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Charities prop up drunk driver to do it again

Here's the rest of the rest of a story that folks in Brown County heard only part of a few years ago. In October 2009, the United Way of Brown County sent out a press release. "Pomp's Tire, in collaboration with the Brown County United Way, Cereb...

Here's the rest of the rest of a story that folks in Brown County heard only part of a few years ago.

In October 2009, the United Way of Brown County sent out a press release.

"Pomp's Tire, in collaboration with the Brown County United Way, Cerebral Palsy Inc. and GT Mobility will donate a handicap-accessible van to Jose Torres, a 22-year-old father who was recently paralyzed when a drunk driver hit his motorcycle," it said.

The Green Bay Press Gazette, after first running a short story about the donation, found out there was actually a little more to it.

The rest of the story, the paper reported, is that Torres was injured in an accident that killed Kristin Metsa on Sept. 6, 2007, and was, himself, drunk at the time. According to court records, he pleaded no contest to operating under the influence. Prosecutors also initially charged him with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, but dropped that charge because they felt they'd have a hard time proving he caused the 4 a.m. crash near U.S. Highway 41 in Howard.

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"He created his own prison term in being a quadriplegic. In the grand scheme of things, he paid the price with his actions," Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski said at the time.

His price was nothing, of course, in comparison to the one Kristin Metsa paid.

Kristin was an ambitious 20-year-old who worked part-time at Georgia-Pacific and was enrolled in cosmetology school, according to her mom, Beth Metsa. Four years after the accident, Beth told me she still isn't sure what Kristin, who was completely sober, was doing on the back of Torres' bike. She believes that Kristin didn't know he was drunk.

Turns out -- and this is the rest of the rest of the story -- it wasn't the last time he'd be in that condition.

Torres, who contended another drunk driver veered into him the night of the accident, avoided jail time. He was ordered to pay $718 and undergo an alcohol assessment. He also lost his license for seven months but got it back in plenty of time to receive the handicapped-accessible van -- which apparently allows him to live the same life he used to. Well, at least in one respect.

Earlier this year, the Brown County District Attorney's office charged Torres with driving drunk in the same Chevrolet Astro van he was given after his accident. He pleaded no contest and just the other day was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and had his license revoked for 14 months.

The fact he drove drunk again after what happened the first time, Beth points out, shows "total disrespect" for Kristin. But she is concerned about more than just what happened in the past. She's concerned that when Torres gets the license back he's also going to have -- once again -- access to the van. Ideally, she would like to see the organizations that gave Torres the van try to take it back -- a legal impracticality since he now holds the title.

Absent that, she'd like to see better background checks in the future -- an issue the United Way and the Cerebral Palsy Inc. see slightly differently.

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If the United Way is ever in the same situation, it will double-check the recipient's background, said Adam Hardy, communications director for the Brown County United Way, adding that he is concerned that good organizations that mean well will be impugned with 20-20 hindsight.

Claire Williams, director of communications for Cerebral Palsy Inc., expresses the same concern and says her organization cannot "discriminate" against individuals who are eligible for or require services -- a suggestion that it would be discriminatory to withhold the gift of a van.

Seems to me that a drunk driver is exactly who you would want to discriminate against.

Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com .

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