Wright or Wrong: A Dundalk pastor says drunk drivers get a pass—and the state doesn't seem to care
By By Edward Ericson Jr.
Nov 03, 2015 | 11:46 AM
Lily Jo Kelley was traveling on the beltway Nov. 25, 2012 when a car slammed into the SUV she was riding in, killing her and badly injuring her mother and sister. Victoria DeAngelo, 21, was driving the wrong way on the highway when she smashed into the SUV. Lily Jo Kelley was 3 years old.
DeAngelo also died in the crash. An autopsy found she had twice the legal limit of alcohol in her bloodstream, along with pain pills. It was another tragedy, two more deaths in a state where drunk-driving fatalities are still common, despite a 20-year legal crackdown on DUI, advances in vehicle safety, and mandatory drug and alcohol treatment protocols.
Ronald Wright says the tragedy could have been prevented. He says the state killed Lily Kelley, and Victoria DeAngelo, because nobody in authority would listen to him.
"Victoria DeAngelo was one of my students," Wright says. "I called them and called them. We tried to get her treatment."
Wright is a steely-faced white guy with thinning white hair. He stands straight, tall, and trim, but there is the hint of slack in his jowls. His voice is firm, high, well-modulated and gentle. It's an old cop's voice—he is an old Baltimore City cop, decades ago retired on disability. It's also a pastor's voice—he became a pastor after he was a cop.
Wright teaches alcohol education at Merritt Park Baptist, his Dundalk church. He's done this for 35 years. For the past 10 of those years, he's been in a quiet, simmering battle with an array of state and county officials, mainly about state certification of his alcohol education program.
Wright says his alcohol education program doesn't need to be state certified because it was grandfathered in after the law changed in 2008. But that's not where the story is. Wright also runs another program called Alpha, which he describes variously as a "self-help" group and a referral program—but not as drug treatment. In 2011 he says he learned that people who came to his Alpha Program were taking proof of enrollment back to their Parole and Probation agents, who would use that paper to "dump the case."
The probation agent would grant the probationer credit for attending a drug or alcohol treatment program even if the offender paid just one visit to Wright's church, Wright says. Parole and Probation would end the probation of recidivist drunk drivers and write the Motor Vehicle Administration to restore their driver's license.
And then people died, Wright says.
Wright took his concerns up the chain of command at Parole and Probation, and then to the State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees drug treatment.
He says both agencies retaliated, telling him to stop teaching alcohol education (he has refused), sending a "cease and desist" order, and then demanding that he get the Alpha Program certified. Wright has refused to do that too, saying Alpha does not need to be certified because it is "not drug treatment." He also says that the effort to get Alpha certified is an effort to undermine his charge that probation cases have been mishandled: If state authorities can certify Alpha as having been "drug treatment" all along, then there was no case dumping.
A spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Gerard Shields, says in an email—right before this issue's deadline—that "The division does not 'dump' supervision cases under any circumstances."
In frustration, Wright has contacted federal and state authorities and demanded that they charge him with a crime for running his uncertified programs. He filed a lawsuit in federal court, pro se, and then dropped the matter on Oct. 20 so "there will be no reason not to address questions from the public when they are asked." He even put on his detective's hat—like a lot of ex-cops, he was a licensed private detective—and spent 2,043 man-hours investigating his own case, according to the report he produced on the letterhead of Cobra Investigations.
"We know that hundreds of cases have been closed in Dundalk and Essex over the past three years," he writes on page four of a six-page "official report" of his investigation that he sent to then-Gov. Martin O'Malley in January 2014. "However, if we looked at the entire state of Maryland we could be looking at thousands of repeat offenders having their cases closed out simply by enrolling in a program that they never have to attend."
In August 2014 Wright sent an 11-page letter to Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein outlining his grievances: "My problem was with ethics issues when it first started, and is now what very well may be criminal in nature." He got no response.
Since last summer, Ronald Wright has appeared in six YouTube videos where he stands at his pulpit and talks about "case-dumping." They've been viewed about 2,000 times, total.
At first glance, Wright appears far too conspiratorial to be credible (there is also a land dispute involving his church and, he says, a disagreement with the late state Del. Joseph "Sonny" Minnick). Wright's rhetoric sometimes comes off as overheated and disjointed. But there is at least one bit of independent evidence in Wright's favor: Six years ago, well before Wright came forward with his complaints, a state audit found evidence of something very much like what Wright calls "case dumping." The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services claimed it fixed the problem. But it has, so far, declined to show any evidence of that to outsiders.
Wright, too, has asked for files under the Maryland Public Information Act, he says—so far without success. He wants reform, but he also wants to clear his name. "I was never a crank," he says, "before I started complaining about case dumping."
By all appearances, Victoria DeAngelo was not a social drinker, but the state treated her as though she was. It's not clear why.
Less than a year before she died, before she took a toddler's life, DeAngelo was placed on probation by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Charged with theft, she was ordered to repay $574 to Paul King. The police report says she stole a blank check from her former landlord and cashed it at King's Liquors. The paperwork filed in the case indicated she was unemployed and had "no fixed address."
DeAngelo had been arrested before—for pot, twice, and for giving a false statement to a police officer. Her lawyer, Spencer Gordon, says the cases were basically consolidated.
She pleaded guilty in the theft case and got a year's probation beginning Dec. 16, 2011. On the intake sheet none of the boxes are checked prescribing urinalysis, drug treatment, "self-help" group therapy, abstinence, or any of the other conditions commonly applied to criminals who also suffer from addiction. She paid King back before she pleaded out.
"DeAngelo did not present as someone whose life was spiraling out of control because of substance abuse," Gordon says. "She struck me more as someone who would be much better if she would get away from these bad boyfriends."
Gordon had not heard of DeAngelo's death before a reporter called in late October. He went through the old case notes and found DeAngelo was a singer, she had worked as a photographic assistant at Lifetouch, and did a year at CCBC.
"She had a history of Percocet addictions," Gordon says, paging through his private notes from 2011. "She said she got involved with Percocets through her mother, but now she's clean."
Gordon says that he wrote in her case file "no substance abuse treatment," and it must have meant something that he would write it down. He can't remember what, though.
"It may be that she said that she had been in Dr. Wright's class," Gordon says. "Maybe the judge said OK so she's already been in class, so she didn't order it."
The letterhead in the case file from Merritt Park Drug/Alcohol Education Program declares that the program is "Maryland State Approved." It is a completion letter for a 26-hour education program, which DeAngelo completed between July and December of 2011. "Ms. Deangelo [sic] has taken responsibility for her action and attended education classes," the letter, signed by Ronald Wright, reads. "She has been a model student and we would be happy to have her continue in the Alpha Program if the courts wanted additional classes."
The record indicates that the court did not want additional classes or drug treatment.
It's a little before 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. There are 11 people—all but two white, most of them middle aged—scattered throughout the pews on the right-hand side of the sanctuary of the Merritt Park Baptist Church, and Wright is holding forth in front. This is the Alpha Program.
Tonight is a gripe session about Parole and Probation.
"I paid every month but they only tested me once," a young black guy on the back pew says, referring to the mandatory drug testing that is supposed to take place.
"They are supposed to provide a service—that test—every month you pay," Wright answers.
Wright tells them he has seen a guy with voices in his head that told him to "walk into a business and shoot the first man you see." The state sent him to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, the state mental institution, but Perkins discharged him and he still had the voices. Wright says he called every official he could think of and told them "this man is going to be on the evening news."
No one responded, Wright says. Apparently the troubled man has not yet been not on the evening news. But Wright's point is that the state does not care about people like them. Only Wright does.
"Your insurance won't pay for education like this," Wright says. But it will pay for treatment. He asks them: "how many have been to probation and they weren't there?"
