MILWAUKEE -- What mother in her right mind would strap her child into a car with a drunk driver behind the wheel? What self-respecting father would do the same? Well, a FOX6 investigation found hundreds of Milwaukee area parents doing just that. Only, the drunk driver isn't a random stranger. It's someone the child is supposed to trust above all others for protection.
Time for a bottle
August 13th, 2011. A Milwaukee County deputy sheriff is about to make the first drunk driving arrest of her career... and it's a doozy. She's chasing after a Jeep Cherokee that flew past her on I-94 southbound near Ryan Road. Dashcam video obtained by the FOX6 Investigators shows the Jeep traveling at a high rate of speed, weaving in and out of traffic. After a 90-second pursuit at speeds topping 100 miles per hour, the driver pulls over.
Inside the Jeep, deputies make an alarming discovery. There's an empty six-pack of Mike's Hard Lemonade; one partially-consumed can of Mike's Hard Grape Punch; six empty bottles of vodka; and a nine-month old baby boy.
The driver, Toby Patterson of Barrington, Illinois, had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 -- three times the legal limit of .08, which defines intoxication in Wisconsin.
Patterson denied he was actively drinking while driving, but according to courtroom testimony, Patterson admitted pulling over at one point to feed his infant son a bottle, while he finished off can of beer and a bottle of vodka at the same time.
As a dashboard camera recorded the aftermath of the traffic stop, one deputy could be heard saying, "This is gonna be all over the news."
But the truth is, Toby Patterson is hardly the only parent caught driving drunk with his own child in the car. In fact, the FOX6 Investigators found it happens all the time.
In May of 2011, Dewayne Williams took his 11-year-old son and two nephews out for a night of fishing. He admitted to having "two beers." But deputies found three empty beer cans in his truck. His BAC measured .157 -- nearly twice the legal limit.
Squad car video shows Williams handcuffed in the back seat, lamenting his decision to drive drunk with kids in tow.
"From now on, I'm gonna go fishin' by myself," Williams said.
Only four years old
Armando Valdivia's been busted for drunk driving four times, including a March 2011 incident when he was stopped on Highway 45 near the Zoo Interchange. This time, his daughter was sleeping under a blanket in the back seat.
It wasn't until Valdivia was handcuffed in the back of a squad car that he seemed to consider the impact on his little girl.
"Who's gonna be taking care of my kid, huh?" Valdivia asks the deputy driving him to jail. "She's only four years old."
Can I smoke?
John Kruichak also had a four-year-old daughter in the car when he was arrested for driving drunk. He, too, had a question for deputies as they placed the handcuffs on his wrists -- just not about his child.
"Can I smoke a cigarette first?" he asked. The deputy refused.
Kruichak, who already had two prior OWI's on his record, got behind the wheel after drinking -- with his child in the car -- even though there was another sober adult sitting in the passenger seat.
None of these drivers wanted to talk to FOX6 News, but Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke was happy to talk about them.
"You are neglecting your role as a parent or guardian for the well being of these kids," Sheriff Clarke said.
Clarke says the average age of the kids they find in a drunk driver's car is seven years, nine months.
"An eight-year-old can't say, 'Hey, mom or babysitter you are not going to take me because you are drunk,'" Clarke said. "They are going to say, 'Get in the car,' and the kid is going to get in the car."
FOX6 Investigators have found that scenario plays itself out hundreds of times each year in southeastern Wisconsin. We reviewed thousands of drunk driving cases filed in a seven-county area (Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha, Walworth, Kenosha and Racine).
Since the beginning of 2011, we found at least 239 drivers in the greater Milwaukee area have been criminally charged for operating while intoxicated with a child under 16 in the car.
Like Ricky Joe Taylor, who was arrested in October of 2011 by Cudahy police for driving a minivan with an infant in the back seat, while his BAC was .19.
He told police he was embarrassed and didn't want to face the judge.
"I'm a grown a** man," Taylor reportedly told police. "I accept my responsibilities."
"Driving drunk at noon with your eight-month-old, with any eight-month-old in the car pretty much means you have lost all perspective," James Griffin, the assistant district attorney prosecuting Taylor's case said.
Moms are guilty, too
According to data complied by the state, 75% of all drunk drivers in Wisconsin are men. However, FOX6's investigation found nearly half of those charged (48%) with having kids in the car are women.
Case in point - Greenfield mom Shelly Butler.
She was arrested in July for driving drunk with six kids crammed into a Honda Accord, five of them in the back seat. According to the arrest report, two of them were laying on the floor.
Akira Kirk rolled her nine-passenger SUV in the Marquette Interchange with 11 kids piled inside.
"It's a miracle nobody was killed," Judge Dennis Cimpl said at sentencing.
Then, there's Evelynn Brown.
"She looked like she was OUT of it, like completely incoherent," Bryan Cline, who called 911 about her erratic driving said.
Another witness, Patrick Smith, says Brown was so drunk, she literally stopped her car in the middle of Highway 41, near Miller Park.
"I get out and just point blank say, 'What the hell is you doin'?'" Smith said.
That's when Smith saw an 11-month-old girl in the back seat.
"This baby is about to die," Smith thought. "I have to do something to save a life."
Smith climbed into the car, pulled it off the freeway and called police.
"I don't want nobody's child to get taken away from them," Smith told FOX6. "But, do you deserve a child?"
Evelynn Brown's blood alcohol concentration was .291 -- that's more than three-and-a-half times the legal limit for a first time offender. It's actually 15 times the limit for a repeat offender.
This was Brown's NINTH drunk driving conviction, including one for negligent homicide when she was just a kid herself.
"Wow!" Cline said, when told of Brown's drunk driving history.
For most parents caught driving their kids around drunk, it's the first offense. Wisconsin remains the only state in America where the first offense is not a crime. It's just a traffic ticket -- unless you have a child under 16 in the car.
Two years ago, state lawmakers passed a bill making drunk driving with a minor under age 16 in the car a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail.
So far, the average sentence handed out in southeastern Wisconsin is about 30 days.
Sheriff Clarke wants more.
"When we make these arrests, we go for charges beyond the drunk driving offenses. We'll go for recklessly endangering safety, because that's what you've done with these kids," Clarke said.
Huber release... for what?
After flipping her Dodge Durango with 11 children packed inside, Akira Kirk was charged with three felony counts of endangering their safety. She was sentenced to nine months in jail.
"She was looking at 20 years," Clarke said. "She got nine months. You call that punishment? I don't."
What's more? The judge allowed Kirk to be released from jail everyday to go home and take care of the very children she nearly killed.
"Huber release for child care. Are you kidding me?" Clarke responded. "I don't want this woman anywhere near children."
FOX6 Investigators tried to talk to Kirk at her south side home, but she never answered the door.
"She needs nine months without Huber to sit and think about what she did," Clarke said.
Time to think
Randy Holmes was already thinking out loud as he sat in the back of a squad car.
"I'm in trouble. My car's impounded. Might lose my license. Going to jail. All for what?" Holmes said.
Now that's a drunk driver with a sobering thought.
In 2009, the state of New York passed Leandra's Law, named for an 11-year-old girl killed when another child's parent drove her home drunk from a slumber party and crashed.
Leandra's Law makes drunk driving an automatic felony on the first offense if there's a child under 16 in the car. It also requires police to report the incident to the New York state office that tracks child abuse.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is now holding that out as national model for child endangerment laws related to drunk driving.