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ROAD TO RUIN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thomas Meighan Jr. was well-acquainted with accusations of recklessness and dangerous driving, long before Baltimore police charged him with a string of traffic offenses related to the hit-and-run death of a Johns Hopkins University student two weeks ago.

He got his first traffic ticket before he even had a driver's license, for speeding and driving without supervision on a learner's permit when he was 17. Within a year, his license was revoked, the first churn in a cycle that would continue for the next two decades.

In one 15-year span, he was found guilty of at least nine drunken-driving offenses, compounding a record that includes convictions for marijuana possession, battery, disorderly conduct, theft and escape from a half-way house. Last year, his wife filed a domestic violence claim against him, saying he got drunk and threatened to kill her.

The traffic violations lodged against him Oct. 24, linked to the hit-and-run eight days earlier that killed 20-year-old Miriam Frankl on St. Paul Street, were filed based on witness accounts of a white Ford truck's menacing rampage through Baltimore. They don't include any drinking offenses. And Meighan, who turned himself in for questioning, says he wasn't on the road that day.

Still, according to interviews with some who know him, and a review of the dozens of court files in and around Baltimore, much of Meighan's adult life has been defined by an addiction to alcohol and drugs.

"Alcohol has all but destroyed my life," he wrote in an undated letter to one judge.

In total, Thomas Meighan has been sentenced to at least 10 years in jail, though half of those were suspended.

And when he wasn't in jail, court records show, Meighan regularly missed court dates, sometimes phoning in last-minute excuses about kidney stones or a car on fire.

When he was locked up, he frequently pleaded for leniency. Initially, judges offered Meighan a host of second chances, such as suspended sentences or early release for substance abuse treatment, court records show. But he squandered them and was rarely out of trouble for more than a few months.

The sometimes-emotional letters he scrawled to judges show Meighan to be a man in constant battle with himself, always promising to do better but repeatedly failing. He describes himself as a slave to his alcohol and drug addictions - once asking a judge to send him to a rehabilitation center rather than release him back to the streets.

"Sir, I'm writing you to inform you of my desperate need to save my own life," he wrote in one letter. "I've been fighting this fatal disease of alcoholism and drug abuse for years now."

This summer, he was arrested in Northwest Baltimore on hit-and-run and drunken-driving charges. He was free on $100,000 bail on Oct. 16, the day a white pickup truck hit Frankl and drove off.

Karon Meighan, who has been married to Meighan for 12 years but separated for nearly a year, said when she heard about the vehicle sought in Frankl's death, she immediately thought of her estranged husband.

His drinking "was like a time bomb," she said. "It was ticking."

Early brushes with the law

Thomas Meighan Jr. was born in 1970 in Hollywood, Fla., but lived much of his life in or around Mount Airy, at the convergence of Carroll and Frederick counties. Court records show a succession of addresses there, scattered throughout the area's rolling green and rural landscape.

Not much is publicly known about his early life. His parents split when he was young. His father, who lives in North Carolina, declined to be interviewed for this article. His mother, who lives in Sykesville, couldn't be reached. And his new fiancee, who's reportedly known him since the fifth grade, told a reporter last week to get off her Elkridge property or she would call police.

Meighan had only made it through the 10th grade, though he later earned a GED, a public defender said.

Meighan got his first motor vehicle infractions right around the time he left high school, when he was 17. He was caught driving without a license four times within three months, the start of what would become a lifelong parry with the state Motor Vehicle Administration.

During the next seven years, before he got his first DWI, Meighan's license was taken and returned more than a half-dozen times, according to MVA records. He was ticketed for offenses including speeding and failing to stop after hitting a parked car.

A former girlfriend recalls meeting him shortly after she graduated from high school, and he was 20 and working as a roofer. She was smitten by his good looks and fit, 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

She says he crashed her Camaro into a tree, less than a mile from her house, waking her up and tearfully apologizing. "You could tell he was drunk," said the 36-year-old woman, who asked that her name be withheld because she remains wary of him.

She knew he already had issues with alcohol. He drank by himself, mostly beer and whiskey, and got aggressive afterward, she said.

"It was like somebody turned on a switch," she said. "His whole demeanor would change."

Meighan got his first drunken-driving arrest at 23.

On Feb. 27, 1994, a few minutes after 1 a.m., a state trooper pulled Meighan over in Carroll County after hearing a police radio broadcast about a suspected drunken driver. According to the police report, a sobriety test measured his blood-alcohol level at 0.18 percent - well above the legal limit of 0.1 at the time.

On the line for the driver's signature, the trooper drew an X and noted that Meighan was "too intoxicated to sign." Meighan was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, abstain from alcohol and undergo supervised probation for three years.

J. Charles Smith III, now Frederick County's state's attorney, was Meighan's defense attorney in the case. He said his client was shaken by the charge and took it "very seriously."

"He was one of those guys who you thought had what it took to turn it around," Smith recalled.

Meighan was employed with a roofing company, but in late 1994, an accident put him out of work. He wrote to the Carroll County judge asking that he be allowed to temporarily skip AA meetings because "I am unable to sit comfortably in an upright position or stand for more than intervals of 20 or 30 minutes and have found it nearly impossible to sit through a 1 hour Alcoholics Anonymous meeting."

Judge Francis M. Arnold granted Meighan's request to suspend the AA requirement. Later, he granted a request to waive the supervision requirement to Meighan's probation.

Meighan's license, which had been revoked, was reinstated in December 1995.

Although he received leniency from the courts, those around him began losing patience. His young girlfriend had stayed with him five years, off and on, even after he was charged with theft for stealing her mother's wedding ring. She broke off the relationship in 1996, though he continued to call long after it was over.

Meighan was arrested in five Frederick County locations that year for drinking and driving, according to court records. Two arrests occurred two days apart in April, followed by another in May. His license was revoked in June, and he got another arrest in July after nearly running a Frederick County deputy off the road.

"His eyes were bloodshot and his speech was slow and slurred," the deputy wrote in his report. "He could barely keep his balance."

In the spring of 1996, mutual friends introduced Meighan to Karon, who is 12 years his senior and the daughter of an alcoholic father. They were married within six months, on Nov. 15, and records show he was arrested for drunken driving again two weeks later.

One weekend in December, her husband disappeared.

"That was the first red flag," Karon said. "I never did get an explanation. There were plenty of times after that" when he suddenly left.

"He's a good person when he's not drinking," she said, adding that he's a hard worker. "He's not a monster."

She said that her husband has been enabled in his drinking by friends and family over the years - herself included. Though she didn't drink largely because she saw her father die of alcoholism, she never forced Meighan to go for help beyond his attending the court-ordered AA meetings.

Meighan returned to his lawyer during a spate of arrests in 1996.

"He had grown more and more desperate," Smith remembered. "You saw someone who thought they could conquer their addiction by himself, but by then, he knew he didn't have a grip on it. You didn't see the same person."

What if you 'hurt someone?'

In early 1997, Meighan was sentenced to 14 months in prison for the November arrest, leaving Karon on her own. During their marriage, he would serve at least two other terms.

"I used to say to him constantly, 'What are you going to do if you get in a car wreck and hurt someone? ... Could you live with yourself?' " she said.

Several years passed before Meighan was again arrested for DWI.

He fulfilled a requirement to install an ignition interlock system on his vehicle in 1999, meaning he supposedly couldn't start his car without passing a Breathalyzer-type test, and his license was reinstated Jan. 11, 2000.

Just two weeks later, he was arrested in Carroll County on another drunken-driving charge - this time while on a snow tractor.

On that winter afternoon, Meighan was found at a house on Gillis Falls Road, beating on the front door, according to records. He had used a snow tractor to plow the home's driveway without permission and was demanding payment, police later determined.

When questioned, Meighan became combative and displayed signs of intoxication, police said. They charged him with driving the tractor while drunk, based on the accounts of witnesses, and took him to the police station in nearby Mount Airy.

"While at the office Mr. Meighan had severe mood changes," the police report says. "He would be very happy, and then he would yell and curse. He would then cry and then he would hold his breath and clench his fist and stare at me."

After a succession of missed court appearances - once he called the courthouse to say that "the person's vehicle who was to bring him is on fire on the highway," records show - Meighan was found guilty in 2001 and sentenced to three years in prison, half of them suspended.

Within months of beginning to serve his sentence, one of his neat, hand-printed pleadings arrived at the courthouse, explaining his lapse and asking for leniency.

"I started drinking again your honor, and I again watched all I've worked for go down the drain," Meighan wrote in September 2001. "I thought I could control this, I was in serious denial. I knew I was going back to jail and I used alcohol and drugs to escape those thoughts of giving up my freedom and family again. ... I got on a snow tractor, that's where my drinking took me this time, thank god no one else was involved."

The following January, at Meighan's request and with the prosecutor's approval, he was transferred to Olsen House, a residential halfway facility in Frederick that specializes in substance-abuse treatment. Six months later, he refused to take a urine test and left the facility.

He was convicted of escape and ordered back to the Carroll County jail.

"The problem is, for people like this, the penalties aren't stiff enough," said David Daggett, Carroll County's chief deputy state's attorney, who prosecuted Meighan on the escape charge. "It could be your 20th DUI, and the most you can get is three years."

