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The worst kind of drunk drivers

Arrests, fines, convictions— nothing seems to stop some serial drunk drivers. Hoda Kotb reports.

Every night they are out there, somewhere, prowling the nations roadways, out of control and pushing more than a ton of steel.

Many never get caught so they do it again — and again and again. Until one day, they ruin lives.

They are drunk drivers. And as bad as it is to drive drunk, and as dangerous as drunk drivers are to all of us on the roads, this story is about the worst kind of drunk driver: the repeat offender. 

There are millions of them out there putting you in danger everytime you drive down the street.

Arrests, fines, convictions—nothing seems enough to stop these serial drunk drivers. We learned of one man from Iowa who's had 11 DWI convictions. Another, in New Mexico, has had 14.  And in Ohio, there were 18 DWIs for one chronic drunk driver—even though he hasn’t had a license in 20 years.

One man says many of these drunk drivers are not just a nuisance or a tragic annoyance with a weakness for alcohol. He has one word to describe a repeat drunk driver who slammed into his world: murderer.

George Gubernikoff: We were striving to be the all-American family.  And here was someone who had no respect.

By all accounts, George and Judith Gubernikoff had a charmed life. They lived in a suburban New York neighborhood, had a close knit family and great plans for the future. George is a successful cardiologist and until 2004, Judith had stayed home to raise their three young sons.

Hoda Kotb, Dateline correspondent: It’s what people dream about when they think of a perfect family, right?Gubernikoff: We were blessed.

37-year-old Judith had just started helping her father with his business at Manhattan’s famed Fulton Fishmarket. It meant getting up in the middle of the night and making a 25 mile predawn drive into Manhattan.

Kotb: Were you ever concerned, given the pre-dawn hour, for her to be out on the road?Gubernikoff: There is always a concern.

And he had reason to be worried: Most fatal car accidents happen between midnight and 3 a.m., which is precisely when Judith and her father were on the road.

At that same time, Neville Wells, a 41-year-old party promoter, drank at a Manhattan night club before stumbling out into the night and driving off in his minivan.

Witnesses say Wells sped down the street in an alcohol fueled frenzy, hitting a parked car, flying through red lights— seemingly oblivious to everything around him. 

For Judith and her father, there was no warning.

Gubernikoff: Somewhere about 4:30 a.m., the phone rang. We heard that there had been a terrible accident.

The car that carried Judith and her dad had been struck with such extreme force it was sent airborne, before coming to rest on top of an iron fence. The minivan driver wasn’t hurt and according to witnesses, tried to flee the scene. Judith and her father had to be cut out of the vehicle.

Gubernikoff: When the emergency room doctor walked in and before anything was said, I knew this was going to be worse than I could have ever imagined.

Doctors were able to save Judith’s father. But the impact was so powerful Judith’s heart literally burst.

Kotb: What did you lose on that day?Gubernikoff: My best friend, my confidante, my support.

One of the hardest things was telling his children.

Gubernikoff: They said “Mommy is okay, right?” They knew something was wrong. And you know all I could say was “No, mommy passed away. There was nothing to say. There aren’t any words. You hold them.”

The sorrow George felt was immeasurable.

But what he was about to learn, would turn that sorrow into outrage...

Gubernikoff: The next day it was in the newspapers. I became irate.

As George learned, Neville Wells, the man who killed his wife, was a repeat drunk driver. The newspaper reports were just the beginning of what he would find out.

Gubernkoff: We got anonymous letters, e-mails, phone calls that this was an accident waiting to happen— that he was always drunk and that he was always getting behind the wheel.

The more George looked, the more he learned. Wells’ first DWI was in 1997. He paid a fine.

His second DWI was in 2000. As a repeat offender, he lost his license for a year and was ordered to take a drunk driving course, which he attended just 11 months before he killed Judith Gubernikoff.

Gubernikoff: Our system wasn’t working.  It didn’t protect us.

On the night of the deadly accident, Wells' blood alcohol level was .22-- nearly three times the legal limit. That’s about 15 alcoholic drinks.

Add that to his speeding, running red lights,  and previous DWIs and the Manhattan district attorney  decided to do something that’s very uncommon: Instead of the usual charge of vehicular manslaughter, Neville Wells was charged with a more serious offense: murder in the second degree.

Kotb: The second degree murder charges: what was the first thing you thought when you heard that?Roger Stavis, defense attorney: I thought they were outrageous.

Roger Stavis, Wells’ defense attorney, says while his client is criminally responsible for Judith Gubernikoff’s death, he never should have been charged with second degreemurder. He argues Neville Wells suffers from alcoholism. And on the night of the deadly accident, he was not in control of his car and did not intentionally kill Gubernikoff.

Stavis: As tragic as this was, this was not tantamount to an intentional murder of someone. Kotb: What do you think about people who say what he did was awful and he should be punished for it. But murder?Gubernikoff: What do I say to those people? I say it is murder. When you go behind the wheel of a car with that kind of blood alcohol level, you are a projectile. You are a terrorist. You are an accident waiting to happen. 

At trial, the judge would not accept Wells’ defense that he is an alcoholic. In a rare verdict, something that’s happened only a handful of times in New York state, Wells was  convicted of murder in the second degree and was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Stavis: I felt that it was an illegal verdict. It was not following the law. It was not following the facts.Kotb:  What did your client think?

Stavis: At the table, he basically broke down. He is overwhelmed at what he has done.

Neville Wells' punishment is rare. Most repeat drunk drivers who kill get less prison time.

And while across the country, there are thousands of laws intended to stop drunk driving, they vary from state to state. Some are strongly enforced, some not. The fact remains that 70 percent of repeat offenders will drive even without a license.  Experts say little will stop a repeat offender from getting in the car and starting the ignition.

There is one man who thinks he might have a solution.

Sen. Phil Griego, New Mexico senator and admitted former drunk driver: I felt that I was always in control, even though I was out of control.

Sen. Phil Griego man says he knows about drunk-driving first hand. The New Mexico state senator is an admitted drunk driver.

Sen. Griego: I was drunk when I was on the city council, I was drunk when I was vice mayor of the city of Santa Fe, and I was always driving. I just never got caught.

That is, until 2000 and again in 2001 when a second DWI sent him to jail for three days.  In order to keep his license, the senator was told he had to apply for an “ignition interlock,” a breathalyzer attached to the car’s ignition. Any trace of alcohol and the car won’t start.

Griego credits the ignition interlock with forcing him to deal with his drinking.

Sen. Griego: It became a very very dear friend of mind. So much so that when the time came to take it out, I kept it in an extra 37 days.

And now, with Senator Griego’s help, New Mexico has become one of the nation’s toughest enforcers of the ignition interlock, making it mandatory for every person convicted of drunk driving—even first time offenders.

Sen. Griego: The interlock is not going to stop people from drinking, the interlock is going to stop people from drinking and driving.

Safety experts say, for those using it, the ignition interlock reduces drunk driving by up to 75 percent. Griego says its time for all states to enforce it and tighten up their laws.

Sen. Griego: I think other states need to take a look at what New Mexico has done.  The statistical data we have shows the rate of DWIs are dropping.

Back in New York, George Gubernikoff is pushing for more intervention, like the ignition interlock, and for those who don’t comply— much tougher penalties.  He knows change takes time, but it’s a start.

Gubernikoff: I am hoping we see more murder convictions. We need to let people know that if they do something like this, they’re going to go away for a long time.

Neville Wells, the man convicted of second degree murder in the death of that young mother, is appealing his conviction.