Sunday, November 11, 2001

Driving drunk, again and again

Man's 19th arrest shows worst offenders hard to stop

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Curtis Sears, Ohio's worst repeat drunken driver, sits in the Warren County Jail, awaiting trial on his 19th DUI charge after being convicted 18 times in more than two decades. Authorities say he's a prime example of the difficulties that states have in keeping hard-core drinkers off the road.

        Mr. Sears says he simply can't do without his beer.

        “I have a problem with alcohol. Period. Have for years,” Mr. Sears, 43, a Dayton resident, says in a jail house interview.

        Says his wife, Mary: “He has a bad habit. He has to drive when he's drinking. He makes extra copies of the car keys because he knows I'll take the keys away from him. And, when I go to work, he drives.”

        She kicked him out of the house in July.

        If Mr. Sears is convicted of this latest charge — police say he was intoxicated and driving erratically on a Union Township road late Sept. 20 — he could spend five years in prison.

        It would be his toughest sentence yet, allowable under an 18-month-old DUI law in Ohio that was meant to get tough on repeat drunken drivers. Before last year, repeat offenders, no matter how many DUIs they committed, could only spend up to 18 months in jail.

        The courts have tried just about everything else with Mr. Sears in the 22 years that he's been getting drunk and driving.

        They sent him to the Warren County Jail for a year last year, but he got out in February and started drinking again in April.

        They took away his license for life, but he drove anyway.

        Countless times, they sent him to alcohol counseling, mostly in jail and once in a hospital rehab program. Nothing took.

        Even jail didn't stop him. He says he drank while assigned to a daytime cleanup crew in Boone County in 1995. When corrections officers left the group unattended, he and his inmate buddies had friends drop off drinks.

        He's never hurt anyone or himself, or even crashed his car.

        No matter how hard anyone tries, it's impossible to keep drunken drivers from offending again as long as there are alcohol and cars within their grasp, said State Rep. Rex Damschroder, R-Fremont, who has tried for years to have the blood alcohol standard in Ohio lowered from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent.

        “The public doesn't understand that we can do nothing short of putting him in jail and tying him up so he can't drive a car. That's where he should be. He is a criminal and to think he is not hurting anybody is completely wrong,” Mr. Damschroder said.

        Ohio state troopers made 25,320 drunken-driving arrests in 2000, down 8 percent since 1994.

        But hard-core drinkers continue to take to the roads. Over the past decade, 15,014 motorists in Ohio have been arrested five or more times for drunken driving, according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety.

        “They never think they are too drunk to drive,” said Andrea Rehkamp, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Southwest Ohio chapter. She agrees that locking up Mr. Sears is the only way to keep him off the road.

        “The ultimate answer is to keep him incarcerated. At least then he does not have the ability to hurt himself or hurt someone else, or kill himself or kill someone else,” Mrs. Rehkamp said.

        Treatment might not be the answer.

        “Unless he wants treatment and wants to change his behavior and lifestyle and drinking and driving habit, when he gets out he will do the same thing,” she said.

        Curtis Sears may be Ohio's worst repeat DUI offender, but he has plenty of company.

        In one case that made national headlines, an Ohio judge in 1998 sentenced Dennis Cayse of Hillsboro to live within walking distance of a liquor store or bar.

        At the time, a frustrated Judge James Hapner, of Hillsboro Municipal Court, said he'd run out of ideas to get Mr. Cayse to stop drinking and driving.

        That didn't stop Mr. Cayse. He was convicted again, for the 17th time, last year. In May, after his release from a 45-day rehabilitation program in a halfway house, he told reporters that he had stopped drinking and had moved his camper to a friend's property 85 miles from Columbus, where he spent his days fishing for bass.

        Curtis Sears bides his time working as a trusty in the jail kitchen while he waits for trial. A court date hasn't been set.

        He toldthe Enquirer he drove drunk at least five times before his last arrest in September.

        “I have a problem dealing with my troubles,” Mr. Sears says.

        Once a car mechanic who worked off and on when his drinking didn't get the best of him, he has a jail-house reputation as a dependable trusty with excellent handyman skills.

        He blames his drinking problems on his past — a troubled childhood in foster care; the accidental electrocution death of his 3-year-old son while Mr. Sears was in jail in 1983; the death of his mother; the accidental shooting of his brother who now is in a nursing home; and his recent separation from his third wife.

        Mary Sears, his estranged wife, says she kicked her husband out of their home in July because of his drinking. She says she has been to court with her husband nearly every year in their 11-year marriage. She even quit drinking in 1992, thinking it would help him avoid his temptation for alcohol. It didn't.

        “My wife doesn't drink, and she would not let me drink at home,” Mr. Sears says. “So, I would leave and drink. I would go to a friend's house and sit there and drink, and I would get picked up (by police) on the way home. That's usually the way it happened.”

        Mrs. Sears says she called police several times in the past five years to report that her husband was driving drunk.

        “I would tell him, "I had you put in jail, Curt, to protect you from yourself,' ” she says.

        Mr. Sears denies he was intoxicated in the latest incident, even though he told the Enquirer he had consumed “a little over a 12-pack” of beer at a small gathering in Warren County. He says he had quit drinking seven hours before his arrest at 11:10 p.m.

        He says putting him in prison for five years isn't the answer.

        “They try to keep me caged up like an animal,” he says. “I've got a problem with alcohol, and locking me up won't cure that problem. If they want to help me, they need to help find out the reason why I keep going back to drinking all the time.”

        Warren County Prosecutor Tim Oliver doesn't buy that argument.

        “He's got some responsibility in this,” Mr. Oliver says.

        The prosecutor will recommend that Mr. Sears be sent to the North Coast Correctional Facility in Grafton, Ohio. The privately run prison opened last year and houses up to 552 repeat drunken driving offenders or other inmates with histories of substance abuse.

        “Our goal is to get him to the new (state) DUI facility where they can do whatever they want with him,” Mr. Oliver says. “We need to get him off street.”

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