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Four alcohol-related vehicle deaths in 2 months rock Anchorage

Jerzy Shedlock
After more than a year with no alcohol-related vehicle fatalities, Anchorage has experienced four such deaths in the past two months. Police Chief Mark Mew will announce on Friday plans to ramp up DUI enforcement in the city. Loren Holmes photo

The Anchorage Police Department will hold a community rally Friday at West High School to recognize local victims and families affected by drunk driving. The event comes a week after Stacy Allen Graham reportedly lost control of his truck while intoxicated, veered off a roadway and killed two teenage girls. Police Chief Mark Mew will announce plans to ramp up DUI enforcement in the city -- a direct result of the two recent fatalities and other alcohol-related deaths over the past two months.

After more than a year with no alcohol-related traffic deaths in Anchorage, the city has experienced four DUI fatalities in the last two months.

Three times the limit

Graham, 31, has been charged with the two second-degree murder counts, as well as driving under the influence. Preliminary tests indicate his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit of .08 at the time of the crash, police say. Witnesses told police they saw Graham recklessly driving his red 2006 Toyota Tacoma east on Dimond Boulevard at a high speed. As Graham approached the curve where Dimond turns into Abbott, he apparently lost control of his truck.

The Toyota went off the road and swerved onto a bike path on the west side of Abbott, where 15-year-olds Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr were walking; the girls were walking back from a nearby mall after shopping for back-to-school items.

Graham was arraigned Tuesday at the Anchorage Jail courtroom. Family and friends of the teenagers and the alleged drunk driver’s family attended the proceeding. And on Thursday, Graham waived his right to attend a pre-indictment hearing. Instead, Attorney R. James Christie, with local law firm Tetlow Christie, represented Graham. Christie’s office is substituting for the state’s Public Defender Agency, he said.

The court granted a motion to set a “rule-five hearing” in Graham’s case, during which the judge will inform Graham of his right to a preliminary examination; Graham has been charged with a felony but not indicted. An affidavit supporting the charges against Graham -- two counts of second-degree murder and a misdemeanor DUI -- has not been filed.

Christie’s office also represents Lane Douglas Wyatt, a Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson airman who allegedly killed a 20-year-old Anchorage woman after running a red light early morning June 30. Wyatt admitted to responding officers that he drank five shots of liquor and drank three beers at a local bar, according to court documents.

A year of respite

Citari Townes-Sweatt, the 20-year-old who died in the June 30 accident, was the first person to die in a DUI-related crash in Alaska’s largest city in 14 months.

Prior to that death, 44-year-old Brenda Kae Davis died after driving her Hummer into the Muldoon Gate at JBER around 2 a.m. on April 30, 2012. Davis, like Graham, had more than three times the legal limit for blood-alcohol content in her system, KTUU reported.

Then-department spokesperson Dave Parker told the TV station a witness reportedly saw Davis driving as fast as 60 miles per hour before she hit the gate, which was closed at the time. Police found no skid marks at the scene.

By the Anchorage Police Department account, Davis was the sole DUI fatality in 2012.

‘We do play a role’

Chief Mew says the department viewed the more than yearlong streak without an alcohol-related driving fatality an accomplishment, but officers recognize “many factors probably contribute to the decline.”

In general, Mew credited improvements in medical technology and response, as well as safer vehicles, as factors that allow more people to walk away from wrecks these days.

However, enforcement was also very important in decreasing the number of fatalities, he said. “We made OUIs (operating under the influence) a priority several years ago,” Mew said. “As a result, in the last five or six years our ... arrests kept increasing. At the same time, our alcohol-related fatalities kept decreasing. This suggests to us that we do play a role.”

There is no difference between an OUI and a DUI, said police spokesperson Jennifer Castro.

In the last year or so, grant dollars for that enforcement has largely dried up. Police have not backed off of the priority, but arrests have started to go down, Mew said. “We may or may not be seeing the results of the easing of enforcement pressure.  My hunch is we are, but it is too soon to tell.”

Two weeks after Wyatt allegedly T-boned and killed Townes-Sweatt in Muldoon, a pickup rollover in east Anchorage killed 32-year-old Marcia Mausali. On July 12, 29-year-old Andre Clinton was reportedly driving eastbound on Commercial Drive when he lost control of a Chevy truck around a curve. The vehicle rolled multiple times, and Mausali was ejected, the Associated Press reported. Police believe alcohol and speed played a factor in a car crash.

Then, less than a month later, Brooke McPheters and Jordyn Durr were killed in South Anchorage. Graham faces two counts of second-degree murder for his alleged part in the girls’ deaths, a more serious charge when compared to manslaughter.

Mew said he is unsure if the four deaths this year are the beginning of a trend or a temporary spike. Either way, it’s a horrible tragedy, he said.

“I am not going to wait around to see if things get better on their own,” Mew said. “We are going to ramp things up and do everything we can to make sure nobody else is killed.

“We had thought what we were doing was adequate, as the fatalities had all but disappeared. The plans we are initiating today (Thursday) are entirely because of the occurrences of the last two months.”

The rally at West High will be held 6-7:30 p.m. on Friday. In addition to the police chief’s announcement of the department’s latest plans to ramp up DUI enforcement and involve residents in a community effort to reduce drunk driving, Anchorage School District Superintendent Ed Graff and Nancy Bidwell, the founder of Forget Me Not Mission, will speak.

A candlelight vigil will be held at the end of the rally to honor the victims of drunk driving.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com