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No prison for drunk driving killers
OAKFIELD -- When a mother and her daughters and granddaughter gathered to remember the man they all loved so dearly, they couldn't hold back the tears as they described what they missed most about Darwin Hoefert Sr.
"I miss his hugs. I miss he can't spend time with my children," shared the victim's daughter, Dawn Johnson.
"We worked (at his property in Crivitz), but it was good. He taught us a lot of stuff," recalled the victim's granddaughter, 13-year-old Elizabeth Johnson.
They also remembered how their sadness turned to frustration when they learned that a drunk driver killed Darwin in May 2011.
"I'm angry that before he got behind the wheel, he didn't stop -- the choice he made to get behind the wheel knowing he had been drinking all day," lamented Dawn.
The family's pain persisted while they endured nearly a year of court proceedings after the district attorney charged 59-year-old Russell Peters with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, a felony punishable by a maximum sentence of 25 years.
During the sentencing hearing in April 2012, the district attorney recommended Russell receive 10 years in prison. Peters' family asked for leniency because it was the defendant's first time arrested for DUI.
Some members of Darwin's family requested the maximum sentence. They each told the judge how Darwin was always helping others and how the crash had cut short his plans to buy and rehab a house for his daughter.
The crash also killed one of two dogs that traveled with the retired semi-truck owner-operator.
The pooch's brother, who survived the crash but is still spooked by loud noises, attended the funeral.
"His pillow was put by the coffin, and he laid on that pillow the whole time. There were a couple times he would stand on his hind feet and look up there," described the victim's widow, Susan Hoefert. "He was left for me. He was a part of Darwin."
But months after the funeral, Susan's emotional wound deepened when the judge stayed Peters' prison sentence, so he was only required to serve one year in county jail with work release.
"So he gets out 60 hours a week. So basically he's sleeping in jail. He gets to go to work, to counseling, and to church," said Susan.
But instead of pushing the family into a grief-filled fog, the sentence spurred Dawn to action when she learned about a gaping hole in the law during the defense attorney's statement.
"He was speaking to the judge at this point. And he said, "There are no minimum sentences. And it's your job as a judge to impose the minimum sentence, and that's nothing. So I was quite surprised by that. And I immediately said that is what I need to do is change that, because that is not acceptable!" recalled Dawn.
Even State Representative Jim Ott (R-Mequon) did not realize there is no minimum sentence for drunk drivers who kill someone in Wisconsin.
"I think most of us are outraged when we hear that the person got no jail time or very minimal jail time. It's like, what is a life worth?" wondered Rep. Ott.
But some say mandatory minimum sentences won't necessarily reduce crime.
Darwin's widow disagrees.
"Wouldn't it serve as a deterrent if people know: If I get behind the wheel and kill somebody, I'm going to go to prison," noted Susan.
Others say mandatory minimums will overwhelm the prison system, costing taxpayers and taking away judges' discretion.
"I'm mad more at the judicial system, the politics. I hear. Dawn talks to the politicians. It's about money. That's what you hear," complained Susan.
Thanks to the Hoefert family's newfound activism, Rep. Ott plans to introduce legislation to ensure drunk driving killers go to prison, by creating a minimum sentence of at least a few years for this type of homicide, like 26 other states have.
Rep. Ott says it won't cost Wisconsin more money.
"The purpose will not be to put more people in jail. The purpose will be to kind of change the mindset so that more people will think before they drink and get behind the wheel, because they realize they're facing more serious consequences," explained Rep. Ott, adding: "Publicizing that we're going to have tougher laws is maybe as important as passing the laws."
Many Wisconsin crimes do not have a mandatory minimum sentence. Those that do, involve heinous acts like intentional murder, multiple rapes and child molestation.
But some drunk drivers do face mandatory prison sentences, like those convicted of a seventh and subsequent DUI, which carries a minimum of three years even if no one was hurt.
Darwin's daughter Laura Luebke supports prison time for DUI offenders, because she says that will allow them to stay sober for a long time, for perhaps the first time in their adult lives.
She's says she can speak from experience because she's been a drug and alcohol counselor for years.
"If we take these people out of society for a while, we're not just punishing them. We're giving them first clean time," explained Laura. "In a lot of cases, we're saving their lives."
The Hoefert family is ecstatic Rep. Ott plans to propose this mandatory minimum idea and four other bills to toughen drunk driving laws -- including a controversial plan to seize a drunk driver's car permanently -- in the upcoming legislative session.
States like Minnesota and California have implemented similar vehicle forfeitures to cut down on drunk driving, drug offenses and prostitution.
In part two of our series, "Getting away with murder," we'll describe other new laws that may hit the books in an effort to cut down on the carnage on our roadways.
If you have an idea you'd like us to investigate, send an email to email@example.com.