It's a major problem that takes and affects lives every year right here in Texoma. Driving while intoxicated is a constant battle for law enforcement and the legal system, and a danger for every Texoma family on the road.
According to TX-DOT, 955 people were killed and 17,500 were injured by drunk drivers in Texas last year alone. And Texomans know the consequences of drunk driving all too well.
On July 17, driving with a blood alcohol content of .240, George Powers struck an SUV with his truck. He was driving the wrong way on US 287 when he caused the crash on the Wilson Overpass. Diann Nicole Siple, 22, was killed in that crash. Her husband, 22-year-old Joshua Siple, was critically injured and another passenger thrown from the vehicle in the collision.
Then on August 1, driving with a BAC of .259, 38-year-old Spencer Risinger Jr. slammed his Chevrolet Tahoe into a Hummer carrying a family of four from Colorado. Risinger was driving the wrong way along US 287 near Vernon. Department of Public Safety troopers said both vehicles immediately burst into flames. All five people died on scene.
Sheriff David Duke said Wichita County sees between five and 10 deaths from drunk drivers every year. "We're reminded probably every other month of a bad accident that was created by an intoxicated driver," said Sheriff Duke.
Sheriff Duke also said drunk drivers are a danger his deputies face on a daily basis. "We've had deputies that have nearly been struck head on or rear ended by DWI's," he said. "And not only at night time but daytime."
Newschannel 6 rode along with deputy John Warner Saturday night. In just two hours, Newschannel 6 crews captured three suspected DWI stops. In one of those stops a man was arrested for driving drunk with two kids in the car. Deputies said he blew at over twice the legal limit.
According to Sheriff Duke, his deputies stop anywhere between five and 12 intoxicated drivers on an average weekend. "If the sheriff's office can arrest up to 10 DWI's in a weekend," he said, "imagine how many others that get by."
Some of those drunk drivers just don't stop. In the past two weeks nearly 20 people appeared in Wichita County District Courts for repeat DWI offenses. Newschannel 6 set out to find the face of this problem in Texoma: it didn't take long.
Searching alphabetically, before getting through the A's, we came upon John Ayala Jr. Ayala is currently facing a felony DWI Repetition charge. His previous convictions include two misdemeanor DWI's and nine cases of Driving While License Suspended, dating back to July of 1989. Those are in addition to a laundry list of other charges including seven counts of Deadly Conduct.
John Gillespie heads up the Intoxication Prosecution Unit for the Wichita County District Attorney's office. He said it's a never ending battle keeping repeat offenders off the streets. "It doesn't matter whether their license is suspended or not," he said. "If they're willing to drive drunk, they're willing to drive without a license."
Gillespie sees the dangers of drivers like Ayala all the time. "I've worked with these victims' families who've lost loved ones over impaired drivers," he said. "The number one question I get is why, why did this have to happen?"
Gillespie said Texas law doesn't provide a way to permanently revoke someone's license. Judges can order interlock devices for offender's vehicles as a bond condition or for repeat offenses within five years.
Ayala has been ordered to have an interlock device. A violation report shows he blew a .096 last October, a violation of his bond. Ayala was on the October 15, 2010 docket for a pre-trial conference in the 78th District Court. His status for that appearance: out on bond.
Ayala is scheduled for another pre-trial conference November 19. Until then, he's still on the street.
So how can we make sure Ayala and other repeat offenders aren't driving? Gillespie said there's only one way. "If they're repeat offenders, that are doing it time and time again, lock them up and take them off the streets," Gillespie said. "That's what's going to ensure they're not targeting our family members."
But, unless someone is injured or killed, a DWI only becomes a felony once a driver has two previous convictions. A third degree felony in Texas can carry a sentence of as little as two years. Though Gillespie said he often pushes for maximum sentences for repeat offenders.
Gillespie said another problem with repeat offenders is they have experience getting pulled over and being arrested. "So once they make it to the felony level," he said, "they've worked with their defense attorneys and they game the system. They refuse field sobriety tests, they refuse to take the breath test. And so we were left in court with, basically, a total refusal. And, you can imagine, these are very difficult cases to try."
Sheriff Duke and John Gillespie said these repeat DWI offenders will continue to be a problem. "So, it's just the nature of society," said Sheriff Duke, "and there's nothing, I don't think, that's totally gonna stop any of that."
But, law enforcement will continue to pull drunk drivers off the streets. And prosecutors will fight for maximum jail sentences in the hopes of seeing fewer drunk drivers on Texoma roadways.
"I've seen brains smeared on the side of the road," said Gillespie. "And you see those things and they really impact you as a prosecutor and helps put those cases into context."
Gillespie said there has been progress made in the fight against repeat offenders. State legislators passed a new DWI law that went into effect last September. It allows law enforcement to take mandatory blood draws from suspected repeat drunk drivers who refuse a breathalyzer. Gillespie said DWI prosecutions have increased sharply since then.
The driver in the Wilson overpass accident, George Powers, is due in court for a pre-trial hearing December 20. He is facing one felony count of Intoxication Manslaughter and two for Intoxication Assault.