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DWIs on the rise in Southeast Texas

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With an allegedly drunken driver killing a 71-year-old, off-duty sheriff’s deputy who was mowing his lawn July 9, a trial starting July 18 for the man who previously pleaded guilty to intoxication manslaughter in an incident that left Sheena Yarbrough-Powell, a Beaumont police woman dead, as well as 732 DWI charges reported in Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties for 2021 alone, Golden Triangle drivers may have noticed a rise in drunk driving over the past five years. Evidence from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) proves that drug and alcohol-related crashes are indeed on the rise in Southeast Texas.

Longtime Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) Deputy Jim Lee, 71, was mowing his lawn on Saturday, July 9, on Burrell-Wingate Road, approximately four miles east of State Highway 124, when he was struck by an allegedly drunk driver. Officers arrested the suspect, identified as 38-year-old Michael Miller and charged him with intoxication manslaughter the day after his alleged crash.

“Lee was a beloved longtime deputy, who was known for his calmness and kindness,” fellow deputies remembered. “His dry wit and humor will certainly be missed. This is a difficult time for all and your kind words, actions and prayers are appreciated more than you know.”

Former Jefferson County Judge and Sheriff Carl Griffith said that Deputy Lee’s phenomenal presence inspired him to take the career path on which he embarked. At 16 years old, when Griffith first saw “stars,” the 21-year-old Deputy Lee was larger than life.

“I always wanted to be a policeman, ever since I was a little boy,” Griffith told The Examiner, but said he never really thought of county work before his encounter with a man he described as “a really good, calm, solid guy.“

Griffith said he believed Lee’s early influence was, in part, what led him to one day become sheriff. Griffith recalls a main component of his platform: decreasing DWI incidents, and most of the campaign advertising was built on that platform

“There was a perception that there was law enforcement behind every tree,” Griffith said. Relentless vigilance and enforcement enhanced the legend. “It did the trick.”

To see a man who invoked his passion for county law enforcement have his life cut short by an alleged drunk driver has kept Griffith up at night, he shared.

“It’s just such an eerie feeling,” Griffith said. “I’ll never forget him.”

DWIs in Southeast Texas

According to DPS data reported from each Texas county, Jefferson County officers from various departments have steadily issued more DWI charges each year from 2018 to 2021.

Jefferson County officers issued 506 charges for DWI in 2021, up from 485 the year before. Orange County charges rose from 40 in 2020 to 76 in 2021. Hardin County, despite its more minute population, swelled from 140 to 150.

Similarly, drug and alcohol-related crashes are on the rise in Southeast Texas, according to data from TxDOT’s Crash Records Information System. Its data reveals there were 328 drug and alcohol related accidents in 2016 in Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties. By 2021, the annual count was 371.

In the past decade, according to TxDOT, there have been 801 crashes in Beaumont related to drugs or alcohol, with 48 deaths and 559 injuries reported. Hardin County reported 533 such crashes, with 43 deaths and 339 injuries. Orange County reported 1,111 crashes, 70 deaths and 708 injuries. Jefferson County recorded 2,297 crashes, 109 deaths and 1,469 injuries.

Keeping an eye on offenders

In regard to the July 9 death of Deputy Lee, officers arrested and charged Miller with intoxication manslaughter only a day after his arrest and medical clearance from CHRISTUS St. Elizabeth Hospital.

As a branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the Crime Laboratory Service (CLS) has 10 laboratories throughout the state that perform blood alcohol testing only, and one laboratory that performs blood alcohol and full-service toxicology.

The CLS converted numerous drug chemists into blood alcohol chemists to maintain a 30-day turnaround on blood alcohol cases, the group reported. This has caused the turnaround time for drug cases to increase significantly, and relief in the form of additional FTEs are sought.

In a case that will be broadcast via YouTube beginning Monday, July 18, 20-year-old Luis Fernando Torres is set to stand trial for intoxication assault, intoxication manslaughter and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for the 2020 accident that killed BPD Officer Sheena Yarbrough-Powell.

Originally entering a guilty plea in reference to the allegedly intoxicated incident that killed the 23-year-old, second-year Beaumont police officer, Torres reversed his decision at a May 23 sentencing hearing. Torres told Jefferson County Criminal District Judge John Stevens he wanted his cases set for trial in front of a courtroom packed with family members of both the victim and suspect.

The charges stem from an August 2020 accident allegedly caused by Torres, who was 18 at the time, driving his Mustang drunk the wrong way down Cardinal Drive and crashing into a Beaumont police patrol vehicle occupied by BPD Officers Gabriel Fells and Yarbrough-Powell. The latter was killed in the crash, and dozens of her family members attended the May 23 hearing where they thought they’d hear Torres’ sentencing.

After driving drunk and striking a family of three in Beaumont’s West End, a Newton native dodged jail time at the end of 2021.

Kenlie Elizabeth Davis, then 22, pleaded guilty to three charges of accident involving injury and received a decade of probation. Judge Raquel West could have sentenced her to 30 years in prison. Instead, Davis’ bond conditions included paying $1,500 in fines and completing 900 hours of community service.

BPD officers arrested Davis July 29, 2020, after finding her in the backyard near a hit-and-run accident involving a family of three in the Oak Trace Drive neighborhood, according to a probable cause affidavit.

When officers arrived on scene shortly after the accident occurred, they located a couple and their 5-year-old daughter suffering from multiple broken bones and other injuries in front of their home.

In another case, officers arrested Kelia P. Dixon and charged the mother with DWI – with a child passenger, punishable by 180 days to two years in jail, a fine of up to $10,000 and a suspension of driving privileges.

According to the probable cause affidavit, Dixon was weaving in and out of lanes on Eastex Freeway, traveling at approximately 5 mph – all with her 2-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in tow.

Miller, Torres, Davis and Dixon were all arrested and charged within days of their DWI’s or intoxication assault charges, according to probable cause affidavits. BPD has yet to file charges against Walter “Loddie” Naymola for the six-car crash investigators say he caused June 22 at the intersection of Dowlen Road and Gladys Avenue.BPD officers say they’re waiting for a toxicology report to return from DPS crime lab before filing charges.





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