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posted: 7/12/2010 12:01 AM

Taking a stand against chronic DUI

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It's clear that Wheaton resident Gordon Vanderark suffers from alcoholism. And we know it is an illness that is fought for a lifetime for those who suffer from it.

But when Vanderark, whose blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, got behind the wheel of a car nearly a year ago on a Wheaton street, he was putting other lives in jeopardy. And because his arrest resulted in his 10th drunken-driving conviction, Vanderark's case became a good test to see whether our judicial system is serious about cracking down on chronic DUI offenders.

We commend DuPage County Circuit Judge Blanche Hill Fawell for sentencing Vanderark to 24 years in prison for aggravated DUI and driving with a revoked license. He could have received as little as nine years and as many as 36 years. He is eligible for parole after he serves half the sentence.

We've called for these tougher sentences for years. Eight years ago, the Daily Herald published an investigation into chronic drunken driving, bringing to light the issue. Two years ago we revisited that topic on this page and joined the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists in calling for judges to crack down.

"The breakdown is at the bench. Judges have to give out tougher sentences," said Charlene Chapman of AAIM.

At that time we questioned a 3.5-year sentence from another DuPage judge for a woman who was convicted of a third DUI just six years after she drove drunk, ran her car into ditch and killed her 1-month-old daughter.

That's why we're pleased now to see Judge Fawell taking her responsibility seriously to keep these drivers off the streets. She listened as Vanderark, 52, admitted his alcoholism and asked for another chance to get help. But she was correct in pointing out that he had squandered numerous treatment opportunities. The fact that Vanderark hadn't had a valid license since 1980 and yet still racked up all those DUIs is proof of that. In this case, he was driving down a Wheaton street at 2 a.m. last July wearing just one shoe, with his trunk open when he failed to make a proper stop. And he registered a .164 blood-alcohol level three hours after getting pulled over.

Just last month a judge in downstate Madison County sentenced another chronic drunken driver to 28 years in prison after he went the wrong way on a freeway and killed a Tennessee mother, her son and a friend. He had five previous drunken driving convictions.

"The sentence, although for the maximum term of years allowed by law, is inadequate when considering the losses by the (victims') family," said Madison County State's Attorney Bill Mudge. "If (the sentence) reminds someone of the perils of driving drunk and causes them to find a ride home or call a cab, it is a step in the right direction."

We agree and hope more judges issue the strongest sentences they can.