Chad Shipman, 25, made his fatal mistake on Main Street in Billings in the early hours of June 30, 2004.
By most accounts, Shipman was a nice, hardworking guy who liked to party. He’d earned his first DUI at 15 and had picked up two more since. Alcohol again saturated his bloodstream when he got behind the wheel of his 1996 Honda Civic about 3:45 a.m. and pulled onto the road.
Paving crews were working through the night resurfacing one of Montana’s busiest streets, a six-lane thoroughfare with bumper-to-bumper rush hour congestion. But early morning traffic was sparse, and bright lights illuminated a worksite well marked with warning signs and fluorescent orange cones.
Shipman said later he didn’t notice shouting road workers who jumped out of the way as he accelerated through the closed construction zone; nor did he see engineer Richard Dean Roebling, 38, who was bending down to sample the asphalt.
Roebling, married and the father of two boys, died at the scene. Panicked, Shipman drove away. Not long after, he was arrested at his home. His blood-alcohol level was 0.29 percent, nearly four times the legal limit.
At 6 a.m., two hours after the accident, Roebling’s best friend knocked on the door of the home that Roebling and his wife Kim had purchased just a few months before.
“The hardest thing was telling my kids,” Kim said in a recent interview. “I woke them. Put the two of them together in a room and told them. There was not much else you could do.”
Her youngest son, Adam, will graduate from Billings Senior High this year – one of those “special days” she prepares for, like Roebling’s birthday and their anniversary. Kim hasn’t forgiven Shipman, but said she rarely thinks about him.
“It’s been almost six years and you have to move on,” she said. “If you dwell on it or harbor anger, you can’t move on.”
Shipman moved on, too – to Deer Lodge and the Montana State Prison. After pleading guilty to negligent homicide, he was sentenced on May 6, 2005, to the maximum 20 years.
At a hearing two years ago, the parole board set another review for 2012 and told him that with good conduct he could enter an alcohol treatment program in 2011. If he successfully completes the program, he would be allowed to enter a pre-release program. Shipman has been in custody since the day of his arrest.
At his sentencing, he wept and apologized.
They’re always sorry. They usually cry. Almost always, they are sincere in their regret. But it’s never enough, and it’s always too late.
“It changes everything in the blink of an eye,” said Kim Roebling, who as an emergency room nurse at Billings Clinic has firsthand experience in both her personal and professional life.
Last year, 91 people died in alcohol-fueled accidents on Montana roadways. In 2008, 103 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes; 124 died in 2007.
While the rate of alcohol-related fatalities has fallen since the 1980s, heart-rending reports of drunken-driving accidents continue with stunning regularity.
On the night after Christmas, 29-year-old David James DelSignore, driving with a reported 0.147 blood-alcohol level, crashed into four Hellgate High School freshman girls’ basketball players walking along Highway 200 east of Missoula.
He is charged with killing Ashlee Patenaude, 14, and Taylor Cearley, 15, and injuring their teammates. If convicted – he has pleaded not guilty – he could face 80 years in the Montana State Prison.
Two years earlier, an inebriated Wade Petersen, 21, faced charges of negligent vehicular homicide while under the influence for hitting three 14-year-old girls walking on a pedestrian path in Butte. Mariah McCarthy died and her two friends were seriously injured. Petersen is now in a pre-release center in Great Falls, according to Montana’s online prison records.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Warren Haynes, 28, died last March 27, four days after a drunk in the wrong lane hit his patrol car head-on on U.S. Highway 93 near Kalispell. He left a wife and two small children. The drunken driver who killed him also died.
“Some people might look at the numbers and say we’re going in the right direction,” said Col. Mike Tooley, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol. “But when you have flag-draped coffins of your own people, that’s a wake-up.”
There is a cultural aspect to Montana’s DUI problem, Tooley said. “It’s almost been a Montana birthright to drink and drive.”
We are frequently more amused than shocked when justices of the peace, municipal judges and legislators get caught drinking and driving. They apologize profusely. We shake our heads for a week or two and forget.
