DUI victim: “We didn’t have a choice, he did”
Every time Alan Weatherford speaks to a group of drunk drivers or high school students, he shows the video, and every time, he relives what happened to his daughter.
Weatherford wants drunk drivers to see that life can shift in an instant from routine to tragedy.
The video is from a business surveillance camera.
His daughter, 29-year-old DeAnna Tucker, is walking out of a bridal store with her 4-year-old son. Her wedding is less than a month away.
She helps her son into the back seat of her Honda and shuts the door. Out of nowhere, a speeding Mustang clips the rear passenger bumper of her car. On the driver’s side, she falls from view, wedged between her car and the truck it slams into. DeAnna died six hours later, in March 2011.
The former Gulfport police chief met with the drunk driver, Darrell Edward Blappert Jr., in April 2012. Blappert had just been sentenced to 18 years in prison, leaving behind a fianceé and child.
“I sat there and listened to DeAnna’s killer for two hours,” Weatherford said. “For two hours, he sat there and told me, ‘I did not think I was that impaired driver. I drank and drove many times similar to the time I killed your daughter, but I can’t take it back.’ ”
Mississippi constantly tweaks its laws to get more drunk drivers off the road, but the state is spending less money on DUI training for law enforcement officers and enforcement. Statistics show that DUI arrests are down statewide, which DUI experts say historically leads to an increase in fatalities.
If you get away with something for a long period of time, you get bolder and bolder. If you did something 60 times and nobody said anything, you'd probably do it 61.
Bill Henderson, DUI expert
“Nobody thinks they're going to get caught,” said Bill Henderson, who for 12 years coordinated Mississippi’s alcohol education program and is program manager at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center.
“The first thing that goes is your judgment. They don't realize how impaired they are. They aren't trying to hurt anybody. They certainly don't think they're going to get stopped by police.
“If you get away with something for a long period of time, you get bolder and bolder. If you did something 60 times and nobody said anything, you'd probably do it 61.”
The state Legislature last provided funding in 2014 to train state troopers for the Mississippi Highway Patrol, which graduated its last class almost two years ago, said Johnny Poulos, the agency’s public affairs director.
The number of troopers working state highways in the six South Mississippi counties has dropped almost 39 percent, to 19 troopers, since 2012. Statewide, the decrease is 19.4 percent.
MHP’s DUI arrests fell from 7,276 in 2013 to 6,150 in 2015, but alcohol-related crashes, fatalities and injuries this year are on track to equal or exceed 2013 numbers.
“The crashes are going to happen no matter what,” Poulos said. “That’s always consistent. When you look at the alcohol-related crashes, we have another month to go and our alcohol-related crashes are definitely up.”
In 2015, Gulfport had the highest number of DUI arrests in the state, with 644. Harrison County, with Gulfport as its largest city, also leads the pack in DUI convictions, state statistics show, with 868 in 2015. DeSoto County, a casino county in North Mississippi near Memphis, had the second-highest number of convictions at 591, with only 332 convictions in the state’s most populated county, Hinds.
One DUI officer in Gulfport, Blake Tucker, is responsible for many of those arrests and convictions. Tucker is a member of the 300 Club. He was the only officer in 2014 to make more than 300 DUI arrests and he came in third for 2015, with 324 arrests.
An officer of the court in Gulfport said, “Blake Tucker would arrest his own mother for DUI.”
A DUI causing death or debilitating injury is a felony.
In other DUI cases, punishment is progressive for repeat offenders, but drunk drivers who already have one conviction are in many cases allowed to plead guilty to first offenses.
Such pleas mean judges can dispose of cases that might not be air tight, but also that second-time offenders can avoid jail time and mandatory diagnostic assessments and treatment, said John Dawson, an attorney who has prosecuted DUIs for various jurisdictions since 2001 and teaches DUI law for the Harrison County Sheriff’s Academy.
In Mississippi, a third DUI is a felony for anyone with two prior convictions, but only if the first two DUI charges occurred within the previous five years. A third offense carries a sentence of one to five years. House arrest is often an option.
On Oct. 1, the law changed to make a fourth offense, no matter the time period involved, a felony punishable by a minimum prison sentence of two years, with a maximum of 10.
“I believe that's going to definitely put some teeth into DUIs as to repeat offenders,” Dawson said.
Law enforcement agencies already are working on fourth-offense cases that will be prosecuted by the district attorney’s office for Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties, assistant district attorney Crosby Parker said.
Alan Weatherford is trying to do his part to curb DUIs by speaking at victim-impact sessions first-time offenders can attend in lieu of a maximum jail sentence of 48 hours.
He said it was about a year after DeAnna’s death that he sat in on one of the classes. He kept a low-profile in back, seated next to a young man who apparently assumed Weatherford had been driving drunk, too. A woman told the class about a drunk driver killing her husband in an accident off County Farm Road.
As they took a break, the young man told Weatherford he had been charged with DUI before, but he got off the first time. He kind of smiled when he said it.
Weatherford asked him, “If you had heard her story the first time, would you have gotten a second DUI?’
“He just kind of shook his head,” Weatherford said.
He kept thinking about DeAnna’s little boy, his grandson. If the drunk driver had come along a second later, before DeAnna got her son in the car, he would be gone, too.
The night after she died, his grandson stayed with Weatherford and his grandmother. They were getting ready for bed. His grandson looked at him and said, “Papa, you can fix everything.”
Weatherford just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. In the weeks that followed, what his grandson said stuck with him.
“I can't bring her back,” Weatherford said, “but I can help fix this problem. That's been the driving force for me.”
Mississippi Highway Patrol statewide statistics on driving under the influence.
2016 (through November): 4,735
2016 (through November): 482