while he was in prison.

McNett could serve 25 years to life in prison if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty.

“He absolutely feels horrible about someone being killed,” said Jed Silverman, his attorney. “He’s got a huge sense of remorse.”

A meager force

Police arrested McNett at the scene. But many other impaired drivers travel on the region’s roads with little likelihood of running into law enforcement officers.

The Chronicle’s analysis reveals that traffic and speeding enforcement have been declining for years. And staffing records from local departments show that agencies assign just a handful of officers to regular DWI enforcement.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s unit — created two years ago — currently counts five deputies. At the Pasadena Police Department, five officers trawl the roads. Houston police’s DWI enforcement unit includes about 25 officers and supervisors, out of roughly 5,000 personnel.

Many other departments don’t have anyone designated to keep drunks off the road, arguing that the task is part of everyday patrol activities. But law enforcement veterans say that such stops are technical and time-consuming affairs that regular officers often prefer to avoid.

Each stop can take hours, requiring field-sobriety tests, trips to hospitals and lengthy bureaucratic waits before technicians can collect a blood sample.

“There are officers that would rather go work a homicide than they would a DWI,” said Pasadena Police Asst. Chief Josh Bruegger, a veteran DWI officer.

Still, records show departments — no matter how big or small — can enforce the streets when they dedicate resources either in targeted teams or policing philosophy.

Deputies at the Precinct 8 Constable’s Office, southeast of Hobby Airport, arrested nearly 1,400 drunken drivers since the beginning of 2015 — the sixth-highest number of arrests in Harris County. The department, small by local standards, has approximately 70 officers, including a three-person DWI task force, according to Chief Deputy Jason Finnen.

“We’re very proud of that number,” Finnen said.

Forces double the size report fewer arrests. The Baytown Police Department, an agency of some 160 officers, arrested 800 drunken drivers in that time, according to records from the Harris County District Clerk’s Office.

RELATED: Officers find themselves on ‘high’ alert for impaired drivers

There’s a similar shortage of manpower to stop the state’s bars and restaurants from selling liquor to minors or continuing to serve drunken customers. In greater Houston, 40 agents oversee 6,000 establishments, according to Chris Porter, spokesman for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. The agency has only 225 agents statewide.

In fiscal 2019, which starts Oct. 1, the Houston region is expected to receive more than $2.5 million in federal money for on-street enforcement, most of it going to Houston and Harris County law enforcement. Funding, however, fluctuates and is spread across many agencies for efforts ranging from education campaigns in schools to enforcement on special holiday weekends.

The agencies say the money isn’t enough and that it pays only for extra enforcement on holiday weekends. They say they are stretched too thin to consistently afford extra officers.

“The enforcement isn’t in the right place,” said Larry Krantz, a liaison between TxDOT and local police. Where officers focus, they can make arrests, he said, but the problem is larger than what one or two cops can handle on Labor Day.

“Otherwise you are playing whack-a-mole out on the highway,” Krantz said.

‘Failure on every level’

When police do take impaired drivers off the road, many are familiar faces in Harris County District Court. Of the approximately 30,000 impaired drivers arrested in the county since 2015, roughly 8,000 were drivers previously convicted of DWI.

Eleven times, Harris County law enforcement officers arrested people for impaired driving who had previously been convicted for killing someone while driving drunk, in Texas or elsewhere, records show.

The Chronicle reviewed more than 100 cases of drivers accused of intoxication manslaughter. More than 20 of those drivers had previous DWI convictions or cases still pending.

Owen McNett’s February crash was the first in which he was charged with a drunken driving crash that killed someone — but it wasn’t even close to his first DWI. He was first convicted of driving drunk in 1992, court records show, after he was caught under the influence in Kimble County. More trouble followed:

■ In 1996, he was convicted after he was caught by police in Tarrant County. He served 30 days in jail.

■ On June 19, 2005, Burleson police arrested him after catching him with an open container and a blood-alcohol content of 0.321, or four times the legal limit. He pleaded guilty on Jan 17, 2006, in exchange for 10 years of probation.

■ In 2007, while he was on probation, Houston police arrested him for driving drunk, with a BAC of 0.20. McNett pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison. He also received a seven-year sentence for violating his 2005 probation.

■ Troopers in McLennan County caught him driving drunk again in 2012, with a BAC of 0.299. That time, he received a six-year prison sentence.

He was paroled for his fifth offense early in 2015 and was set to be on parole until Oct. 6 of this year. After the Feb. 9 crash that killed Wayne Childers, he was charged with murder. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

“It was a failure on every level,” said Sean Teare, chief of the Vehicular Crimes Unit at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “The fact that he was allowed to drive after that many DWIs. The fact that he was allowed to use a company truck. The fact that he was allowed to have a driver’s license. The fact that he received light sentences for those previous DWIs. There’s no question he posed a danger to society.”

Other repeat offenders — even those who have injured others in drunken-driving crashes — have returned to the roads, only to cause carnage and destruction.

Valdez, the 25-year-old driver whose crash killed the Avilas and their son, had already been convicted three times for driving while intoxicated at the time of that crash. None of the charges, convictions or punishments kept him off the road in northwest Harris County in May 2016, where he drove his black Dodge pickup down FM 2920, slamming into the family of three.

He was convicted in 2011 for driving drunk; a judge sentenced him to 12 days in jail and suspended his license. In 2012, he was convicted again of drunken driving, this time in Chambers County.

Then in May of 2013, authorities in Montgomery County tried to pull Valdez over for driving drunk, but he sped away, sparking a 22-mile chase. Police caught him only after he crashed into a pickup and injured two women. His blood-alcohol content was 0.228, or nearly three times the legal limit. That case earned Valdez two years in prison because he had been convicted of driving drunk three or more times, a felony.

Then in 2016, after his release, he drove drunk again, this time with lethal results. He did not have a valid driver’s license when he crashed into the Avilas. Valdez pleaded guilty to three counts of intoxication manslaughter and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The vast majority of drunken drivers who crash and kill Harris County residents receive lighter punishments. By law, intoxication manslaughter cases for offenders with otherwise clean records carry a maximum of 20 years.

An analysis of 62 completed intoxication manslaughter cases since 2015 in Harris County shows that sentences for drunken drivers responsible for killing others in crashes varied widely: Some were sentenced to decades in prison. Others — nearly a quarter — received sentences that allowed them to avoid time behind bars.

W. Clay Abbott, a DWI expert for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the circumstances for each case required individual consideration. A crash between two drunken drivers, for example, deserves a different sentence than a man who crashes and kills his wife.

“The cases are radically different, which means sometimes the sentences have to be,” he said. “It creates a more just, if less-consistent system.”

In 30 non-fatal cases involving repeat drunken drivers, a third of defendants had a drunken-driving charge dismissed after being convicted in another DWI case. That means that they avoided additional punishment for the subsequent offense.

As with the intoxication manslaughter cases, sentences varied widely. Some defendants received probation; others received months of jail time.

“I think in the rush to resolve cases, we can forget the seriousness of the allegations,” said Harris County Court at Law #14 Judge Michael Fields.

Harris County Court at Law #11 Judge Diane Bull said part of the problem stemmed from a lack of consistency among other misdemeanor court judges — and a system that currently fails to quickly assess defendants’ risk continuing to drink and drive after they’re first arrested.

READ MORE: Courts look to cure offenders, not corral them

“When you have 16 different (misdemeanor) judges, there are going to be 16 ways of doing something,” she said. “These inconsistencies lead to spotty outcomes. We can miss opportunities to identify someone who poses a risk to public safety. If someone gets time served, or jail time with no treatment, it’s a missed opportunity to give someone intervention they need. And that would have an effect on public safety as well.”

Weak penalties in Texas

When McNett crashed into Childers, he had a valid Texas driver’s license, court records show. State statutes limit license suspensions to a maximum of two years. License suspensions go into effect within 40 days of conviction, meaning that in the most serious cases, drivers are barred from driving while they are locked up.

Beyond one little-known statute allowing Texas judges to require repeat drunken drivers to use interlocks for a year after their prison sentence is completed, state law provides virtually no mechanisms to monitor them.

“Once our punishment time frame is over, we have no ability to supervise or observe, even if we know they’re chronically drunk drivers,” Teare said. “We can’t restrict them in any other meaningful way.”

A Chronicle survey of state laws pertaining to license suspensions and interlock use found Texas’ were among the most lenient. Lawmakers in 36 states have established longer license revocations, suspensions or more lengthy interlock use than Texas.

For repeat offenders, Florida can impose permanent suspensions. Florida does not allow suspension time to run while the offender is in prison.

Texas’ laws allow repeat drunken drivers to get new licenses once their suspensions are complete after they finish a drug education program and apply for reinstatement. For many offenders returning to freedom, the ability to drive is critical to get work or to alcohol counseling.

“You can’t get from Cleburne, Texas, to Dallas on a bike,” said state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who has worked with Mothers Against Drunk Driving on various state bills.

Texas exerts some control by requiring offenders to obtain licenses that allow them only to drive to and from work, or in a vehicle equipped with an interlock, a breathalyzer-type device that lets the automobile start if the driver shows no signs of alcohol in his system.