The Montana Legislature, echoing that sentiment, has been slow to adopt new restrictions on drinking and driving. Only threats of losing federal highway funding convinced lawmakers to increase the drinking age to 21, set 0.08 percent as the blood-alcohol threshold for drunken drivers and establish an open-container law.
But some in the business of cleaning up after impaired drivers sense change in Montana’s capacity for tolerance. Drunks killing innocents and drunks who continue to drive after racking up double-digit numbers of DUIs have created a smoldering outrage.
Recognizing that the mood in Montana may be shifting, the 2009 Legislature assigned the Law and Justice Interim Committee to study the problem of drunken driving and examine better ways to confront it.
“People are actually speaking out about it now,” Tooley said. “It’s turning into the secondhand smoke of 2010. People are saying, ‘This affects me.’ We’re approaching that kind of attitude about DUI. That’s where the culture starts changing.”
The percentage of fatalities that involve alcohol has declined from 67 percent in 1982 to 45 percent in 2008.
But the number of alcohol-related traffic convictions bounces around, generally trending upward since 2004. Traffic experts say they don’t know whether to attribute rising convictions to more drunken drivers or to better law enforcement.
Reports supplied to the Montana Motor Vehicle Division show 5,906 convictions in 2003 and 6,197 the next year. In 2009, a total of 6,954 were reported.
It’s not unheard of to find drivers with a dozen DUI convictions; Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert prosecuted an offender with 13. Each DUI starting with No. 4 is a felony. Since Montana adopted a felony DUI law 12 years ago, 2,441 offenders with 3,008 felony convictions have fallen under state supervision, the Montana Department of Corrections reported last year.
The penalty for DUI No. 4 and every one after that is 13 months. A judge can declare a repeat felon a persistent felony offender, which can mean a sentence of five to 100 years. As of August, the DOC had supervised 83 persistent felony DUI offenders from 17 counties. The average sentence of these incorrigibles was about 10 years. The average age of those sentenced as persistent felony offenders is 43.5.
Cities and counties across Montana are developing DUI courts to handle offenders with intense intervention and accountability programs.
They have made use of technology that helps make drunken drivers more accountable – SCRAM ankle bracelets that record alcohol consumption and interlocking ignition devices that prevent vehicles from starting if a driver can’t blow a clean sample into a monitor installed in his vehicle.
Harsher penalties for felony DUI or making a third DUI a felony are favorite themes lately in Montana, but such penalties come with a big pricetag for the Department of Corrections.
When Montana made a fourth DUI a felony in 1995, the penalty was not less than one year or more than 10. But the cost of imprisoning that many offenders proved too much.
So the penalty was reduced to a mandatory 13 months for each felony DUI. If an offender successfully completes an inpatient treatment program approved by the DOC before the end of his or her sentence, the rest can be served on probation.
In conjunction, Montana initiated WATCh, a six-month inpatient therapeutic program. A WATCh report published in December noted that of the 2,066 offenders who have graduated from the program, 205 have been arrested on another drunken-driving charge.
When several prosecutors across the state were asked what changes they’d like to see, many advocated making it a crime to refuse a Breathalyzer test. A Breathalyzer or a blood draw is the most conclusive way to prove a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol.
And most drunken drivers conscious enough to function know that. Mike Clague, a prosecutor in Butte-Silver Bow, said increasing numbers of people are refusing the test.
Repeat offenders are especially savvy, Paxinos said. By the fourth DUI, they won’t take a breath test or, in some cases, even utter a word, he said. They know that slurred speech can be used as evidence against them.
Kim Roebling, whose husband died in that accident on Main Street in Billings six years ago, has tossed around a lot of ideas about dealing with DUI. Basically what she wants is early intervention and more accountability.
“Nothing is more frustrating to me than to see people on their eighth or ninth DUI,” she said.
She supports the DUI court developed in Billings to provide intense supervision and treatment for drivers with lethal potential.
“I also think DUI laws need to be far more strict,” she said. “There is too much in between. I think it should be cut and dried. The penalty should be higher the first time around and there shouldn’t be any way of getting around it.”