When the phone rang, Gary Johnson was struggling with the loss of his wife, Robin, at the hands of a drunken driver just a few weeks earlier.
On the other end of the phone was a stranger — a police officer whose goal is to get drunken drivers off East Valley streets.
"He was so upset. He thought it was his fault, that he could have prevented her death. He took personal responsibility for it," Johnson said.
Robin Johnson was a 41-yearold mother of three who was killed when Poya Richard Reghabi, 21, ran a red light and plowed into her vehicle while Robin Johnson was on her way to work. Reghabi’s blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.
As a Mesa police officer and member of the East Valley Drug Task Force, Brad Withrow makes more than 400 DUI arrests a year, but that hadn’t kept Reghabi off the streets. Something else had to be done, Withrow told Gary Johnson, and he asked permission to use Robin’s name to promote his action plan.
The plan called for publishing the names of convicted DUI offenders. He thought that perhaps by doing so, people might drink more responsibly.
Withrow didn’t need to convince Johnson, 43, and the couple’s children, Brandy, 20, Ryan, 19, and Sierra, 10, of the worthiness of his idea. They saw the potential of turning the tragic death of a wife and a mother into a way to save the lives of others.
Withrow spent the next year trying to make it happen. On his days off he visited East Valley judges, prosecutors, newspaper editors, officials with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. During his lunch hour he would write e-mails, work the phones and return pages.
"It’s consumed him," said Johnson, a hazardousmaterials engineer with the Mesa Fire Department. "It’s unbelievable the work he’s done. He’s just been tireless."
His efforts worked. Today, the Tribune will support that effort by printing the names of DUI offenders convicted in municipal courts of Mesa, Scottsdale, Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe as a public service.
The plan is gaining momentum and a group of supporters is drafting a bill dubbed "Robin’s Law" to present to the state Legislature. The law would require convicted DUI offenders to pay for the publication of their names.
"We agreed to launch this as a pilot project in the East Valley while the Robin’s Law group makes its run on the Arizona Legislature," Tribune Executive Editor Jim Ripley said.
"Perhaps the coalition that Brad Withrow has put together, the judges and prosecutors who are doing the hard work of tracking convictions, and lawmakers will be able to gain some insight into whether publicizing the names of those convicted of DUI makes a difference," he continued.
"I know what we’re doing is controversial, but Robin Johnson’s death was senseless. If fear of having their name publicized causes people to think twice before getting behind the wheel after drinking, then it will be worth it," Ripley said.
Scottsdale city prosecutor Caron Close said she hopes the list will help make the decision between taking a cab home and driving drunk that much easier.
"If (the list) helps to deter people from drinking and driving it’s a good thing," Close said. "I’m for anything that will help."
While Reghabi is serving his 10.5-year prison sentence for Robin Johnson’s death, Withrow said making hundreds of arrests every year isn’t enough.
"Across the United States, the statistics show we’re only arresting less than 1 percent of the impaired drivers on the roadways," he said.
Despite Withrow’s determination to get convictions published, he said he is not an anti-drinking zealot.
"I like to have a drink. Really I do. I like to have a good time. I just will not drive," Withrow said. "I think it’s just ludicrous that across the nation, 17,000 people die every year because of drunk drivers. The carnage is just ridiculous and there’s no need for it whatsoever."
Seizing upon the idea that a printed list of impaired drivers might be a deterrent, Jan Blaser-Upchurch, state chairwoman for MADD, said members began asking participants in their victim impact panels to fill out a questionnaire.
In Maricopa County, 50 percent of them said it would be a deterrent, Withrow said.
Alberto Gutier was the director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety when Withrow approached him for help last year. He said he knew that despite all of the "great laws" that have been passed in recent years, drunken driving is still a problem.
"Drinking and driving can only be eradicated by major, major penalties like those in European countries or by social stigma," Gutier said. "We have got to do something to open people’s eyes. We’ve got to find every possible means to stop this menace and it is a menace."
Perhaps seeing the list of names will make people think twice, Gutier said.
"If a guy reads the list on a Sunday morning and then goes out Sunday night and only has one drink, maybe we’ll have saved a life," Gutier said.
Blaser-Upchurch said small-town newspapers have long printed the names of impaired drivers. This will be the first time, however, that a community the size of the East Valley will take on the task.
"When I informed MADD’s national office about it, they were very interested to see how it works out," she said.
"We just want people to be aware and I think many, many people don’t realize that DUI offenders are their neighbors, their boss, their co-workers, their family members and their friends," Blaser-Upchurch said.
Robin Johnson, known for her constant smile, devotion to her children and tireless work with the Girl Scouts, would be chagrined at the attention she has gotten over the past year, Gary Johnson said.
"But, she would be proud of the way our kids are on board with this, that they are trying to prevent it from happening again," Gary Johnson said. "If, through all of this hard work, we’ve prevented one person from driving drunk and killing somebody, we’ll have done what we wanted to do."
TO OUR READERS:
Today the Tribune supports an effort to reduce the number of people who drive while intoxicated by publishing a weekly list of DUI offenders convicted in East Valley municipal courts. -