Power of Grief : Deaths caused by drunk drivers have plagued New Mexico for decades. But after her daughter and three granddaughters were killed, Nadine Milford turned anguish into action and got the state to toughen its laws.
Nine Mile Hill, the spot where Interstate 40 crests thewestern rim of the Rio Grande Valley, commands a majestic view of this city and the rugged escarpment of the Sandia Mountains.
Following an evening church service last Christmas Eve, Paul and Melanie Cravens, along with her three young daughters, were headed to the overlook to take in the city lights. Later, they would visit Melanie’s mother.
They never reached their destination.
As he drove west on the interstate on a dark, moonless night, Paul Cravens had no warning until it was too late that 34-year-old Gordon House was traveling eastbound in their lane.
A shattering instant later, House’s red Ford pickup split the family’s white sedan apart, killing Melanie and her daughters, Kandyce, 9, Erin, 8, and Kacee Woodard, 5. Paul Cravens survived with a crushed chest and serious head injuries. House suffered severe cuts and broken bones.
He had been drinking, police said, and a test taken five hours later showed his blood alcohol content to be 0.1%. (At a hearing, a expert witness estimated House’s blood alcohol level was 0.18% at the time of the accident--nearly twice the legal limit.)
The accident was all too familiar to New Mexicans, who endure the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths in the nation. But this was no commonplace highway carnage.
The accident, coming as it did on Christmas Eve, galvanized a deep sense of anger and frustration across the state. At the same time, it propelled two people into the spotlight: House and Melanie Cravens’ mother, Nadine Milford.
From the beginning there was great public interest in House, who is to stand trial in the spring on vehicular homicide charges.
How could he have been involved? After all, he was the administrator of a substance abuse program for Navajo teen-agers, a college-educated Air Force veteran regularly held up as a role model for young people in his tribe. Married, with two young children, he seemed the very picture of success.
While recuperating from the accident, he received death threats and hate mail, some of which partook of an ugly stereotype: the drunken Indian.
House for a time also faced nearly unprecedented first-degree murder charges (now dismissed), and his name has become virtually synonymous with DWI (driving while intoxicated) in New Mexico.
“I can’t think of a case that’s been more publicized in my memory,” says his attorney, Ray Twohig, who believes House has been made a scapegoat for a deep-rooted problem.
Milford, meanwhile, has emerged as an effective leader of the statewide movement to crack down on drinking and driving.
As a result of her persistent lobbying, the New Mexico Legislature earlier this year undertook the most thorough overhaul of the state’s DWI and traffic safety laws in memory, including lowering the legal limit for intoxication.
Milford, who soon after the accident said that as an evangelical Christian she had forgiven House, says her anger has not abated.
She and her husband, Bob, regularly visit Albuquerque police DWI checkpoints--satisfied to see at least some drunk drivers being taken off the streets.
She says she has taken on the task of speaking for her dead daughter and granddaughters in part because of her flexible job as a secretary at a Christian private school. Cravens, who’s still recovering from his injuries, is deeply depressed and consumed with “survivor’s guilt,” she says.
Her efforts have helped draw national media attention to the case. Two network news programs and the TV tabloid show “Inside Edition” have visited the state in the past year.
Milford immersed herself in the lobbying effort only a few weeks after the tragedy as a way of coping with her grief, she says.
“I spent six months denying that this ever even happened, running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” she says. “Now reality’s starting to sink in. Christmas is coming and I’m buying presents for my other grandchildren.”
Drunk driving has been a blight on generations of New Mexicans, a byproduct of the state’s freewheeling culture, relatively young population and history of lax liquor regulation.
New Mexico perennially ranks at or near the top in the nation for alcohol-related traffic deaths per capita, says John Fenner, director of the state highway department’s transportation programs division. A study by the department’s Traffic Safety Bureau found New Mexico’s alcohol-related traffic fatality rate was 14.5 per 100,000 people in 1991--the highest in the nation and two points higher than the next state, Arkansas.
In 1992, there were 274 alcohol-related deaths in New Mexico, accounting for more than half of all traffic fatalities, Fenner says.
