Impaired in the north country: Chronic drunken drivers plague Minn., Wis. roads

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Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about drinking and driving.

Bart Bartos knew he needed to stop drinking.

The River Falls-area man had already been convicted 10 times of impaired driving and was beginning to feel the physical effects from the case of beer he'd put away daily.

His last drink came nearly 10 years ago before he pulled away from a rural bar. When he looked down to light a cigarette, he looked back up to see a sheriff's deputy driving right at him.

Bartos knew the encounter would mean prison, but he said it also left him surprisingly relieved.

"That was my intervention from a higher power that saved my life," he said, recalling the 2007 incident.

But while Bartos prepares to mark a full decade of sobriety in November, many more Wisconsinites and Minnesotans will continue doing what he did after his first arrest as a high school junior: driving drunk again and again.

Though impaired driving offenses and alcohol-related road fatalities have seen declines in past years, repeat drunken drivers continue to find themselves behind the wheel.

Fatal crashes have decreased in both states, including those involving alcohol. Still, law enforcement agencies and courts see motorists repeatedly drive drunk — in some cases more than five, 10 and 15 times.

"We continue to see DWIs," said Sheriff Dan Starry of Washington County, where 931 drunken drivers were convicted last year. "It's amazing that with all the press, education and enforcement that we still see it as high as it is."

'Crime of convenience'

Of those convicted of impaired driving last year in Minnesota and Wisconsin, about one-third had a prior offense, according to a RiverTown Multimedia review of impaired driving records.

The data, provided by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Wisconsin Department of Transportation, highlight the number of times someone is convicted of drunken or impaired driving.

Between 2012 and 2016, Minnesota courts convicted 10,577 drivers of driving while intoxicated for the fourth time or higher, according to state data.

Centers for Disease Control data show Wisconsin exceeds Minnesota in heavy drinking. But among chronic drunken driving convictions, Minnesota is slightly ahead of its eastern neighbor.

In the same five-year span, Wisconsin convicted 9,207 motorists with their fourth or higher operating while intoxicated offense, or OWI, despite having 1,300 more overall impaired drivers than Minnesota. In both states, a fourth or higher impaired driving offense is a felony.

In the past five years, 2,349 people were convicted of their fifth OWI in Wisconsin, and 28 were sentenced for their 10th offense, according to WisDOT.

"It's a crime of convenience," said Pat Hinderscheid, who for 25 years has volunteered on victim impact panels in Red Wing for people convicted of repeat drunken driving offenses. "When it comes to drunk driving, we tolerate it as a society."

Impaired driving convictions in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin

Nearly 30 years ago, Hinderscheid's brother Mark died in a head-on crash after a drunken driver entered the wrong way onto Interstate 94 in the early morning hours near downtown St. Paul. After years of grappling with his own alcohol addiction, Hinderscheid's brother had been long sober and was raising two daughters before he died.

His brother's death inspired Hinderscheid to take part in the victim impact panels, which repeat DWI offenders are sometimes required to attend as a condition of their sentencing.

Like most of the men and women he speaks to, he too admits to driving drunk in the past, although he was never arrested for it.

"The difference between me and them is I got lucky," he says to them.

By including panelists who range from survivors of drunken driving crashes, family members like Hinderscheid and repeat offenders who've since reformed, the goal of the program is to highlight the lasting and long-term effects of substance-impaired driving.

Sometimes the two-hour session helps steer people toward coming to terms with their problems and seeking help, Hinderscheid said. Other times, he's observed panel attendees who continue driving drunk.

"They obviously have a complete disregard for the safety of themselves and other people," Hinderscheid said. "How many chances are we going to give them?"

Hard road to recovery

On a snowy January night 15 years ago, Craig Barnd saw a flash of light as his car swerved head-on into another about a mile from his home.

He had been drinking all day, but his relationship with alcohol had started long before that evening. Barnd's first drunken-driving offense came when he was 18, followed by another in his mid-20s.

After he came to en route to Hennepin County Medical Center, someone at the hospital told him he had killed the driver, Nancy Robling. She was on her way to pick up her 12-year-old daughter from a basketball practice.

"I drove drunk probably a thousand times and my luck ran out," said Barnd, now 59, of Jordan.

