Firm supports ‘MADD rebirth proposed in Lee County’
Juan Luis Martinez,30, breaks down in tears recently in the offices of Bruce L. Scheiner as his wife Maria Del Rosario Bustamante, 33, told the story of how they lost two of their three sons, Jesus,6, and Jordy, 1, in a car accident when a vehicle the mother was driving was struck by a drunken driver. They are now trying to start up a local chapter of MADD.
More DUI deaths motivate sheriff's staffer
By Pat Gillespie
Eighteen months after volunteers for the Lee County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving dispersed, a new organizer is hoping to restart the group as a way to counsel victims and curb the crime.
Brenda Gellinger, a family support coordinator at the Lee County Sheriff's Office, said she wants offenders to see the destruction a drunken driving accident can have on a family.
"It truly devastates people's lives -- people need to understand," she said. "We need volunteers, people who have a purpose for MADD."
The number of alcohol-related fatalities in Lee County has increased in the five-year period between 2001 and 2006, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles 2006 crash report. In 2002, officers tallied 24 accidents.
The number rose to 54 in 2005, and 40 in 2006.
About one third of the 121 traffic fatalities in 2006 were alcohol-related. Overall alcohol-related crashes in Lee County have bounced around -- 686 in 2002 to 800 in 2003 and 654 in 2006, according to the report.
Don Murray, MADD Florida executive director, said national officials made changes 18 months ago that shifted power from the local level to state and national levels and changed the amount of paperwork that needed to be filed. That caused many volunteers to leave, including Lee County helpers.
"People just don't like change," he said.
But Gellinger is recruiting a new crop of volunteers.
She said one of the main components of the group is the victim impact panel -- a setting where first- or second-time offenders listen to victims and families of victims of drunken-driving accidents. It can benefit the courts system by giving judges options for sentencing and providing victims and their families with therapy, she said.
Volunteers act as victim advocates, supporting them through the years of a court case and helping them with paperwork associated with the crash. Volunteers work with law enforcement during sobriety checkpoints, by passing out educational material, Gellinger said.
When the chapter was active, judges would often sentence defendants to appear before the victim impact panel. It can be therapy for victims and their families as well as a deterrent for drunken driving, Gellinger said. She said victims want to be heard and the panel can help them accomplish that.
"It just helps them -- they tell their story," she said. "Who knows how many lives can be saved."
Juan Luis Martinez and Maria Del Rosario of Fort Myers lost 1-year-old Jordy Martinez and 6-year-old Jesus Martinez in a suspected drunk driving accident on San Carlos Boulevard last January.
"It's been 11 months, almost a year and it's not any easier -- and I don't think it ever will be," Martinez said through a Spanish interpreter. "It's just unbearable."
The couple said they think the victim-impact panel could be good therapy for them and others and a way to discourage drunken driving.
Lee County Judge John Duryea said he welcomes back the panel as a sentencing tool. Judges can also make defendants go to an eight-hour trauma program at Lee Memorial Hospital as an alternative.
"Obviously, if someone can see the actions of somebody, there's an educational value there," he said.
Court spokesman Ken Kellum, who said he went to a victim impact panel a few years ago to see how it works, said it can be a powerful message.
"You had to go face-to-face with them and hear their story," he said. "That was, I thought, a good sanction. There's nothing like facing someone eyeball to eyeball and listening to how you have impacted their lives."
In the accident that killed Jordy and Jesus on Jan. 14, Florida Highway Patrol troopers said a pickup driven by George W. Butler III spun out of control on San Carlos Boulevard near Pine Ridge Road, hitting the vehicle Bustamante was driving.
Butler now faces two counts of DUI manslaughter, three felony counts of DUI causing serious bodily injury and seven misdemeanor charges. He faces up to 51 years in prison.
Martinez wants the public to know how painful a fatal drunken-driving crash can be. "If you have children, hug them, love them, kiss them before they go to bed," he said. "I don't want anyone to go through what I'm going through."
Brenda Gellinger at the Lee County Sheriff's Office is trying to start up the dormant chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Volunteers are needed in the following areas:
- victim advocates
- court monitoring
- victim impact panel
- youth programs
- public speaking/training
For more information, call Brenda at 239-936-2902 or 239-849-2148.