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Drew V. Tidwell faced a moral -- and legal -- dilemma when his car struck Donald Fruehauf on Getzville Road in Amherst the night of Aug. 17.

He could stop his car and try to help Fruehauf. But that would mean he would face police questions about his driving and about his visit to a bar earlier that evening.

Or he could drive away, hoping police would never find him. That would mean leaving Fruehauf to die.

The street was dark, and no witnesses were around.

Tidwell stepped on the gas and headed for home.

He now says that decision will haunt him for the rest of his life.

"I'm not a monster," Tidwell said in an interview last week. "I am a person who made a mistake I deeply regret. I deeply regret the pain and suffering I caused for the Fruehauf family. I also regret the pain I caused for my wife and her family, and my sons. I've thought and re-thought the decision I made. I wish I could turn the clock back. But quite simply, you can't."

Although criticism resonates throughout the community, the 51-year-old attorney said he does not feel he got off easy with a plea deal that is expected to put him behind bars for eight months. It also requires him to turn in his license to practice law.

Four days after the fatality -- and after police publicized the vehicle they were looking for in the hit-and-run -- Tidwell told his lawyer to call prosecutors and tell them where to find the vehicle.

But Tidwell insists the police search had nothing to do with his decision to notify authorities.

"I definitely would have turned myself in," he said. "It was too much to live with. There were things going through my mind."

Tidwell's situation is perhaps the most-publicized hit-and-run in Western New York. But other drivers have fled from an accident that involved injuries.

And police know Tidwell won't be the last.

Each year, hundreds of area drivers leave behind somebody they have injured in an auto crash.

"In the first eight months of this year, we had 1,137 hit-and-run accidents in the city. That included 136 accidents with injuries, where the driver took off, leaving behind an injured person," said Lt. Robert J. Penders of the Buffalo Police Department Accident Investigation Unit.

Penders said the problem became so prevalent in the city that Officer Stephen Washburn is assigned to investigate hit-and-runs on a full-time basis.

"My theory is a lot of these people leave because they have been drinking, and they're trying to avoid a DWI charge," Penders said. "These people are thinking about themselves. They're thinking about self-preservation. The last thing on their minds is the victim."

Tidwell will be sentenced to one year in prison after pleading guilty to a felony crime of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Under state law, he will be eligible for release after eight months if his behavior is good.

Is Tidwell getting off with a slap on the wrist?

"I guess time will tell," said Warren Fruehauf, the brother of Donald. "I'm not going to comment. But I can tell you this: My brother didn't get off easily."

Chautauqua County District Attorney James P. Subjack has followed Tidwell's case with interest.

Subjack's office has handled two recent cases that are similar to Tidwell's.

In both cases, motorists fled from fatal accidents and were not apprehended until later.

In both cases, the motorists pleaded guilty to the relatively minor charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident because investigators could not prove that the motorists had been drinking or driving in a negligent manner.

"From what I see, Mr. Tidwell did not get off easy. But his case is an example of someone taking advantage of a loophole in the law," Subjack said.

Loophole in the law

On a rainy night in September 1996, Dean Mason was riding his bicycle in Dunkirk.

Police learned a 1993 Ford Explorer had hit him, fatally injuring the 38-year-old man, and then drove off.

The next morning, Thomas M. Brown, 46, of Fredonia, called police to report that, during the night, someone had stolen his 1993 Explorer. Brown claimed the thief had taken the vehicle for several hours, damaged it and then returned it to Brown's driveway.

"After a lot of work, police determined that Brown himself had run over the victim in a real bad rainstorm," Subjack said.

"In the investigation, we were able to place Brown in a bar before the accident, but we could not obtain proof that he was under the influence of alcohol," Subjack said. "All Brown would admit is that he was driving and he hit the man -- nothing more."

Brown, a union official, was handed a lighter sentence than Tidwell -- four months in jail and five years on probation.

In another Chautauqua County case, Trevor Swanson, 21, was fatally injured in a hit-and-run in the Town of Harmony in October 1998. Swanson had been drinking and was either sitting or lying in the road when he was struck, police said. But the driver didn't stop.

Sheriff's investigators never gave up on the case, and they finally came up with evidence eight months later to link Leslie Dickerson, 30, of New Orleans, to the fatality.

The former Chautauqua County resident had been in the area the night of the fatal accident, attending a reunion of Panama High School alumni.

An investigator went to New Orleans to arrest him, and Dickerson pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He is serving a six-month sentence.

"We had evidence that Dickerson had been drinking beer at the reunion that night. But again, we could not prove that he was drunk or that he was driving in an erratic manner," Subjack said.

In both the Brown and Dickerson cases, the motorists might have faced more-serious charges -- such as driving-while-intoxicated and criminally negligent homicide -- if authorities could have tested them immediately for alcohol consumption.