Daggett would like to see the penalty go to 10 years for drunken drivers with five or more convictions.

"When you're talking about incorrigible people with a record like this, who are just menaces, obviously they can't stop," he said.

Out of jail, out of control

Within three months of his release from jail, Meighan was arrested again.

On Jan. 3, 2005, just before midnight, police received reports of a blue Jeep Cherokee being driven recklessly. After a search, six officers pulled Meighan over on Route 144 in Frederick. He reeked of alcohol and had wet his pants, the police report said. When the officers asked Meighan how much he'd had to drink, he responded: "A lot."

Meighan refused to take a breath test, tried to remove his handcuffs while being driven to central booking and threatened a deputy, "stating that he was going to kill him," the report says.

He was sentenced to another three-year term, with half of it suspended, and was released Feb. 28, 2006.

That fall, he asked the court to release him from supervised probation, saying he'd been meeting with an Army recruiter who would let him enlist if the court would modify his sentence. "I respectfully request that the court allow me to learn from my mistakes and serve my country with honor," he wrote.

He was denied.

The next few years were more of the same. He failed a marijuana drug test, violated probation and lost and regained his driver's license repeatedly.

His personal life continued to crumble.

Meighan's wife kicked him out for good last November and filed a domestic violence complaint against him, claiming he was drunk and tried to choke her when she confronted him about an alleged girlfriend.

But the complaint was dismissed because Karon Meighan never showed up in court, and she later told a reporter that he "never laid a hand on me."

After they separated, Karon said she heard that Meighan was living with a new woman in a mobile home park in Elkridge.

That woman's tidy little yard is decorated for Halloween, and a sign on the door asks rescuers to mind the cats in case of emergency. Met outside her home after work last week, she admonished a reporter for knocking on her door and told her that other journalists should keep away.

Karon Meighan, who said she e-mailed the new woman to warn her about her husband's problems, said she didn't understand the extremes he went to in hiding his addiction until she cleaned out the house after he left.

"I found empty bottles in the rafters of the basement," she said.

A change in geography

After Meighan and his wife separated, his driving troubles moved from the rural roads of the counties to Baltimore.

On the night of July 31, Meighan was driving a white, Ford F-250 truck in Northwest Baltimore when he rammed into a compact car carrying several people and fled, leaving his truck on a lawn, charging documents allege. Police tracked him down, and his blood-alcohol level was 0.09, documents say. The legal limit is 0.08.

Meighan was charged with 15 related traffic offenses. He faces four years in prison if convicted, three of those for DUI, an enhanced penalty because of his history.

He was ordered held on $100,000 bail - an extraordinary amount for a driving offense. And after getting help posting it, he was free.

The trial for that case was set for Oct. 13, but it was postponed because Meighan's attorney, Joseph Tivvis, was sick. Tivvis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Three days after the original trial date came the incident that brought Meighan's most serious charges yet.

On Oct. 16, someone driving a truck matching the description of Meighan's hit 20-year-old Miriam Frankl, a Hopkins junior, as she tried to cross St. Paul Street about 3:30 p.m.

The first of four calls to 911 that day reporting a white Ford, F-250 driving erratically throughout Baltimore came in 2 1/2 hours before Frankl was hit.

A truck matching that description ran three red lights on Broadway, and one with the same description tailgated a woman on Eastern Avenue, documents show.

Such a vehicle turned onto a service drive off St. Paul, near 33rd Street and hit Frankl as she began to cross the street. The driver didn't look or slow down, a witness told police.

Frankl was pronounced dead 11 hours later, the day a white F-250 truck was found abandoned in Northwest Baltimore.

Meighan, identified as the truck's owner, came to police headquarters Oct. 20 to answer questions but was released without being charged. He said he was not driving the vehicle, though witnesses told police they saw him at the wheel elsewhere in the city.

On Oct. 24, Meighan was arrested and charged with 18 traffic violations based on those witnesses' accounts, though all but the most serious offenses have since been dropped. The remaining charges carry less than six years in prison, if he is convicted. And he has not been charged with Frankl's death. No one has identified him as the driver who hit Frankl, and he says he wasn't there.

Nonetheless, a judge denied bail for Meighan last week, saying, "The court believes ... you pose an extreme risk to the safety of the public."

Karon Meighan, who was camping with her grandchildren when Frankl was killed, heard about the incident a few days later. She also learned of the charges against her estranged husband.

"When this happened," she said, "I was shocked ... but I wasn't."

Inside

* Advocates are expected to push for tougher drunken driving laws.

* Thomas Meighan Jr.'s convictions in Maryland.

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