Five hands go up.
"I went three months in a row and the guy [probation officer] was never there," an older white guy near the front says.
It's $55 a month because the money is not in the budget and this is what pays probation officers' salaries, Wright says.
In fact, the fees vary by judge and by offense. They began in Maryland and many other states about 25 years ago and actually go to the state's general fund to pay for all state services.
Nobody thinks the fees are fair—hardly surprising in an America where so many people (particularly those with criminal records) live paycheck to paycheck. If they don't pay it goes to collection. Failure to pay can bring further criminal sanction. The one woman in the pews says, "I had to pay when I went to jail!"
There is discussion about the impersonal nature of the supervision. "They just check the boxes," Raymond Hawkins says. "Did you do this? Did you do this? And you weren't arrested. OK, see you next month. There is no human aspect to it. And that's if they even show up."
Hawkins is on his third DUI, he says. He's served nine months in jail already for drunk driving. He says he can't get affordable addiction treatment.
A guy in back says he's seen a probation agent pull up the wrong case for the questionnaire, and would have checked him in as that person if he hadn't caught it.
Ron Seidl is a longshoreman, 52 years old, 6 feet tall and about 220 pounds, wearing a small-brim hat and a pencil-thin mustache, like a character from a Damon Runyon story.
Criminally speaking, he has a hell of a record, including charges of attempted murder and assault with intent to maim—twice.
More recently Seidl was found guilty in an alcohol-related traffic offense. He has a year's probation and would have had an $83 monthly fee but paid it upfront. "I don't like things hanging over my head," he says, standing outside the church during a break.
Back in January, when he first reported to the parole office on Kelso Drive in Essex, Seidl says he was told that the monthly fee was for urinalysis and breath analyzer. "It pays for the kit," he says. "It's a disposable kit."
After he paid his whole probation fee of $360 upfront, Seidl says his parole officer, Mrs. Thompson, told him, "They're gonna love you."
Seidl says he was not urine-tested or breath-tested that day. The next month he went in and put his hand in a machine "that looks like it's an Ocean City fortune-telling place" and walked out.
Seidl says his paperwork shows he went through his required alcohol treatment program—from the Merritt Park Baptist Church.
But this is not a treatment program. It's a church lecture.
Thompson has been nice, Seidl says, and he hates to complain. But a five-minute visit to sign a sheet of paper, with no testing of any kind and a pencil-whip on his "treatment program" that is not a treatment program, not state certified in any way—and is, in fact, the subject of a nine-year correspondence with state officials over that very question—makes him feel as though the state doesn't care. "I'm in the system, it's like you're on a conveyor belt," he says. "They stamp you and you're on your way."
Ideally, Seidl says, "there would be follow-up from an actual treatment program."
"The Division of Parole and Probation has no authority to test an offender for drug or alcohol use unless specifically authorized by the sentencing court to do so," Shields writes in his email. "A special condition imposed for total abstinence from alcohol or drugs is not sufficient for the Division to subject an offender to drug or alcohol testing."
Drug and alcohol treatments are, in some ways, staid and traditional pursuits. Everyone has heard of the 12-step program of Bill Wilson, and AA-type treatment modalities are still widely available.
But over the past decade, a revolution has come to drug treatment as behavioral science (cognitive behavioral therapy being the best-known), new drugs such as Buprenorphine (for opiate addiction), and the rise of what former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius calls The Recovery Oriented System of Care met with new payment systems. Chief among those were the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, the Affordable Care Act, and, in Maryland, the expansion of the state-run Primary Adult Care (PAC) program to cover more drug treatment services.
The new payment streams meant new credentialing requirements for drug treatment providers, and it meant that those providers often must spend more time billing and less time with patients. The new money has come with sometimes confusing new rules and regulations. It is an adjustment that traditional providers—many of whom got into the drug and alcohol treatment field for personal reasons—found hard to make.