Three-year-old case

Several similar cases also have occurred in Erie County in recent years, according to Leonard E. Krawczyk Jr., chief of the DWI Bureau in the county district attorney's office.

One case remained open more than three years before a disgruntled former friend gave Buffalo police a tip that Robin R. DePalma, 27, was the driver of a car in a fatal hit-and-run.

Ms. DePalma's car hit and killed Joseph DeBoy, 25, who was walking on Forest Avenue in January 1994.

Ms. DePalma pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident and was sentenced in 1997 to from 16 months to four years in prison. Once again, police were unable to prove whether the driver was intoxicated the night of the accident.

According to her lawyer, Ms. DePalma, who had her car repaired to hide damage from the accident, had "two beers" that night.

Krawczyk, Subjack and District Attorney Frank J. Clark all would like the state to upgrade the crime of leaving a fatal accident scene from a Class E felony, which carries punishment of no more than four years in prison, to a Class D felony, with punishment of up to seven years.

"There needs to be more incentive for the driver to do the right thing," Krawczyk said.

"The crime needs a stronger punishment," Subjack said. "But the judges need discretion to evaluate each case on its own merits. Every case has its own circumstances."

Tidwell's story

Although the circumstances of Tidwell's hit-and-run have been widely publicized, not much has been written about him.

In a two-hour interview in Taheri's Amherst office, he portrayed himself as a man who is proud of his law career, protective of his family and devastated by the events of the past month.

Since Aug. 17, he has been transformed from a low-profile, respected and well-paid partner in a Buffalo law firm to a man who was called "a killer" and "scum" by radio talk-show hosts.

He has received a number of threatening letters and phone calls, including one call from a man who said he planned to send a car over to Tidwell's Amherst neighborhood to kill him.

"I've fallen very low these past few weeks," Tidwell said. "I've made some inquiries about work I could possibly do, maybe with one of the financial institutions, after I get out of prison. Nobody will touch me. I'm completely blackballed in this town."

Because the Fruehauf family is suing Tidwell, his insurance carrier would not allow him to discuss his drinking habits, his previous conviction for driving while impaired by alcohol or his actions on the night of the fatality.

The Rev. Richard E. Barton, a Methodist minister from Clinton who has been a close friend of Tidwell's for more than 35 years, said he believes Tidwell panicked and may not have realized until a day or two later that he had killed Fruehauf.

"This is not a man who has gone out and tried to hurt people. Drew has always been a good and compassionate person," Mr. Barton said. "I've talked to him for hours about this, and he's had tears in his eyes.

"People in the community seem to think, because he was a lawyer, he knew exactly what he was doing. A moment of sheer terror can make you freeze. I think he went blank (after the accident)."

Mr. Barton said he believes Tidwell stopped at a bar to visit with friends before the fatality, but the minister said he does not know whether Tidwell was intoxicated as he drove home.

Mr. Barton said he hopes Tidwell never takes another drink of alcohol for the rest of his life.

"I've encouraged him to think very seriously about that issue," Mr. Barton said.

Low-profile attorney

Tidwell spoke about his background and his life since the accident.

Born and raised in Miami, he was active with the Young Republicans organization as a young man and considered a career in politics.

He worked for seven years in Congress, as a research aide and as a legislative assistant for a Georgia congressman. He left his job on Capitol Hill after the congressman refused to withdraw his support for President Richard M. Nixon, who was mired in the Watergate scandal.

Tidwell then earned a law degree at George Mason University Law School and became director of government relations for the Consumer Bankers Association. He left the bankers group in 1984, moving here with his wife, Marie, a Buffalo native.

Working in Buffalo for the Hiscock & Barclay law firm, he specialized in representing banks. In behalf of one bank, he once successfully sued a bank robber, getting a judgment against the man for the money he stole.

Last year, he drew some publicity for his efforts to prevent the landmark Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church from being stripped of valuable items.

The harsh spotlight on Tidwell in recent weeks has been difficult for him. He said he will never forget the experience of being surrounded by news photographers while deputies led him out of the county courthouse in handcuffs.

"I have not been listening to the talk shows. To be candid, my wife wouldn't let me," Tidwell said. "But I did learn from a friend that Sandy Beach called me a 'scum.' I heard about some things that were said."

Why has the community reacted so angrily to him?

"I think a lot of it has to do with me being an attorney," Tidwell said. "I know people hate attorneys.

"I do not think I got off easily. I pleaded guilty to a felony. I'm going to prison. I had to quit my law career. If you're a business executive and you go to prison for something like this, you go back to your job when it's over. I can't."

Tidwell said that he has more to explain but that he can't now.

"When the civil lawsuit is all over with, I promise that I will tell you everything that happened that night," he pledged.

State court officials said that, seven years after his conviction, Tidwell can reapply to have his license to practice law reinstated.

"But I do not know of one case in the history of Western New York where a lawyer has been reinstated after a felony conviction," said a court official who is familiar with the situation.

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