How 2 chronic drunken drivers menaced lives


Joe Crown and John Ware were members of an American brotherhood, drinkers who drive.

They were not acquainted, but their bond was the bottle and the automobile. Nothing deterred them, short of jail. They prospered in a culture that remains tolerant of men and women who drive drunk, again and again, despite the lives they take and the heartache they inflict.

Across the nation, policy-makers have begun to focus on the disproportionate role that chronic drunks play in alcohol-related crashes, especially fatal crashes.

As traffic safety specialists search for ways to curtail the carnage, they are attempting to understand attitudes that shape the behavior of habitual drinkers.

Joe Crown and John Ware could be case studies: They represent extremes of the persistent drunken driver population: those who repeatedly are caught driving drunk and the many thousands of others who escape detection.

Joe Crown was a repeat offender. A lawyer with a solid practice, he had a beach house in Rehoboth and he owned the Prince George's County building where he practiced law. He had degrees from University of Maryland and American University, in Washington, D.C.

"I drank in the best places with the right people -- doctors, lawyers, police officers, assistant state's attorneys. They all drank where I did," he said.

His wife was unimpressed. "You need to get caught," he said she told him. He was caught. Driving his Cadillac with its customized Rolls-Royce grill, he was arrested as many as 20 times, according to judges and a probation officer who dealt with him over the years.

Motor Vehicle Administration and District Court records show that eight times between 1988 and 1990 he was convicted of driving drunk or driving under the influence. He was convicted of a half-dozen other offenses: driving while his license was suspended, failing to stay right of the center line and the like. His lawyers managed to get him off with relatively light sentences and he always got his license back.

John Ware's driving record was clean, though he rarely drove sober. He was arrested only once -- after he caused a crash that killed a 28-year-old woman.

Hours after a Friday night binge, his blood alcohol level, measured after the crash, was .23 percent, more than double the state threshold for driving while intoxicated. During 18 years of heavy drinking, he had been stopped twice but allowed to go on his way both times.

Those like Mr. Ware who are not arrested are by far the largest group, specialists say.

Calculations based on surveys at sobriety checkpoints suggest that the chances of a drunken driver getting caught are on the order of 2,000 to 1. Stated another way, 2,000 drunken driving "trips" may occur before there is a single arrest.

Joe Crown's driving record was without blemish, too, until he was 50.

"Was I driving drunk in those years? The answer is, 'Yes.' " he said.

'Many escape arrest'

The ease of eluding detection and punishment probably emboldens drunks.

"Many frequent repeat drunk drivers escape arrest altogether," said Ralph Hingson and Nancy Isaac, authors of a study and public health researchers at Boston University and Harvard University, respectively.

"An important consideration regarding persistent drinking drivers is that their own experiences of making frequent trips while intoxicated and seldom if ever being stopped may reduce the credibility of enforcement publicity efforts," according to their study.

Mr. Ware said the evasion plays neatly into the alcoholic's other disease: "the disease of denial." To avoid his wife's admonitions to get help, he moved his drinking to the garage, where he sat with his two cars, downing vodka in solitude.

He told himself he did his best driving after drinking. When he was between the ages of 19 and 38, he said, drunken driving was the only kind he did.

He had a good job as a sheet metal mechanic at the Government Printing Office in Washington and rarely missed a day of work. But outside the job his life was a cycle of drinking, passing out and coming to.

But he told himself he wasn't an alcoholic because he wasn't a dirty and jobless vagrant. He had those cars, both paid for.

Then on May 18, 1985, his drinking and driving caused a woman to die. In the ensuing year, he was remorseful and suicidal, once driving his car into a tree deliberately.

He did not go to trial for one year and continued to drink and to drive. He was convicted of several charges and sentenced to five years in prison. He was released after a year.

"Maybe if I had been arrested earlier, it would have opened my eyes," he said.

Sober now at 46, Mr. Ware is a weekly volunteer alcoholism counselor and he speaks frequently throughout the state at public forums on drunken driving.