Wright himself comes from a family with addictions, he says. One story he tells is how his brother has been married nine times. "Nine!" he tells a class, to make sure they heard it right. "He always met his wives in the beer garden at the Dundalk Heritage Festival." The crowd laughs. Wright cuts it down: "On the 10th go, he asked if I'd marry them. I said no."
Wright has written a book about his son, and he says he had to send him to jail. "His addiction over all the years has affected his mind," he tells the class. "We talked about this just last week. If you're using heroin at $6,000 a month, month after month after month, that's going to change how your mind works."
Addicted people, and people who come from families with addiction, don't know what's normal, Wright says. He tells the assembled students that they'll face a questionnaire at some point that will ask if they are a normal drinker. "You say 'Yes.' They say, 'but you blew a .25—is that normal?' So you say, 'OK, no.'
"Some questions can be, no matter how you answer them, it's not gonna look good for you."
At the center of Wright's case against Parole and Probation is that kind of question: If Wright's programs fall within the regulations, then state agencies might be harassing and misusing him. If his programs do not fall within the regs, then the agencies' use of them implicates the state in the mistreatment of probationers.
Wright says the certified programs are now a "monopoly." He thinks state officials have some corrupt interest in that, particularly since the short-term, three- and 12-hour alcohol education programs have been delegated to driving schools. The cost of these is not covered by health insurance and, like the probation fee itself, can prove onerous to offenders.
Wright says he did alcohol-use evaluations at $75 a head, but if it was court-ordered he charged $0. "Some paid, some didn't," he says of his former alcohol education students. "They'd do community service work. I had them washing cars for seniors. I had them cutting grass."
Parole and Probation never required that offenders pay for the alcohol education program, but Wright says "there was an expectation of $20 per class—$120 per 12-hour program." Wright still has a donation jar on a pedestal near the front of his church.
Alpha was always a free referral program, Wright says, adding that he would refer people to Epoch or whatever treatment program the county or judges favored. Epoch is staffed by master's level counselors (not Ph.D.s or MDs).
Epoch charges $144 at the door for intake or evaluation, and DUI education is $50 per session—"which may not be reduced or covered by insurance," according to its website. Six alcohol education sessions at Epoch—the required count for a 12-hour program—would run $300. (Officials at Friends Research Institute Inc., Epoch's parent company, did not respond to City Paper's inquiries.)
"They would say you need an evaluation and that would cost maybe a couple hundred bucks," Wright says, "so they come back here and we'd do it for free."
But here's where it gets complicated. Because so many referred people were unable to pay for the required drug treatment or education classes, Wright would offer drug and alcohol education, anger management, group therapy exercises, and "a lot of family-oriented things," he says.
The result appears to be a confusing muddle of well-intentioned, but hard-to-categorize, uncertified free or reduced-price help for people who need it.
Concerns about state certification of Wright's alcohol education program date at least to 2006, when Wright seemed to be moving toward getting certified "along with other faith-based programs," he said in a January 2006 email to a county health official.
But negotiations bogged down and Wright eventually concluded that he and his program were "grandfathered" and so did not require further certification.
A 2008 email from a Parole and Probation official in Dundalk indicates the state was still referring offenders to Wright's church then. Another email, dated November 2010, indicates that Parole and Probation was aware of clients attending Wright's program then as well.
In September 2011, Wright was corresponding with Joseph Clocker, executive deputy director of the Division of Parole and Probation, saying his understanding of the meeting they'd had was that Wright could perform "evaluations" on probationers before sending them to Epoch. "If a person has been sent to Epoch and they are refused treatment because they do not have the insurance or funds they will permitted in our program," Wright wrote. "All students now in our program can stay, with an understanding that they will not be required to do a program over."
By July 2012, Wright was still meeting with state officials and agreeing to "work on certification for Merritt Park Alcohol Education program."
This appears to be where the rubber hit the road—or the shit hit the fan. Wright's credentials were not what the state required.
"While I am attempting to find a clinical director, would it be possible to continue teaching the Merritt Park Alcohol Education Program as I have for the past 34 years? Please remember I was never notified about any changes, and I am still being sent clients from Parole and Probation," he wrote to Jacky Arthur, health facilities nurse surveyor for DHMH's Substance Abuse Certification Unit. "Could you please find out if the clinical director position can be waived? I have degrees from CCBC in substance abuse; I did my internship at Southern Mental Health Center under Dr. Bills and my Ph.D. in counseling. I was also employed by the Baltimore City Police Department and attended the ATSU program for 12 weeks. The program was under the direction of Dr. Neil Solomon of the DHMH at the time."
There were no waivers, and by December 2013, Wright's correspondence lost its politesse. "I have repeatedly warned you and your supervisors about harassing me and my students," Wright wrote to Kiffinnie Tilghman, a probation monitor, in a Dec. 20, 2013 letter. "However, you continue your arrogant attitude and rant about me and the very program that has supported this community." The letter included a request for information about two probationers. First, a "Mary Jane," whose last name Wright replaced by ellipses, who "has been arrested for five (5) dui's and was never provided treatment by Baltimore County or anyone in your agency," Wright wrote. Another probationer, unnamed, came to Wright's church for a 26-hour program, attended for two weeks, and disappeared. Wright says he called her and she told him that Tilghman "said I did a program while I was in jail, and that was good enough and I did NOT have to return to Dr. Wright."
Wright claimed in the letter to have documented evidence that probation officers signed paperwork sent to the MVA claiming a client had completed treatment at Right Turn Maryland, but that she was rejected for treatment.
"Not only have you open [sic] the door for a five-time repeat dui offender to obtain a Maryland Driver's License, you may very well have provided false information to the Motor Vehicle Administration," Wright wrote. He then included a news clip of Lily Kelley's death. "Mr. Joseph Clocker and supervisors were told way in advance this was going to happen and they did nothing," Wright wrote.
The letter concludes with references to other agencies, "a jury," and all caps: "I WILL LET [sic] YOU OR ANYONE ELSE DISCREDIT ME ANY LONGER I HOPE I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR."
Here and elsewhere, Wright refers to himself as "doctor." Asked in mid-September where he did his dissertation, he pauses, blinking. "I'm in the Hopkins memory clinic," he says. "I have some cognitive impairment." A day later he emails the name of his graduate school: Newburgh Theological Seminary & College of the Bible in Newburgh, Indiana. The college offers online degrees and is accredited by something called Transworld Accrediting Commission International, which is not generally recognized as a legitimate higher-education accrediting body. Credentials are an important part of the drug-treatment world—a proxy for science and medicine in a world where fellowship and shibboleth have long dominated. The move to professionalize drug treatment and make it free is at the heart of Wright's concern: With the credentials and the rigid payment structure has come the conveyor belt, he says, the feeling patients get that they are a means to an end.
He notes that, for several years now, most of the 12-hour "Alcohol Education Programs" that first-offender drunk drivers are sentenced to are provided by driving schools. City Paper found several, as well as online-only options. The proprietors did not return our phone calls or answer emails.
In trying to track Wright's allegations, two things come clear. 1. The system for treating DUI offenders is set up with at least three different state bureaucracies that must mesh together smoothly, and in such a way that no one has full responsibility or can see the whole picture. 2. No one is going to say that.
That the man making these charges writes in all caps, has memory issues, and has a shaky Ph.D. seems to give comfort to the state agencies Wright is complaining about. City Paper reached out to Parole and Probation's Clocker, the DPSCS Office of Inspector General, and other correctional officials, but heard only from DPSCS spokesman Gerard Shields. Attempts to reach the people Wright corresponded with at DHMH and MVA brought the same result—agency spokespeople responded with little information or relevant context.
"It's reported as to whether or not they completed the [alcohol or drug treatment] course," Buel Young, the Motor Vehicle Administration spokesman, says. "That comes through the courts." He likens MVA's role in DUI cases as similar to what happens in child-support cases: "I believe it's automated. The letter is generated that their license could be suspended if they don't take a particular action."
DHMH spokesman Christopher Garrett bounced City Paper's inquiries back to Parole and Probation and the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which says pretty much everyone who is sentenced to drug treatment gets it—no problem.
But, it turns out, DPSCS has faced this exact problem before.
A state "Managing for Results" audit in 2009 looked at "proactive community supervision" of parolees and probationers in several Baltimore-area offices. The auditors checked 35 of the 1,237 closed cases, and found that in "24 of the cases, there was no documentation to establish satisfactory completion of a substance abuse treatment program by the offender. Furthermore, for 16 of the aforementioned 24 cases, the offenders had not been enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program."
When City Paper asked about this audit in 2010, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the trouble was limited to the Hyattsville office. "As a result of those findings, supervisors and agents were reminded of the importance of certifying the accuracy of the data entered in the Division's electronic case records and hard-copy files," the spokesman, Mark Vernarelli, wrote in an email.
In a follow-up email responding to City Paper's questions, Vernarelli said the findings prompted quarterly audits of case-closing data in all 45 field offices across the state, and that these audits—which he declined to share with City Paper—indicated good news: "The most recent audit I have (from the spring [of 2010]) revealed a statewide average of 81% compliance throughout all 45 DPP field offices," Vernarelli wrote in November 2010. "The DPP Quality Assurance team pulled case files for all closed cases where drug treatment had been ordered for an offender, and statewide, 81% of those cases had complete and proper information on the offender's treatment status. I should note that three of the four regions were between 83 and 91 percent."
Since then, the news has only gotten better, according to Gerard Shields, a spokesman for DPSCS. "The Division of Parole and Probation has improved considerably in this policy area over the last six years to a compliance rate of 93% in 2015 up from 78% five years ago," he writes in an Oct. 9 email to City Paper. "The improvement in compliance rates is attributed to management emphasis on agent/monitor verification of compliance and policy that requires agents and monitors to include supporting documentation of satisfactory completion of substance abuse treatment from state-certified treatment providers with the case closing material."
The paperwork, in other words, is in order.
But the paperwork is just that—paperwork. Vernarelli never responded to City Paper's long-ago queries about whether the actual treatment programs were checked, as opposed to the forms. He would not share the audits themselves, nor would Shields, who falls back on boilerplate.
"Offenders who are ordered by the court to undergo substance abuse treatment or education as a condition of their sentence must participate in a certified education or treatment program (Annotated Code of Maryland, Criminal Procedure Article, Section 6-219)," Shields writes. "DPP provides offenders with the listing of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene-certified substance abuse treatment programs to select from. In Baltimore County, offenders who are financially strapped can apply with the Baltimore County Health Department for a referral to a county contracted treatment vendor. These programs offer a sliding scale payment schedule for their services."
The District Court complex on Kelso Drive in Essex is busy on this Thursday morning in October. The Parole office is on the left after you get through the metal detectors. "Just keep going left," the deputy instructs. It's a warren of small offices festooned with signs warning no cameras, no pictures of the sign-in sheet, no visitors in the waiting room—which is full and has a TV. Victoria Thompson, Seidl's agent, briskly leads a reporter to her supervisor, and asks a blond woman in the office to step outside while the reporter is dealt with. The supervisor says she can't talk without permission, and writes down the name and phone number of her supervisor, Regional Assistant Director Walter Nolley, on the reporter's card and hands it back. She is cordial, calm, and professional.
There is no answer at the telephone number she gives, and no voice mail. Shields, the DPSCS spokesman, admonishes a reporter later for his visit. "I understand you visited one of our offices looking for someone," he writes in an email. "As I stated yesterday, all information will be coming through this office. Trying to get your questions answered as soon as we can."
Even after Shields' last-minute email, City Paper awaits many answers.