DA, mother plead 'Don't Drink & Drive'

By Reggie Ellis

It was no accident that the District Attorney's Office chose the quad area at College of the Sequoias to kick-off its campaign to crack down on drinking and driving in Tulare County.

Drivers 16-25 years old represent 50 percent of alcohol related fatal crashes since 1992, according to the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration.

"It is the young people that we are trying to reach out to," said Brian Yoshimoto, supervising attorney for the Tulare County DA's office, standing before MADD representatives, police chiefs, sheriff's deputies, DUI investigators and traffic enforcement officers. "We are all here to show our solidarity to the impact and the seriousness of driving under the influence."

It was no accident the press conference was held prior to Thanksgiving.

Known as the "Killing Season," Thanksgiving Day through New Year's Day is the most dangerous time of the year for alcohol related traffic fatalities. In 2002, 45 percent of all alcohol related fatal accidents occurred during the holiday season. During that span in 2003, 1,700 people were killed nationwide due to alcohol related crashes.

It was also no accident that Lynne Goodwin of Exeter was the keynote speaker.

An employee with Friday Night Live of Tulare County, Goodwin was speaking to a class at COS about the dangers of drinking and driving on March 14, 2003 when she heard the news that her daughter, Casey LeeAnne Goodwin, had been seriously injured in a collision with a drunk driver.

"We thought we had some immunity," Goodwin said about herself and her daughter, who also crusaded against drinking and driving. "We were wrong. No one is immune."

Casey, 20, was on her way home from Cuesta College to celebrate her mother's birthday when Fernando Ochoa, 18, of Stratford, swerved into her lane and hit her car head-on. Ochoa had been drinking and was traveling at least 90 mph because he was late to work at a fast food establishment in Kettleman City. Ochoa's blood alcohol content was 0.19, more than twice the legal limit of .08.

Goodwin said the doctors told her family that every bone in her body was broken, every organ, except her heart, had been damaged and that Casey had little to no brain activity.

"All we could do was hold her little hand, look at her eyes and wait for her heart to stop beating," Goodwin said. "I can't even describe to you how hard that is." Casey died from her injuries the following day.

Casey's car is now the focal point of a mobile anti-drinking and driving exhibit that the Fresno Police Department unveiled on June 1. It served as the backdrop for the press conference. Bolted down inside a 30-foot trailer, Casey's crumpled 1998 Honda Civic can be seen through four large plexiglass windows on the sides of the trailer. The exhibit is only the third of its kind in the nation and the first to house an innocent victim's car instead of the vehicle of the DUI offender. The trailer also includes two large televisions in the front and back and four smaller TVs on the side, which continuously play an eight-minute video montage of Casey's life.

"Someone asked me if the hardest thing was looking at this car behind me," Goodwin said. "The car is horrendous, but sometimes the hardest thing is a sugar cookie that Casey liked to make … or, sometimes, just breathing."

Goodwin said she wanted to let everyone know that drinking and driving is a serious problem in Tulare County. "It's not just my problem and my burden, but a problem for the entire community. The men and women we have lost in Iraq to terrorism is terrible, but we should hate the terrorism that occurs on our streets every day. We should be just as angry about that."

District Attorney Phil Cline warned anyone who made the mistake of drinking and driving will be prosecuted the full extent of the law.

"If you drink and drive we will put you in jail," Cline yelled into the microphone. "But even when we do that, we realize that is another tragedy. These aren't bad people, they are just making bad choices."

Cline said just a few hours earlier a young man was sentenced to five years in state prison for crashing into a motorcycle. The man, Patrick Welch, 51, of Riverdale, pleaded no contest to felony DUI with special allegations for personal infliction of great bodily injury and for having a blood alcohol content of .2, more than twice the legal limit.

At about 4:45 p.m. on Sept. 27, Welch got into his Chevy pickup. While making a left turn into a gas station near Houston and Ben Maddox, the pickup struck a motorcycle coming in the opposite direction, driven by Richard Valdez, 44, of Visalia. The impact knocked Valdez to the ground where, according to witnesses, Welch's pickup drove over Valdez's legs. His body was seen by his wife, Tiffany, and four children who were eating at a nearby restaurant before he was airlifted to University Medical Center with life threatening injuries, including a broken neck and ruptured aorta. Twenty-three years earlier, Tiffany's sister, Renee Karis, was killed by a drunk driver.

Valdez survived, and is now making a slow recovery after spending more than three weeks on life support. Prior to sentencing, Welch indicated he had a long history of alcohol abuse and had a prior DUI conviction in 1980, when his BAC was .21, more than an hour after the collision.

"We have fought crime for entire careers and are all pretty tough guys," said Cline of himself and fellow law enforcement leaders. "But we have all shed a tear over the loss of someone from drinking and driving. I am the District Attorney of Tulare County. I am a powerful guy. But I will get down on my knees and beg you not to drink and get behind the wheel."

Following the press conference, Friday Night Live and the Visalia Police Department had equipment on display such as "DUI goggles," that simulate how vision is distorted for someone who has drank more than the legal limit.

An officer with the Visalia Police Department's traffic enforcement unit gave a demonstration to a few passing students. He said that some students believe that sucking on a penny or swishing mouthwash is a quick way to pass a breathalizer test, but the officer said by the time you are done with all of the other coordination and and balance tests, anything used to mask the smell of alcohol will have dissipated.

Another important message for college-age students was that even blowing a .01 Blood Alcohol Content, eight times less than the legal limit, the effects of the alcohol are enough to divide your reaction time and impair some visual function. At .04 your eye movement control shows signs of impairment and your equilibrium begins to be affected. At .06 judgement and information processing slows down or is somewhat distorted. At 0.8, the legal limit, judgement, reaction time, coordination, and attention span are all severely impaired.

The traffic program is being paid for through a new anti-DUI grant through the California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS). In 2002, the more recent numbers available through OTS, Tulare County ranked 20th in the state for fatal collisions where alcohol was involved. Thirteen percent of all fatal and injury collisions in Tulare County were alcohol related. Persons killed in alcohol involved collisions increased 8.3 percent -- up from 1,308 in 2001 to 1,416 in 2002. Since 1998, California has experienced a 32 percent increase in persons killed in alcohol-involved collisions. However, in OTS grant funded cities, alcohol-involved fatal and injury collisions have decreased 26.3 percent.

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