Wednesday, 12 June 2024

Team DUI illustrates dangers of drunk driving, underage drinking

LOWER LAKE – On Dec. 23, 2005, a speeding car traveling along a lonely road in Lassen County crashed into a building, bounced into a tree and caught fire. By the time rescuers were able to pull the car's passenger from the wreckage, the young woman had died. {sidebar id=39}

On Wednesday night, Judy Thein shared the horror of losing her 36-year-old daughter, Kellie, to that collision, caused by car's driver who, unbeknownst to Kellie Thein, had been drinking.

“No one deserves to die in such a cruel manner,” Judy Thein said.

Thein's emotional talk was one of several told by members of Team DUI in a town hall meeting Wednesday evening, held at the Lower Lake High School gym.

The two-hour meeting, attended by about 30 adults and teens, offered a stark reminder of the high cost that comes from underage drinking and drinking and driving.

For Thein, sharing her story has been a painful but important way of remembering her daughter, who worked as a social worker and advocate for children.

Thein recalled in vivid detail her experiences, from the moments of receiving the phone call that her daughter had died to her burial.

“That was a pain you could never, ever imagine, seeing my daughter's body lowered into the ground,” said Thein.

A contrast to Thein's story was found in that of 18-year-old Erica Harrison, a fresh-faced 2007 graduate of Middletown High School who stood on crutches, having lost her leg in a crash last year.

Harrison and Thein's partnership to speak to young people began earlier this year, Thein told Lake County News, and is an important part of the formation of Team DUI.

At the start of her senior year, Harrison went drinking with a friend one Friday afternoon before heading off to the first home football game of the season.

The last thing she remembered was getting into the car. She awoke to a chaotic scene, after having hit a tree at 65 miles per hour.

Harrison's friend survived, while she lost her leg and spent her first semester of school recovering from the crash and incurring astronomical hospital bills.

In addition, she paid thousands of dollars for an attorney to represent her on a felony DUI charge later lowered to a misdemeanor. She was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and had her driver's license suspended for a year.

None of her friends came to visit her in the hospital, and she had to struggle to make up for her lost semester in order to graduate this past June.

But none of that equaled the pain of seeing her family suffer, said Harrison. Her own little brother didn't see her during her months of hospitalization, and when he finally see her, “He hid from me and cried.”

Since then, Harrison said her goal has been to let others know the high costs of drinking and driving. “I'm trying to do the best I can and get the word out.”

Carle High School Principal Bill MacDougall shared his own story of how a DUI crash changed his life at the age of 14 and, in a roundabout way, led to his work helping children today.

MacDougall said his parents drank heavily and daily. He was 14 when his father, who had been drinking, went off a 300-foot cliff in his car, accompanied by a woman not MacDougall's mother.

The devastation that rippled through MacDougall's family resulted in his mother's suicide a year and a half later. “Due to the drinking and driving, I had no family,” he said.

His older brother took him in, and they lived above a motorcycle repair shop in San Jose. But it was the intervention of two high school coaches – MacDougall was a swimmer and wrestler – that made all the difference.

The two men championed the teen, helping him get scholarships to get into college.

“You wonder why I do what I do?” MacDougall asked.

It's to pay it forward to his students in just that same way, he explained.

Clearlake Police Chief Allan McClain emphasized the important role parents play in setting a good example for their children.

“What we say to them is not nearly as important as what we do,” said McClain, the father of two teenage boys.

Every decision a person makes has a consequence, said McClain. And sometimes those consequences can be horrific.

While a young deputy sheriff 24 years ago, McClain was heading home in the Central Valley one foggy night when he came upon a crash scene. A Volkswagen bus with a family including six children and an infant had been hit by a drunk driver.

The family, he said, were deaf and could not speak, and as he tried to communicate with them he realized that they were trying to tell him that their infant daughter was under the van's wreckage.

He said he can still remember vividly helping to pull the infant from under the van. She looked like a china doll, he said, but she was missing an eye and her body was crushed.

The memory, he said, “never goes away.”

For anyone convicted of a DUI, going to jail is the easy part, said McClain. Much worse is living with the consequences.

California Highway Patrol Officer Adam Garcia, who has been with CHP for six years, said an accident scene he came upon while a young officer in San Jose still haunts him as well.

A drunk driver had hit a man riding a motorcycle with his young stepdaughter, who Garcia estimated to be about 8 years old.

Hundreds of feet from the crushed motorcycle was the body of the little blonde-haired girl, said Garcia. When he went to her, he found she was already dead, her big blue eyes staring up at him.

“I can't tell you how much that affected me,” said Garcia.

He added, “She lives with me everyday, every night when I go to bed. I wish I could make it go away but I can't.”

Garcia said it took everything he had not to reach out and strangle the man who caused the accident, who he said had no concept of what he had done.

“As a parent, I couldn't imagine outliving my child,” said Garcia. “That's not how nature works.”

The purpose behind Team DUI's effort, said Garcia, is to encourage people to make better decisions and understand how dangerous drinking and driving really is.

As for the CHP and police, said Garcia, when it comes to DUI crashes, “We don't want your business. We really don't.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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