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Officials bewildered by rash of felony DWIs; 18-hour period saw 3 hit-and-run accidents

An 18-hour period Thursday may have been the most dangerous ever for pedestrians and bicyclists along Erie County's roads.

Four people were struck in three separate incidents, between 3 a.m. and 9 p.m., including a 14-year-old Elma boy who was killed and three others sent to area hospitals.

The three incidents share a pair of troubling trends: Alcohol can't be ignored as a possible factor, and all three drivers added to their problems by fleeing the scene.

The three crimes were even more confounding because of the timing, right in the middle of the manslaughter hit-and-run trial of Dr. James G. Corasanti -- a story splashed across the front page of The Buffalo News and the top of local TV newscasts.

"How many more people have to die before people get the message not to drink and drive?" Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III asked Saturday, calling the epidemic mind-boggling.

"How many more people have to go to the funeral and wake of their teenage son or daughter before people get it? How many more families have to be devastated?"

Sedita, also a parent, asked whether anyone can imagine how devastated the family of 14-year-old Bryce W. Buchholz must be, after he was killed while riding his bike in Lancaster on Thursday night.

"I've come to the point that I'm speechless," Sedita said. "I just don't know what is going through people's heads. What are they thinking? I guess they're not thinking."

No one could recall a day when Erie County roads witnessed three cases of drivers fleeing the scene after striking pedestrians. And no one could explain the troubling rash of incidents.

"I think there's a sense of panic, where [the drivers] don't think clearly," said Lt. Kevin M. Barnas, acting zone commander for the New York State Police. "They've been drinking, so alcohol clouds their judgment. Then they make another bad decision, leaving the scene of an accident."

The death of Bryce was especially troubling for Barnas. His daughter Brittany was a good friend of the Elma teen, and the two families camp together and go to the same church.

"I'm trained to do death notifications with the public," Barnas said. "But to do one with my 14-year-old daughter was devastating to me and to my daughter."

In another incident Thursday night, two teens, ages 16 and 18, were struck by a car in the City of Tonawanda at about 8:30 p.m., leaving driver Leslie Ralston, 32, of Cheektowaga, charged with felony assault, leaving the scene of an accident and other charges.

Ralston turned himself in to police 15 hours later, at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Police records show that he has a previous driving while intoxicated arrest, from 2009.

And earlier Thursday, a Nigerian exchange student was held on assault and other charges after striking a pedestrian at about 3:05 a.m. on Grant Street. Police have said that Tornubari G. Gbaraba, 19, who had left a nearby bar before striking the pedestrian, later led police on a brief high-speed chase before being arrested.

Three troubling incidents don't make a trend, but Erie County sheriff's officials have evidence suggesting that the drunken-driving problem is getting worse again.

The Sheriff's Office made 375 DWI arrests last year, and deputies are on pace to match or pass that total this year.

"These are the same numbers we had 15 to 20 years ago, when we didn't have the social stigma, the bad rap, against DWI," sheriff's Chief of Patrol Scott M. Joslyn said Saturday.

The arrest numbers dipped to close to half that number a few years ago, and while some of the recent increase may reflect the level of enforcement, Joslyn thinks some members of the public haven't learned their lesson.

"We're putting the message out, but people aren't heeding the warning," Joslyn said.

Also, State Police say they've made 20 DWI arrests in the last three weeks in Erie and Wyoming counties. Not only does that seem above the average, but so are some of the blood-alcohol readings of the drunken drivers, Barnas said.

What also vexes local law enforcement officials is that an Amherst case, against former attorney Drew V. Tidwell, led to the tightening of a loophole in state law seven years ago.

Tidwell struck and killed a 68-year-old car mechanic in 1999, but under the law at that time, drunken drivers could leave the scene of an accident, turn themselves in later and avoid a more serious charge. Tidwell served less than a year behind bars.

The law was changed, and now it's just as serious a crime to leave the scene of a fatal or serious accident as it is to remain at the scene and be found drunk.

"Under the old law, there was an incentive in place for a person to flee from a fatal or serious accident," Sedita said.

Law enforcement officials also point out that police, relying on the latest scientific methods, are highly successful in finding hit-and-run drivers. It's difficult to hide from the amount of evidence left at the scene and on the driver's vehicle.

As an example, Barnas pointed to how much can be learned about a vehicle from a piece of headlight lens broken on impact.

So why do drivers flee?

"It goes back to that sense of panic," Barnas replied. "Regardless of your education level or income level, that panic takes over."

Monica Farrar, director of the seven-week Drinking Driver Program often imposed by a court, has had attorneys, physicians and teachers in her course. They're smart people who have made bad decisions.

"Nobody learns from other people's mistakes," she said. "They don't think it can happen to them."

A drunken driver who hits someone or gets arrested may have driven drunk 100 times previously, without incident.

"So what makes you think you're not going to get away with it again?" Farrar asked.

The clouded judgment of drunken drivers also means they should make a decision about driving, such as arranging for a designated driver or a ride, before -- not after -- they get drunk.

"Don't expect that you're going to be able to make that determination after you've been drinking," said Joslyn, former commander of the sheriff's Accident Investigation Unit. "You're not going to make the right decision."

Sedita, the district attorney, often asks the same question when he addresses community groups: What's the most common felony crime prosecuted by his office?

Burglary, robbery, assault or drug cases, people typically guess.

The answer is vehicular offenses, which make up about 22 percent of his office's felony caseload.

"When it comes to these cases, my policy is no plea bargains," Sedita said. "They have to plead to the highest charge, [in about 99 percent of these cases]."

Authorities also can't explain how these incidents are occurring in the context of the Corasanti trial.

One juror in that trial was dismissed after being arrested for drunken driving himself. And that came after the juror saw the emotionally wrenching testimony firsthand in court, with the victim's friends and family present.

The juror was arrested -- early Thursday morning, no less -- after striking a utility pole.

"That pole could have been a pedestrian," Joslyn said. "It's only by the grace of God that it wasn't."

email: gwarner@buffnews.com