Use of interlock and occupational licenses, however, is declining even as Texas allows first offenders the chance to use interlocks. In 2016, the number of interlock licenses issued by DPS declined 16 percent to 4,190. Since 2013, the number of occupational licenses issued has dropped annually in Texas, from 18,358 to 15,098 last year.

But experts say Texas’ sprawl means drunken drivers will get behind the wheel even if their license is suspended — they’ll just do it illegally.

“The simple fact is that drunk drivers drive without driver’s licenses,” Abbott said. “Taking away someone’s driver’s license has never taken away their car keys.”

Gridlock in Austin

As they attempt to curb drunken drivers, police and prosecutors say they are hamstrung by state law. Proven efforts to reduce fatalities — including sobriety checkpoints — have found little traction in Texas, earning the state one of the worst rankings in a state-by-state comparison by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The organization, which weighs fatalities and five criteria in its assessment of DWI prevention efforts, also faulted Texas for weaknesses in the state’s interlock and license revocation laws.

Lawmakers and judges say meaningful reforms are a political minefield.

“The kinds of measures that can reduce drunk driving are exactly the issues Texans struggle with,” Villalba said. “The kinds of things that can be done are the kinds of things that usually interfere with the rights of the people who are not engaging in the behavior.”

THE WAY FORWARD: Solutions are available, but they can be taxing

Lawmakers were similarly slow to adopt a general ban on texting while driving — despite overwhelming consensus it would save lives — for more than a decade because of a reluctance to legislate behavior. That finally changed in 2017 when state senators and Gov. Greg Abbott relented and approved the legislation.

The same staunch opposition would await debate of allowing sobriety checkpoints, where police set up along a road and monitor all drivers for signs of intoxication. The checkpoints have come under withering criticism from civil rights advocates. Checkpoints have been shown to reduce impaired-driving fatalities by as much as 20 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think as far as it would ever get is a committee hearing, if even that,” said Villalba, a moderate Republican defeated in the March primary by Lisa Luby Ryan. “I don’t think you would see it get out of committee. It may work, it may be a good thing, but there is just not the support there.”

Acevedo, the Houston police chief, remains optimistic.

“Police chiefs have talked about DWI checkpoints for the 11 years I’ve been here in Texas,” he said. “Eventually we’re going to get them. … The data isa very clear. It actually reduces instances of drunk driving.”

Moments missed

For years, Mishann Childers watched her husband putter around the house. He liked to work with his hands, and nearly every room in their cozy home in Cypress bears his touch — the bathroom, the bedrooms, the kitchen, the deck outside.

He liked to take care of his family, driving for hours to visit his children when they were away at college. When they were younger, he took each of the four on their own trip to Disney World.

He was the same way at his job at AMC Theatres, mentoring younger employees at different locations across Harris County. Dozens showed up at his funeral, some of whom hadn’t worked for him for almost a decade, joining the hundreds who gathered to pay their respects.

She wondered about the moments he will never get to see — his children’s graduation, or their weddings, or meeting future grandchildren. She thinks about dinners with Wayne, their daily conversations, the quiet moments she will miss most of all.

“It’s just overwhelming. Everything you don’t realize when you have a spouse,” she said. “Each one has things you do every day in your lives for each other. You don’t realize how much that was until it’s not there anymore.

“He should be here,” she said. “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

New efforts
Here are some new tactics local law enforcement officials are trying to rein in drunken driving:

■ Harris County’s Joint Processing Center will accept arrests from all local agencies, speeding up processing of impaired drivers and allowing officers to get back out on patrol faster.

■ The Houston Police Department is adding a requirement for new officers to perform several DWI arrests before they complete field training.

■ The Harris County DA’s office has launched a high-profile campaign with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission to educate businesses to curb sales of alcohol to minors — and has cracked down on bars that serve minors or over-serve intoxicated patrons.

■ The DA’s office also has increased pretrial assessment and treatment options for defendants, and it recently announced it would seek permanent license revocations for third-time DWI offenders.

■ In Montgomery County, constable offices created a countywide DWI task force last year and bulked up “no-refusal” weekends, when law enforcement take blood samples if drivers say no to a breathalyzer test.

Related stories:

Officers find themselves on ‘high’ alert for impaired drivers

Courts look to cure offenders, not corral them

Solutions are available, but they can be taxing

About the series
This is the second in an occasional series that explores why the Houston area is such a dangerous place to drive. The first report showed that the region is the most deadly major metro region in the country for drivers, passengers and those in their path.

Next, in October: A crash course in road design.

Part 1: The greater Houston region is the most dangerous major metro area for drivers in the United States. Read our story here.

Read the Original Houston Chronicle Article Here