REDDING — To the barflies at the Hen House tavern, Novis Levelle Lackey was known simply as "Lucky."
Friends say the nickname dates to his Navy days, long before the retired veteran began showing up mornings for a few 12-ounce pulls of Budweiser on tap. Cigarettes in hand, the gray-haired 63-year-old would then hit the road, authorities say, maybe stopping off at the nearby Castle bar before heading home.
Lackey wasn't always so lucky. He had racked up four drunk-driving convictions, went to jail and briefly lost his license following two DUIs in 1999. Yet despite careening into a parked truck and boat trailer in August of that year and leading police and concerned motorists on a weaving high-speed chase along Interstate 5 just three months later, Lackey had never killed anyone.
Until May 8 -- when his 1985 Toyota pickup veered out of control following a day of drinking, smashing into a Head Start preschool across the street from his apartment, police said. The truck plowed into the lobby, pinning 24-year-old teacher Nicole Burns against a wall, killing her instantly, and injuring a 5-year-old student.
After a decade of decline, drunk-driving deaths are again on the rise. From 1991 to 1998, such fatalities fell 48%, from 2,048 to 1,072. Then the incidents began a steady climb, increasing 22% by 2001, when 1,308 people died in drunk-driving-related accidents, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
One troubling phenomenon has remained constant: More than half the deaths and injuries from drunk-driving crashes involve a motorist with at least one prior DUI conviction.
Novis Lackey was arrested after both of his 1999 DUI incidents. He spent a brief time in jail and entered an alcohol counseling program.
But statistics show such arrests are on the decline. Drunk-driving apprehensions in California dropped nearly 50%, from 366,000 in 1991 to 190,000 in 1999, according to DMV statistics. The arrests dropped another 6.5% through 2001, the last year for which statistics are available.
CHP officials attribute the drop to a dramatic change in public drinking habits that includes increased use of designated drivers and the success of numerous campaigns against drunk drinking.
But while arrests have dropped, drunk-driving deaths have climbed.
"People were heeding our message throughout the '90s. But not anymore," said Ron Miller, an official with the California chapter of the nonprofit activist group Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Is it because the cops aren't getting drunk drivers off the street or are the drinkers driving while even more impaired? We just don't know."
Over this July 4 weekend, one of the top holidays for alcohol consumption, California Highway Patrol officers are waging a crackdown with increased enforcement that includes sobriety checkpoints.
Weeks after the Lackey crash, many in this tightknit Northern California community of 80,000 say the senseless death of a young teacher has shattered the veneer of safety in a city that often goes an entire year without a single murder. Scores attended her memorial services and the school received cards from well-wishers who didn't even know the victim.
On that day in May, Burns -- who made home visits to Head Start pupils -- had briefly dropped by the office before she would have rushed off to pick up her own two small children. At the time of her death, the single mother carried a full load of college courses and took part in a program to build a home for her 4-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter.
"The man who did this has taken so much away from us -- a friend, a teacher, a mother and a daughter," wrote the mother of one Burns' students. "I want him to see the heartbreak in my 3-year-old's eyes when she asks me, 'Mommy, is Nicole coming today?' and I have to say 'No.' "
Lackey, who is scheduled for arraignment Monday on a host of charges, including vehicular manslaughter, has said he passed out from a coughing fit and woke up inside the preschool. He was not injured in the crash, but faces 15 years to life in prison if convicted on the manslaughter charge. His lawyer did not return telephone calls.
Shasta County Assistant Dist. Atty. Daniel E. Flynn said Redding still reels from the death -- particularly because Burns died in such a seemingly safe setting.
Said Flynn: "People are asking 'Where am I safe from drunk drivers?' "
At the Bar Early
Novis Lackey likes to smoke when he drinks. And when he smokes, he coughs, he told police. At the Castle bar once, he hacked so violently that he fell and hit his head and had to be taken to the hospital.
On the morning of the crash, Lackey showed up at the Hen House when it opened at 10 a.m. and later stopped off at the Castle -- downing a total of at least six beers, police say. Shortly before 4 p.m., he was driving home, "feeling good," when he suffered another coughing fit, he told detectives.