DUITT still fighting intoxicated driving-related crashes

California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Lassig; Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Novak; Allison Pace, deputy district attorney of Riverside County, and Karen Kools, founder of Driving Under the Influence Termination Team, attend the Jan. 16 DUI Termination Task Force meeting at Monteleone Meadows in French Valley. Valley News/Will Fritz photo

Seven months after back-to-back fatal alcohol- and drug-related crashes in southwest Riverside County, community members are still working to solve the problem of impaired driving.

The DUI Termination Task Force, or DUITT, held a community meeting Jan. 16, at Monteleone Meadows in French Valley, where representatives from the California Highway Patrol, Riverside County Sheriff’s Department and the county District Attorney’s Office gave residents updates on DUI arrests in the area.

Murrieta resident Karen Kools, who is the founder of DUITT, said she first found herself involved in the issue of driving under the influence in September 2018, when she witnessed the crash on Winchester Road in French Valley that killed 62-year-old Joan Lehmer.

“At that point, I knew I wanted to do something, but people weren’t as outraged as I expected,” Kools said.

That outrage did eventually come almost two years later, though, when a string of fatal, DUI-related crashes killed three Temecula Valley residents.

On May 22, 63-year-old Frank Dominguez of Menifee was killed when he was struck at Newport and Menifee roads by a Honda Crosstour that also hit one other vehicle. Authorities at the time were investigating driving under the influence and speeding on the part of the Honda driver as possible factors in the crash.

On June 1, a 19-year-old Fallbrook man crashed head-on into a vehicle on Rancho California Road while allegedly drunk, killing 15-year-old Lily Harrison of Murrieta and leaving the driver and another passenger of the Toyota she was riding in with serious injuries.

Just three days later, another man who was allegedly under the influence of drugs crashed into the back of a Nissan driven by 44-year-old Murrieta resident Janet Genao on Interstate 15, killing her as well.

“So I had an emergency community meeting and people showed up,” Kools said. And that was in June 2019, and then it’s been six months of like education and meetings and trying to get people up to speed because it’s a big thing.”

Lt. Robert Novak with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department told attendees at the latest meeting there were 442 DUI arrests in Temecula during 2019. He said the sheriff’s department is working to combat the problem through DUI checkpoints, of which there were five in Temecula over the course of 2019, resulting in 15 arrests. The department also conducted its “Know Your Limit” educational program at the Bank restaurant and Coin-Op Game Room, both in Old Town, asking people who were drinking alcohol to guess their blood alcohol content.

Officer Mike Lassig of the California Highway Patrol said the CHP is doing everything it can to combat impaired driving, and typically conducts six to eight DUI checkpoints in southwest Riverside County each year.

“DUIs are not going down. We’re still making a lot of DUI arrests for alcohol, marijuana, drugs, prescription medication. People are still crashing; people are still dying due to people being impaired,” he said.

While there were only a handful of people at the latest DUITT meeting, some goals for the group include looking into backing legislation to require an ignition interlock for even first-time DUI offenders – currently it’s only an option for first-time offenders to avoid a one-month hard suspension of their license – and seeing how to get first-time offenders who are involved in a DUI-related crash that kills another person to be charged with murder. Right now, that’s not usually the case unless there are aggravating circumstances, but anyone convicted of a first DUI does sign a waiver acknowledging that they could be charged with murder in a future DUI-related fatal crash. 

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.