When tragedy strikes a family or community, questions abound.
But when a second or third tragedy strikes, the only questions that remain are how and why.
In a matter of a couple of months, five Warrick County lives were taken in three wrecks involving alcohol. Each situation had different circumstances involved, but one factor remained—at least one driver was driving under the influence of alcohol.
In the later evening hours of Oct. 24, Bridget Lafferty looked away from her driving on S. R. 62 to switch the station on her radio. As she was scanning through channels, Lafferty looked up and saw an individual driving a moped ahead of her. Instead of swerving, Lafferty said she hit the brakes, but couldn’t avoid hitting the man. Jesse Lechner, 34, died as a result of the wreck. After a blood draw, Lafferty was later charged with operating a vehicle with a schedule I or II substance in the blood, operating a motor vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more and reckless homicide.
In the early morning of Nov. 13, Mason Hartke left a day of drinking and partying at Indiana University in Bloomington to travel back to his home in Jasper on I-69. Hartke stated that he fell asleep and veered off the road before hitting the vehicle of David Rinehart, who had moved his car to the shoulder after hitting a deer while driving his family home from a band competition in Indianapolis. As a result of the wreck, David, his mother, Ruth, and his daughter, Sophie, lost their lives. Hartke was later charged with three counts of causing death while operating a vehicle with an ACE of greater than .08, as well as three counts of reckless homicide.
In the early morning of Dec. 17, a vehicle containing three teenagers was met head-on by a vehicle traveling on the wrong way on S.R. 62. As a result, Skylar Robinson-Williamson, 15, lost her life. Another passenger, Megan Ripperdan, remains in a coma fighting for her life at the hospital. The driver, Whitney Winstead, was later released from the hospital. The wreck is still under investigation. It is unknown why the cars met and didn’t miss each other. However, the driver speeding down the wrong way of the split highway, Osiel Marroquin, has been charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated endangering a person, causing serious bodily injury when operating a motor vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more, causing death when operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, causing death when operating a motor vehicle with an ACE of .08 or more and reckless homicide.
More investigation will continue in the following days into what lead Marroquin to drive under the influence without a license and whether other previous offenses will come into play. The sheriff has notified the consular office and has confirmed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a hold on Marroquin, as well.
Warrick County Prosecutor Mike Perry said the law is fairly explicit in which charges can be brought in such incidents. The majority of the charges against Lafferty, Hartke and Marroquin are level 5 felonies, which can carry sentences from one to six years, with an advisory sentence of three years. Perry said in the event of a prior offense, the charges can be brought to a level 4 felony, which can carry sentences in a range of two to 12 years, with an advisory sentence of six years. Perry said some of those charges can be served concurrently and times can be cut in half for good behavior.
“We make several charges to cover our bases in case the evidence is insufficient, but not every charge is convicted,” he said.
In the event of immigration involvement, as it seems is the case for Marroquin, Perry said the offender will be responsible to the state before any issue with immigration is handled.
“He will not be deported prior to facing any charges, if he’s deported at all,” he said.
Perry said his job is to enforce the law and he is limited by the constraints given by legislators. However, with so many incidents, he said the issue of repercussions in these situations should be called into question.
“I believe that it should be a higher level class of felony when someone’s life is taken,” he said. “If we had more stringent laws in place, would it be more of a deterrent for someone thinking about getting behind the wheel?”
In addition to the repercussions for the drivers involved, the instances also call into question the circumstance behind receiving the alcohol. Lafferty and Hartke are both proven minors. How Lafferty came in contact with alcohol is unknown. However, interviews reveal that Hartke had consumed alcohol in a dorm with friends, at parties and had even brought alcohol of his own, despite being well under the drinking age.
Perry said his office first takes on the charges surrounding the actual wreck, but he believes those who had a hand in contributing to the circumstances leading up to the event should also be held accountable.
“They started that ball in motion,” he said. “They should be held accountable.”
However in the state of Indiana, the repercussion for contributing to the delinquency of a minor is only a class A
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misdemeanor or a level 5 felony if the person committing the offense is at least 21 years old and knowingly furnishes an alcoholic beverage to a person less than 18 when the person committing the offense knew or reasonably should have known that the person furnished the alcoholic beverage was less than 18 years of age.
In each of these situations where underage drinking is a factor, the drivers were at least 18, meaning the facilitator of the alcohol, if ever proven, will only be reprimanded with a class A misdemeanor, which is punishable with one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Perry agrees that the repercussions should be heavier in these situations, but his hands are tied.
“As the prosecutor, I can only enforce the law on the books,” he said. “It’s up to the people in the Indiana Statehouse to take care of these things.”
Warrick County Sheriff Brett Kruse said there are no simple answers, but the issue continues to boil down to safety.
“If you’re going to drink, stay home or get a designated driver,” he said. “That’s just common sense.”
Kruse said whether drinking or driving is a factor in a wreck, being alert and cautious as a driver is imperative. From cell phones to other passengers, he said there are plenty of distractions on the road.
“A lot of people don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them,” he said.
All of these issues can come into play particularly when another vehicle is coming at a driver head on. When two cars are traveling at 60 miles an hour or more, those cars can meet quickly, Kruse said.
“Even after taking all these considerations, it all boils down to safety,” he said. “No, you cannot always avoid danger, but we can try to be more aware of our surroundings.”
Wherever the fault lies, Kruse said the tragedies didn’t have to happen.
“All the incidents are tragic, but they all could have been avoided,” he said.
Kruse said it will continue to be important for members of the community to report impaired drivers when they are spotted.
“Our officers and city officers are always trying to be aware of impaired drivers, but they’re not always detectable,” he said. “On Saturday [Dec. 17], a person reported the crash, but it happened so quick the officers couldn’t catch up.”
Kruse said in our area, there aren’t enough officers to always cover regular traffic routes. He said the number of calls can often deter the officers from spotting impaired drivers without the incident being reported by a member of the community.
“We don’t have the officers to just go out and do routine traffic routes,” he said. “People need to report impaired drivers.”
Kruse said he is unsure if there is a blanket answer for the recent tragedies, but that there are many factors that should be considered moving forward. He said the issue of providing alcohol to a minor will always be investigated in those situations.
“Someone who is 21 buys it for them and several people paid the price,” he said.
Kruse said he doesn’t have an answer, but said it also falls on parents to hold their children responsible.
“My advice to parents is to know where their kids are,” he said. “Sometimes it’s impossible, but it’s a parent’s responsibility.”
While many people believe kids will find ways to get their hands on alcohol or drugs, Kruse said it is up to others to inspire kids to have fun without being involved in illegal activity.
“There are safe ways for kids to have fun that don’t involve drugs or alcohol,” he said. “There are not a great percentage of kids involved in those things.”
Even an argument to keep kids from driving until their 21 would still not deter those older than 21 from drinking and driving or making other poor choices, Kruse said.
“The idea is that you take on more responsibility as you get older,” he said. “But not everyone at 50 or 70 is responsible.”
Kruse said there is no overarching idea legally that answer the recent events.
“It’s a complex problem,” he said. “There is not a simple solution to any of it.”
However, Kruse does agree that the penalties facing those charged for driving drunk or contributing to the delinquency of a minor should be questioned.
“I don’t know the penalties are steep enough,” he said. “But does that keep any of them from doing it?”
At this time, Lafferty has been released from custody on bond and will face court on Jan. 5.
Hartke was also released on bond and was given permission to leave the state to attend school. After an initial hearing, Hartke will face a pretrial conference on Feb. 13.
Marroquin appeared in court for his initial hearing Tuesday, Dec. 27.