Smashed: The toll of driving drunk in Minnesota

Army of tragedy confronts DWIs

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2010 - 6:09 AM

Some are victims, others are offenders or relatives. Every day, countless volunteers speak up, with tears and bitter grief, trying to "change the world."

Adam Gadach removes his artificial leg and holds it up, hopping to keep his balance in front of a few dozen people in the basement of Chisago Lake Lutheran Church in Center City. They're here in the pale yellow cinderblock Fellowship Hall under court order, drunken drivers forced to listen to Gadach's story:

Eight years (and one DWI citation) after he got sober, Gadach was riding his motorcycle from a softball tournament on a splendid summer day in 2008 when a drunken driver smacked into him, ripping his helmet off as he cracked through the windshield. His left leg was shredded below the knee.

"I wish they kept the part of my leg they cut off in a jar," Gadach tells the crowd, "and made the drunk who hit me keep it on his dresser so he had to look at it every morning."

Adam Lunn, fresh out of prison, then walks to the front of the room, jams his hands in his front pockets, and tells the group: "I'm the low-life who changed so many peoples' lives forever and I can't undo it. But you guys can prevent it."

Scenes like this play out nearly every day on the front lines of the DWI battleground, where hundreds of volunteers fan out across the state, in countless community centers and court rooms, hoping to reduce the suffering that drunken driving triggers.

This year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving turns 30. Gadach and Lunn illustrate how MADD's face has changed since a California mom named Candy Lightner vowed to bring meaning to the life -- and death -- of her 13-year-old daughter after a drunken hit-and-run. But the grass-roots wildfire she ignited burns on, as victims, offenders, heart-broken relatives and even some entrepreneurs try to tilt the balance away from the carnage.

For many, it's become a zealous, all-encompassing mission. Gadach, 36, has addressed 40 MADD offender panels since August, teaming up with Lunn recently in an emotional partnership that combines forgiveness with purpose.

"We just want to get the word out so, hopefully, it stops one person, who will think of me and say, 'Hey, I don't want to end up like him or the guy who hit me,'" Gadach says, tilting an eyebrow toward Lunn. "He wants to change the world as much as I do, and I hope to God we can."

Navigational aides

Sharon Lindahl enters Hennepin County District Courtroom No. 1053 right behind Claudette Mastro and sits behind her in the gallery. Lindahl, 75, is a retired Dayton's executive. Mastro, 74, is a Minneapolis mother whose son was killed as he walked to a convenience store last summer. A drunken driver fell asleep behind the wheel on Lake Street and plowed into him, knocking him out of his shoes. The driver is about to be sentenced.

After the horrific crash, Lindahl reached out to Mastro as a volunteer for Minnesotans for Safe Driving, a group that splintered off from Hennepin County's MADD chapter 10 years ago. When she introduces herself to Mastro outside the courtroom, the grieving mother said: "I have your phone number right by my bed - I'll call you when I need to talk."

Advocating for victims is at the crux of what groups such as MADD do. They'll often send a condolence note -- a "care card" -- after a drunken driving headline and wait/hope for the family to call. From there, advocates such as Lindahl help victims' families craft statements to read at sentencing hearings and help guide them through the often confusing legal system. Along with lobbying efforts and court-ordered offender panels, that adds up to thousands of hours for work for the estimated 650-plus Minnesota volunteers such as Gadach and Lindahl, who work closely with the groups' paid staffers.

"We have 95 percent name recognition, but no one knows what we do," said MADD's Minnesota director, Jean Mulvey. Her lead advocate, Carol Haselmann, has victims' photographs thumb-tacked on a desk. "We're not teetotaling ambulance chasers, we don't walk around with picket signs or write down license plates in bar parking lots," Haselmann said.

Lindahl, like many of the volunteers, was scorched by a personal DWI tragedy. Her son John's thorax was crushed 12 years ago by a drunken driver. In her south Minneapolis bungalow, she has a thick notebook with his Boy Scout ribbons, sports snapshots and military honors.

She spends much of her time taking calls from offenders and referring them to court-ordered panels and helping victims' families navigate the court process. "It's something I believe in," she said. Along the way, the shades of gray that color the issue surprised her.

"I've learned that offenders can be nice people, too," she said. "Who in the world would want to do this intentionally?"

Cashing in for safety

Not all the grass-roots DWI activism comes from people personally jolted by drunken drivers. John Cady and Adam Hammad are trying to make a difference -- and a buck. In an entrepreneur class at the University of St. Thomas three years ago, they launched a business called Dry Drivers, borrowing an idea that started in Europe and Las Vegas.

Here's how it works: Say you've had too much to drink but don't want to call a cab because your car will get towed overnight or you need wheels when you sober up in the morning. Call Dry Drivers (651-491-9363) and they send two drivers, one to drive you home in your car and the other following to fetch the driver. It costs $5 for the first 5 miles and $3 for each additional mile for the two cars. The average fare inside the 494-694 loop is about $35, with extra gas fees for farther rides from places such as Hudson, Wis.

"Neither of us had a direct experience, but we knew this was a prevalent problem out there," said Cady, 24. "We shared a passion and wanted to do something to make society better and people safer."

They often attend offender panels and ask how many attendees were arrested for DWI because they wanted their cars at home in the morning.

"Eighty percent of the people's hands go up," Cady said.

With 20 drivers working weekends, business has grown every quarter despite the poor economy. And starting Monday, a new startup was launched called the Get Home Card. For $60, parents can buy cards from the www.thegethomecard.com website and give them to teenagers, college students or anyone. Call the number on the card - 1-800-782-0689 - and one of 300 Airport Town Taxis will drive the cardholder home anywhere in the seven-county area with no questions asked.

"I started this selfishly because I have two teenagers at Minnetonka High School, but everyone could use a quick emergency escape plan like this new tool," said Dave Happe, who won a business startup competition to get the Get Home Card off the ground.

Taking nothing for granted

Kelly Hettwer is talking about Jeff to nearly 100 DWI offenders at the Bunker Lake Activity Center in Andover. She tells the crowd how they met in art class at Blaine High School. Kelly sneaked one of Jeff's portraits into the Walker Art Center, snapped a photo and gave it to him for his 18th birthday, with a note saying: One day, your art will hang in here permanently.

That was 14 years ago. Kelly and Jeff married, lived in California, visited Hawaii and Mexico, bought a little house on Ham Lake and adopted a puppy named Jake as Jeff matured as an artist at his studio in northeast Minneapolis.

Two days before their seventh anniversary, Jeff got in the backseat of a car in St. Francis for a one-mile drive to a friend's house. He died when the driver struck a parked car.

Kelly plays the 911 tapes at the meeting and recalls how the deputies who came to her door had to pick her up off the ground after they told her Jeff was dead. Then she shows a video montage of their life on a big screen before breaking down and crying.

She tells the group about a text message exchange she shared with her husband hours before he died. Jeff texted her to say NBC commentator Tim Russert had died. She replied: "That's awful, you can never take even one moment for granted. I love you, baby."

Two days later, police gave her a plastic bag with Jeff's Chapstick, wallet and cracked cell phone. On the fractured screen, her words about taking nothing for granted glowed.

So Kelly Hettwer, Adam Gadach, Adam Lunn, Sharon Lindahl, John Cady and hundreds of others go out and do what they can to bring meaning to the shortened lives of loved ones as they try to prevent further heartache.

"Hopefully," Hettwer said, "the people who are there to listen will make the connection between my pain and the choices that they make when they get behind the wheel."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

  • about this series

  • In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Public safety advocates say it's part of a culture of forgiveness surrounding drunken driving, a social problem that killed 893 people on Minnesota roads in the past five years. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken driving, the victims it claims and the public safety questions it raises.
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    In Minnesota, drunken drivers who kill someone with their car sometimes get less time behind bars than nonviolent offenders. Read the Star Tribune's in-depth look at the scourge of drunken...

  • Adam Gadach

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