His blood alcohol content was 0.16, more than one-and-a-half times the legal limit at the time. He was later convicted of vehicular homicide and DWI and sentenced to a year on work release from jail.

But he still couldn't stop.

Five years after the crash, Barnd violated his probation when police caught him driving drunk again.

Sentenced to two years in prison for probation violation, Barnd entered an alcohol treatment program at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater where he served most of his sentence.

He credits his sobriety to his time behind bars.

"I got a lot of breaks in life, and I don't think I would have sobered up any other way," he said. "You can make a lot of promises, but you have to show it."

He sometimes visits the treatment facility in Stillwater and shares his experiences on victim impact panels. It's the reminder he needs, he said, adding that he feels if he breaks away from his recovery, he'd likely fall down the same hole he pulled himself from years ago.

But sometimes the reminder comes when he sees the family of the mother he killed around town. They don't talk or interact.

"It still puts a knot in my stomach," Barnd said.

Bartos, the River Falls-area man with 11 OWI convictions, said it took a combination of things for him to attain sobriety. Like Barnd, prison was where Bartos, now 48, made a commitment to his sobriety.

READ MORE: Rural areas continue to see higher rates of impaired driving

But unlike Barnd, Bartos' drunken driving never led to death or injury — a fact he attributes to sheer luck.

He recalls the "I can make it" rationale that would lead to traversing dark country roads on his way home after tying one on. Statistically, Bartos said, the odds favor making it without getting stopped.

His luck ran out when he encountered St. Croix County sheriff's deputy Jason Johnson.

"Finally, eventually, you're going to get caught," Bartos said.

Like other alcoholics, Bartos' downward spiral included stints of sobriety. He'd attend mandated treatment programs that helped get his head clear. But at some point later, he'd find himself back among the party crowd.

"Slippery people, slippery places," he said, recalling how prayers he offered up in jail were drowned out by the booze despite that "you very much mean it at the time ... and you forget."

Bartos found sobriety after his last arrest, but it was in prison where the "carrot and the stick" concept of reward and punishment became clear to him.

He's grateful for the rewards sobriety has brought him — he now owns a maintenance contracting firm and has a stable marriage — but also acknowledges some offenders require more.

"You still need to have a punitive element," Bartos said.

Law enforcement picking up the pieces

Between dusk and the twilight hours of dawn, Minnesota State Patrol trooper Kendall LeMay works the graveyard shift covering a large swath of land stretching from St. Paul to the St. Croix River dividing Wisconsin from Minnesota.

His focus is mainly taking drunken and impaired drivers off the road.

So far this year, he's arrested more than 60 drivers suspected of DWI, the second most of any trooper in the state. Last year, he logged more than 100.

Of the stops that baffle him are when he greets a drunken driver and the person in the passenger seat is sober. The ones that are upsetting are when it's a child.

In Wisconsin, St. Croix County Sheriff's Office deputy Chuck Coleman sees a high number of drunken drivers on the rural roads he patrols. According to the data, St. Croix County counts about 28 percent of its OWI convicts as repeat offenders.

Coleman is well acquainted with the remote roads those drivers take home from bars, thinking they're less likely to encounter a cop.

He catches them as often as he can — not because he gets a thrill out of ruining someone's night, but because of the chance to keep drunken drivers from ruining someone else's.

"That is the ultimate goal, is to protect the general public," he said.

While responding to a minor infraction on a night before Labor Day, LeMay noted several impaired drivers could have passed by while he was tied up. On any given night, he estimates law enforcement is only able to catch a small handful of drunk drivers.

"There's only so many people I can stop," LeMay said.

Some drivers come clean and admit they've been drinking. Others become belligerent — sometimes cursing, spitting or by becoming violent. But most are more upset when law enforcement tows their vehicle, LeMay said.

"They don't care if they're getting arrested for DWI, they care about their car. That's why they drive it and make bad decisions," he said.

Pierce County Sheriff Nancy Hove said it's that flaw in the human condition that puts impaired drivers back behind the wheel, no matter the consequences. Repeat offenders comprise about 28 percent of all drunken driving convictions in Pierce County.

But the solutions to keeping drunken drivers off the road remain elusive.

"Humans are human," Hove said. "No matter how many laws are on the books, if they don't want to abide by them, they won't."

Read part two of Impaired in the North Country.