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Driving Drunk Till the Bitter End

Crackdown on Convictions Sobered Casual Imbibers, but Some Hard-Core Offenders Keep Going to the Death

April 21, 1996|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who battle drunk driving can point to a mountain of statistics to chart their successes in the past decade. But to see the work that remains, they need only look at the bulging case files of Fernando Quezada Perez and Steven Edward Schumacher.

The pair have five drunk-driving convictions between them, and each now faces a relatively rare murder charge stemming from crashes that killed a total of three people in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley in the past month.

Records show that each repeatedly ignored court-ordered penalties and programs meant to break their habits, and three deaths may be the price of those failures.

To many, the two cases show that while anti-drunk-driving campaigns and stiffer punishments have taught casual drinkers to think twice, there still remains a hard-core population of repeat offenders who defy the law and the odds.

"Two, three, four times . . . how many chances do these people get?" asked Reidel Post, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Orange County. "Some individuals just plain, flat-out aren't going to change. And we as a community need to figure out what we're going to do to keep them from behind the wheel."

Post and others are pushing state legislators to pass a law that would allow courts to seize the cars of some repeat drunk drivers. Those activists also are pushing for changes to court-ordered counseling programs, which they say are fine for first-time offenders but can fall short in dealing with habitual drunk drivers.

Both Perez and Schumacher repeatedly were ordered into the counseling programs, and both routinely flunked out because of absences and failing drug and alcohol screenings, records show. Both were given several county jail sentences, typically of a few weeks or, in one case, 120 days, records show.

Perez, 27, of Santa Ana, is charged with murder for an April 6 collision at Flower Street and Wilshire Avenue that killed two youngsters. Perez was driving with a suspended license and told police he was on his way to buy beer when the crash occurred, killing Sonia Ruiz, 14, and Ruben Quiroga, 4, police said.

Perez's blood-alcohol level was .20%, more than twice the legal limit of .08%, according to police. In two of Perez's three earlier drunk-driving convictions, court records show, he tested at .23% and .25%.

Police say Schumacher, 38, of Fountain Valley, ran a red light at Ellis Avenue and Bushard Street on March 25 and slammed into a Honda, killing Roberto Ferrer, a 22-year-old passenger in the car.

Schumacher also was driving with a suspended license. And records show that in recent years he had been expelled at least four times from court-ordered counseling programs, once because he arrived at a session under the influence of alcohol.

In a third case, Danny David Ornelas, 26, of Huntington Beach, was found guilty by a Municipal Court jury Friday of drag-racing through a Newport Beach neighborhood with an open case of beer on the passenger seat. Ornelas was a familiar face to local police: In 1988, he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter for plowing into pedestrian Debbie Killelea, killing the 37-year-old mother of three.

Ornelas served about three years in prison for the 1988 offense. For the new conviction, he faces a maximum of six months in jail, a $2,700 fine and a six-month license suspension.

Although she wouldn't discuss any specific cases, Orange County Municipal Judge Pamela L. Iles said that through the years she has seen a steady parade of repeat offenders, the "major jerk drivers," who appear unwilling to change.

"I just get disheartened by it," Iles said. "They just don't get it, and I wonder if some of them ever will. It's like they're waving a loaded gun, endangering all of us."

And, like a violent offender, the drunk drivers should have their weapons confiscated, Iles contends. She testified Tuesday before lawmakers in Sacramento to encourage them to pass the vehicle seizure penalty for repeat offenders.

A state law that went into effect last year already allows authorities to seize the cars of people twice caught driving with a suspended or revoked license.

In Orange County, however, budget and staffing constraints have prevented prosecutors from doing that. But the situation will change in upcoming months, according to Brent Romney, director of Municipal Court operations for the district attorney.

"We're now able to hire a few more attorneys and we'll start pursuing those forfeitures for suspended licenses," Romney said. "And repeat DUI offenders are just as dangerous, if not more so, so we would pursue those vigorously, also."

Romney said taking cars away from hard-core offenders might hammer home lessons that aren't learned by short jail sentences. Often, jail overcrowding leads to the early release of drunk drivers and other nonviolent inmates, a situation that frustrates prosecutors, judges and police, Romney said.

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