waukesha county's alcohol treatment court

victim impact panel

The 150-seat campus theater is packed with drunk drivers - each charged or convicted at least three times.

Sitting on stage are four panelists: Mada Crites, Tony Watson, Les Grorsline and Don Pinnow.

Their lives have been devastated by individuals who chose to drink and drive.

Convicted drunk drivers, like those seated in the UW-Waukesha theatre on this mid-March evening, rarely meet their victims so they never directly face the consequences of their choice to drink and then climb behind the wheel of a car.

But on this night, they are a captive audience, sent by a judge to attend a "Victim Impact Panel," staged quarterly by a coalition of the courts and private citizens.

Waukesha County judges often send drunk drivers to learn, first hand, cost that an unsuspecting public pays for someone's choice to drive drunk.

Crites told her story first - describing her son's death nine years ago by a drunk driver in a pickup truck, on a road near Stevens Point.

Crites calls Bryon's death a murder.

Bryon was a college senior, nearing graduation.

An avid biker, he was out in the early evening on a spring day, head down, riding hard when the truck hit him from behind.

The driver, Crites recalled, was so drunk that he didn't realize he'd hit a human being.

But he pulled over because his airbag went off. His blood alcohol content tested at .185.

The crash happened on Saturday.

Bryon had no identification, so it wasn't until Sunday night Crites heard the knock at her front door in Milwaukee.

"I knew something awful must have happened," she said, when she saw two cops on her front porch.

Standing alone at a microphone in the subdued, dimly lit theater, Crites recounted the pain of losing her 24-year-old son, a former commercial fisherman who was learning to fly airplanes.

Initially she was "totally paralyzed," she said, and took years to work her way out of the despair.

Crites said she had difficulty working and she lost friends, "probably because they couldn't stand to see me in so much pain."

"Two families and a multitude of friends suffered due to the deliberate choice of one young man," she said.

Tony Watson took the microphone next.

In 1998, he and his wife Kathy buried their 18-year-old daughter Salina.

The Carroll College freshman was the second oldest of their six children.

She died the night that a fellow college student, drunk, slammed into the car in which she and two others were riding.

The drunk driver received a seven-year prison sentence.

The Watson's were sentenced to a lifetime of heartache.

"I'm here on my daughter's behalf, Watson told the crowd, to advise you to choose wisely "or everyone will suffer the consequences."

Watson accompanied his presentation with a slide show depicting his daughter's life from birth to death, including the crumpled cars at the accident scene.

The crowd watched in silence, eyes glued to the screen, some in tears.

"Get sober."

Les Grorsline, in a wheelchair, spoke next.

He was paralyzed from the waist down in car crash in 1998.

He was drunk, he said, and put himself in the car with a drunk driver.

"I don't consider myself an innocent victim. I was 19 years old at the time - young and stupid. Maybe I should've been the one who died."

"You can make better choices than I made," Grorsline advised the crowd. "Get help before the alcohol hurts your lives any further. Get help. Get sober. Don't get behind the wheel drunk. Save somebody's life."

Don Watson spoke last. He pulled pictures out of a box, one by one, of people in his life, relatives and friends, who've been killed or injured by drunk drivers.

The last picture is of his wife.

In 1972, Pinnow and his wife were on their way home from work when they were hit by a drunk driver travelling at more than 80 miles an hour.

His wife was paralyzed in the accident.

She lived more than three decades with  serious medical complications.

Her death certificate listed the cause of her death as a car accident.

"You need to change your life now," Pinnow told the audience.

"You have to stay off the road and get the other drunk drivers off the road, too," he concluded.

After Pinnow told his story, Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Ralph Ramirez closed the session by telling the crowd, "I hope you listened, and really heard, what they had to say."

"And I hope it makes a difference in the future," he added.

Judge Rameriz then invited the listeners to come down to the stage to meet the victims, and thank them for coming.

Most members of the audience declined his invitation. They quietly but quickly headed for the exits.

However, a dozen or so people walked down to the stage, shook the speakers' hands and offered a few hugs. Most appeared a bit hesitant. Some were in tears.

Said one man, "I connected with Mada. I was at Stevens Point, a few years ahead of her son." He wanted to tell her that.

Said a 27-year-old, "I've been to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but there you only meet the ones, like me, who cause the damage. I've never met the victims. This was an eye-opener."

Victim impact panels were authorized by statute in the state of Wisconsin as of February, 1993. The first panel in Waukesha occurred in November of the same year. Circuit Judge Marianne Becker, who died in 2004, is widely credited with getting the program started here.

  learn more...