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FERGUS FALLS, MINN.
Danny Lee Bettcher was back in an Otter Tail County courtroom this month, again for driving drunk. This time, he was facing his 27th DWI conviction -- a Minnesota record.
Bettcher, who spent more than four years behind bars for a prior drunken driving offense, was arrested after downing a few rounds of beer and Jagermeister and sailing his motorcycle through a four-way stop. He was released from prison nine months earlier. "I drink to get drunk,'' said Bettcher, 57.
Though his lawyer pleaded for leniency, Judge Mark Hansen decided the roads would be safer with Bettcher locked up. Hansen sentenced him to four years in prison, the recommended penalty in Bettcher's case. "I don't want you to kill somebody," the judge said.
State officials say Bettcher is one of 139 people who have been charged with at least 15 DWIs. Altogether, 46,748 drivers have been arrested at least four times for driving while intoxicated. Minnesota legislators took aim at this group in 2001, when they passed a felony DWI law creating stiff penalties for those with four DWI convictions in 10 years. Since then, at least 4,400 drivers have been sentenced under the statute, which carries a minimum of three years in prison, typically converted to probation with some jail time for first-time felons.
But the prospect of prison might not be much of a deterrent. The number of people with a second felony DWI has increased each year, reaching 156 in 2008, or 20 percent of all felony DWI convictions.
For many chronic offenders, the issue isn't whether they're going to drink and drive again. It's how to get away with it. Experts say repeat offenders are often alcoholics who simply don't respond to treatment or tough punishment. They drive without licenses. If their vehicle is taken away, they drive someone else's car. They've driven drunk so many times they mistakenly believe they're in control of their vehicles, even if they can't walk a straight line.
"There's the offender that gets one or two DWIs, and then there's the offender that just continues," said Lisa Portinga, a treatment consultant with Ramsey County DWI Court.
How do you stop them? "Well," Portinga said, "you'd literally have to sit on them, because if they're going to drink, chances are that particular kind of offender is then going to go drive."
Drivers with at least four DWIs were involved in 24 traffic fatalities between 2005 and 2007, or about 5 percent of all alcohol-related crashes, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Some say the state should probably focus its limited resources on dealing with first-time offenders, who are linked to 60 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
"You wouldn't save a huge amount of lives if you focused all your energy on [chronic offenders]," said Jean Ryan, alcohol programs coordinator at the state's Office of Traffic Safety. "I'm not saying they're not a problem, but the number of lives possibly saved would not be as significant as possibly some other direction."
Victim advocates say the threat posed by chronic offenders can't be understated. Bettcher and other repeat offenders are a "time bomb," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. "It's a terrible frustration," she said. "Nobody knows what to do with them."
A lethal mix
Gerald D. Beaulieu had five DWIs and a canceled driver's license in March 2007 when he got on his snowmobile after a night of drinking at a bar in Mille Lacs County. A witness told police that he found Beaulieu's damaged snowmobile near the body of Timothy J. Kasper, who was struck while walking home from a house where bar patrons had gathered. Beaulieu pleaded guilty to criminal vehicular homicide.
He was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison but spent just one year in jail as part of a plea deal that required him to refrain from drinking for 10 years, complete 120 hours of community service and get evaluated for chemical dependency, according to court records.
Prosecutors agreed to the plea because hard evidence was scarce.
"A lot of the witnesses were very intoxicated," Assistant County Attorney Tara Lopez said.
For Richard P. Papenfuss, who was convicted of his 20th DWI in 2005, drinking and driving have always gone together. He liked to grab a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon before heading out on a weekend road trip or an evening cruise. Drinking, he said, made driving more fun.
Papenfuss said he would be careful if he saw a squad car, but a swerve or other mistake always gave him away. He hasn't had a driver's license since 1980.
Experts say some drivers go to great lengths to avoid detection, including driving used cars without changing the registration so police won't see their records when checking license plates. Chronic offenders never think they'll be caught, Portinga said.
Papenfuss was using his brother's van to show a friend around Otter Tail County in 2005 when he stopped at a bar for popcorn chicken and ordered beers. The probation paperwork from his previous DWI hadn't been transferred yet, Papenfuss figured, so he thought he could risk a couple of drinks. The beer tasted so good he swung by a liquor store and picked up a 12-pack for the road.
When he spotted a police car outside the small town of Battle Lake, Papenfuss slowed sharply because he didn't know how fast he was going. The 11-year-old van's dashboard lights were broken and he couldn't read the speedometer. Suspicious, the officer followed and pulled him over. A breath test showed Papenfuss was legally drunk with 0.117 blood alcohol concentration, over the legal limit at the time, 0.10 (the legal limit is now .08).
It was yet another DWI but his second felony DWI, which carries enhanced penalties. Papenfuss, 60, served about five years in prison.
Since leaving prison in July, Papenfuss has been living in a Fergus Falls sober house. By most accounts, he's working hard to make new friends and find new interests. A former farm laborer, he now volunteers at a local truck repair shop. He has many regrets: two divorces and other ruined relationships, a handful of alcohol-fueled burglaries and thefts. He knows he's lucky he hasn't killed somebody.
Papenfuss said he has been through substance abuse treatment six or seven times. He swears he's going to remain sober this time.
"Really the bottom line is two things," Papenfuss said. "One is that I don't want to drink again, OK? And number two? I don't want to go back to jail anymore. They got my attention."
'Very hard to treat'
In some ways, Papenfuss is a living reminder of how easy it was to rack up a slew of drunken driving convictions in the 1970s and early 1980s, back when society forgave such crimes more easily and there were few substantial penalties for repeat offenders. Experts say there shouldn't be as many drivers like this in the future, in part because repeat offenders will spend more time behind bars.
In 2008, about a quarter of the 779 people sentenced for felony DWI went to prison, with an average sentence of 51 months, according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. A majority of offenders were locked up in local jails, where the average sentence was 202 days as a condition of probation.
Treatment is usually required for multiple DWI offenders, but Portinga said the typical recovering alcoholic goes through treatment seven times before kicking the habit.
Steve Allen, director of behavioral health services at the state Department of Corrections, said individuals with high numbers of DWI convictions often suffer from multiple problems and are "very hard to treat."
"At a certain point you can think about acquired brain injury because the person has consumed so much alcohol and/or drugs that they've actually done neurological damage," Allen said.
Otter Tail Assistant County Attorney Heather Brandborg said Bettcher was ordered to treatment at least a dozen times. Bettcher didn't complete treatment in prison, according to his fiancée, because he didn't want to show weakness to other inmates.
Bettcher said he was doing well in treatment when he got his most recent DWI. He can't explain why he decided to throw it all away by drinking and crawling onto his motorcycle last May.
He said he never considered the threat he posed when driving drunk.
"You just go blank more or less,'' said Bettcher, who has mostly worked at construction or handyman jobs that didn't require a license. "You're out to have a good time and you're not thinking of nothing else."
Star Tribune computer assisted reporting editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this report. Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102
Over the next few months, the Star Tribune will take an indepth look at the scourge of drunken driving in Minnesota, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises. Every year, hundreds of Minnesotans are killed or severely injured in crashes caused by drunken drivers. Another 35,000 are convicted of DWI. What more can be done to clear our roads of the deadly threat? This series will examine the issue. We invite you to join the debate at startribune.com/smashed.