What is needed for repeat offenders, he said, is "time and treatment" -- and judges who will use that approach more aggressively. Facilities such as those in Prince George's, Washington, Charles and Baltimore counties allow inmates to work during the day, but they take a breath test when they return in the evening. They get intensive therapy and receive continuing care for at least a year after release.

The punishment of incarceration may seem satisfying to some, Mr. Ware said, but it does not address the underlying cause -- alcoholism. Similarly, treatment without the enforcing atmosphere of jail is often ineffective.

Like Mr. Ware, Mr. Crown said the drunk is protected from the reform impulse by the emotion of denial, a trait he still battles.

Mr. Crown, now 60, clings to the view that he was not such a bad drunk: "I never had seizures or blackouts. I always knew where I'd been the night before."

His law practice contributed to his denial.

"I saw the drunk-driving cases in all the forms they come in, including death. I said many times, 'Thank God it wasn't me,' " he said.

He insists that some of his violations were minor and, after all, he never hurt anyone. "They usually got me for something like crossing the center line," he said, as if that offense were inconsequential.

His alcoholism counselor, Marvin Redmond, said Mr. Crown was arrested once in one of the tubes of the Harbor Tunnel after ramming through a toll barrier.

Sometimes, experts say, the first arrest makes a drunk feel free to offend again because the fear of public humiliation is no longer a constraint.

After his cover was blown, as he puts it, Mr. Crown said to himself, "To hell with it." He dropped all pretense of sobriety and was arrested three times in quick succession.

After Mr. Crown was chased through two counties by state police and Mr. Redmond, Judge Vincent J. Femia, who handles virtually all drunken driving cases in Prince George's, threw up his hands. He said he had given Mr. Crown a few breaks and feared he could not be impartial again. He sent the case to another judge.

In January 1990, Mr. Crown appeared before Judge Robert J. Woods of the Prince George's County Circuit Court, with seven convictions.

The courthouse grapevine knew that the record did not give a complete picture. "In a couple of cases, he ran into trees but no one was there to see the accident," said Circuit Judge Joseph S. Casula, who knew Mr. Crown as a lawyer. "The quantum of proof wasn't there. . . . To convict, you had to put him behind the wheel."

Finally, Judge Wood sentenced Joseph Theodore Crown Jr. to eight years in prison and fined him $8,000.

"I hated to send him," Judge Woods said, "but I thought he'd kill someone or die himself."

Closed cell opened his mind

Mr. Crown said his mind opened with the closing of the cell door at the detention center in Baltimore in 1991. Finding himself behind bars in the company of murderers and holdup artists was the "most shocking thing that ever happened to me in my life."

Early in his career, as a U.S. marshal, he had handled such men and knew their capabilities.

"What are you in for?" he said his cellmate asked.

"I'm doing eight years," he replied.

"Damn," the younger man said with some level of admiration. "I held up a 7-Eleven with a sawed-off shotgun, and I got five."

He carefully withheld what his sentence was for, fearing ridicule. Even in jail, drunken driving is not a real crime.

Still, Joe Crown thought his life was over.

"From my cell I could see the lights at Memorial Stadium. I listened to the games on the radio and watched the lights. I was wondering about things I could do to earn a living when I got out, bagging groceries maybe."

After serving three months, he was released and sent to a halfway house. He remained sober for about three years. Then, in what he calls "a slip," he drank a few beers, and one thing led to another.

He found himself before Judge Woods again who, this time, sent him to Mr. Redmond at Jude House, near LaPlata.

Sober and back in court -- as a practicing lawyer -- Mr. Crown stays on there as if confinement, however voluntary, is protection from alcohol, which he called "cunning, baffling and powerful."

He seems reluctant to move back into his home in Seat Pleasant. Mr. Redmond said he has become a valuable volunteer at Jude House, taking a regular shift on the switchboard and offering insights to others working toward recovery.

In June, he applied for reinstatement of his driver's license and his application was approved. He has a new car, a Pontiac, which he may drive but only after breathing into a device that unlocks the ignition system if he is sober.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad