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Power of Grief : Deaths caused by drunk drivers have plagued New Mexico for decades. But after her daughter and three granddaughters were killed, Nadine Milford turned anguish into action and got the state to toughen its laws.

December 16, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALBUQUERQUE — Nine Mile Hill, the spot where Interstate 40 crests thewestern rim of the Rio Grande Valley, commands a majestic view of this city and the rugged escarpment of the Sandia Mountains.

Following an evening church service last Christmas Eve, Paul and Melanie Cravens, along with her three young daughters, were headed to the overlook to take in the city lights. Later, they would visit Melanie's mother.

They never reached their destination.

As he drove west on the interstate on a dark, moonless night, Paul Cravens had no warning until it was too late that 34-year-old Gordon House was traveling eastbound in their lane.

A shattering instant later, House's red Ford pickup split the family's white sedan apart, killing Melanie and her daughters, Kandyce, 9, Erin, 8, and Kacee Woodard, 5. Paul Cravens survived with a crushed chest and serious head injuries. House suffered severe cuts and broken bones.

He had been drinking, police said, and a test taken five hours later showed his blood alcohol content to be 0.1%. (At a hearing, a expert witness estimated House's blood alcohol level was 0.18% at the time of the accident--nearly twice the legal limit.)

The accident was all too familiar to New Mexicans, who endure the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the nation. But this was no commonplace highway carnage.

The accident, coming as it did on Christmas Eve, galvanized a deep sense of anger and frustration across the state. At the same time, it propelled two people into the spotlight: House and Melanie Cravens' mother, Nadine Milford.

From the beginning there was great public interest in House, who is to stand trial in the spring on vehicular homicide charges.

How could he have been involved? After all, he was the administrator of a substance abuse program for Navajo teen-agers, a college-educated Air Force veteran regularly held up as a role model for young people in his tribe. Married, with two young children, he seemed the very picture of success.

While recuperating from the accident, he received death threats and hate mail, some of which partook of an ugly stereotype: the drunken Indian.

House for a time also faced nearly unprecedented first-degree murder charges (now dismissed), and his name has become virtually synonymous with DWI (driving while intoxicated) in New Mexico.

"I can't think of a case that's been more publicized in my memory," says his attorney, Ray Twohig, who believes House has been made a scapegoat for a deep-rooted problem.

Milford, meanwhile, has emerged as an effective leader of the statewide movement to crack down on drinking and driving.

As a result of her persistent lobbying, the New Mexico Legislature earlier this year undertook the most thorough overhaul of the state's DWI and traffic safety laws in memory, including lowering the legal limit for intoxication.

Milford, who soon after the accident said that as an evangelical Christian she had forgiven House, says her anger has not abated.

She and her husband, Bob, regularly visit Albuquerque police DWI checkpoints--satisfied to see at least some drunk drivers being taken off the streets.

She says she has taken on the task of speaking for her dead daughter and granddaughters in part because of her flexible job as a secretary at a Christian private school. Cravens, who's still recovering from his injuries, is deeply depressed and consumed with "survivor's guilt," she says.

Her efforts have helped draw national media attention to the case. Two network news programs and the TV tabloid show "Inside Edition" have visited the state in the past year.

Milford immersed herself in the lobbying effort only a few weeks after the tragedy as a way of coping with her grief, she says.

"I spent six months denying that this ever even happened, running around like a chicken with my head cut off," she says. "Now reality's starting to sink in. Christmas is coming and I'm buying presents for my other grandchildren."

*

Drunk driving has been a blight on generations of New Mexicans, a byproduct of the state's freewheeling culture, relatively young population and history of lax liquor regulation.

New Mexico perennially ranks at or near the top in the nation for alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita, says John Fenner, director of the state highway department's transportation programs division. A study by the department's Traffic Safety Bureau found New Mexico's alcohol-related traffic fatality rate was 14.5 per 100,000 people in 1991--the highest in the nation and two points higher than the next state, Arkansas.

In 1992, there were 274 alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico, accounting for more than half of all traffic fatalities, Fenner says.

A veteran of annual battles to get state lawmakers to tighten DWI regulations, Fenner says the 1993 session produced a bumper crop of important legislation.

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