A veteran of annual battles to get state lawmakers to tighten DWI regulations, Fenner says the 1993 session produced a bumper crop of important legislation.
Thanks to Milford’s painful, well-publicized testimony before legislative committees, lawmakers passed 17 of the 19 measures recommended by a blue-ribbon DWI task force, Fenner says.
Among the most important was lowering the legal level of intoxication from 0.1% blood alcohol to 0.08% (following the lead of many other states).
The Legislature also created a crime of “aggravated” DWI--punishable with mandatory jail time--for drivers above 0.16, those who refuse breath tests or those who injure someone. The same reforms raised jail terms and fines for non-aggravated DWI offenders, and established mandatory alcoholism screening and treatment programs.
The state also earmarked $14 million in funding for local law enforcement and automated court record-keeping in DWI related cases.
Linda Atkinson, a lobbyist against drunk driving, agrees that with Milford’s participation, “What came from the Legislature on the DWI issue just blew me away.”
In the end, though, “The price was too high,” she says. “Three hundred people dying every year, and then the family of four being wiped out on Christmas Eve.”
As legislators debated reform, Albuquerque prosecutors planned a controversial strategy: In July they charged House with “depraved mind” first-degree murder.
District Attorney Robert Schwartz of Bernalillo County acknowledges House may have been among the first people in New Mexico charged with first-degree murder in a fatal DWI accident, a situation that usually results in lesser charges of vehicular homicide.
“One of the reasons he’s the first is, he’s the first (not to die) under these circumstances,” Schwartz says. “These are files that close themselves out.”
In bringing the charges, Schwartz’s office cited evidence that on Christmas Eve, House had driven at least 10 miles the wrong way on the interstate at speeds of up to 90 mph as oncoming vehicles swerved out of the way and blinked their lights. In addition, House was paced for part of that distance by a state trooper who flashed his lights and beamed a spotlight at House’s truck.
Schwartz defines a “depraved mind” under New Mexico law as when “you are doing something that is so crazy that it is almost a virtual certainty that someone will be killed, whether or not you intend it.”
But a judge dismissed the murder charges after an October preliminary hearing, leaving lesser vehicular homicide counts in place. His ruling was based on defense attorney Twohig’s argument that if House was as drunk as prosecutors say, he could not have understood the dangerousness of his actions.
Where House had faced a life sentence for the murder charge, he now faces five years on each vehicular homicide count, for a possible maximum of 20.
“I’m disappointed,” Schwartz says. “We felt we had sufficient evidence to carry this forward.”
The dismissal of the most serious charges were a bitter pill for Milford, 55, and her husband, who had enlisted the help of their church in gathering 80,000 signatures in support of DWI reform.
“The judge had all the evidence he needed in the Gordon House case, and he just turned his head,” she says. “ ‘Why should they nail Gordon House for what a thousand people do a year?’ That was basically his philosophy in the whole thing.”
Milford, who has attended House’s court proceedings over the past year--including the lengthy preliminary hearing--is furious at efforts House has made to contact her family since the accident.
While still in the hospital House wrote a letter to the Milfords apologizing for their loss. Later, during the preliminary hearing, he enveloped Nadine Milford in an awkward hug during a courtroom break.
“It was very difficult, because there were ulterior motives,” she says.
But there was something that was even harder to bear.
“He brought his own child to court,” she says. “That has to be the cruelest thing he has ever done. A beautiful baby, and he let her play on the bench behind us. My husband and I went home devastated that night.”
Although House and attorney Twohig have raised the specter of racism as the reason House’s case has received so much attention, Milford rejects that charge.
“I choose to believe the subject is DWI, not ethnicity,” she says.
The man at the center of the maelstrom, Gordon House remains an enigma.
There has been no explanation for why House was in Albuquerque, 100 miles east of his home in Thoreau, N.M., at 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. There are also unanswered questions about where he had been drinking and why he was driving in the wrong direction on the interstate.
House himself won’t comment on the events of that evening, but insists he will be acquitted, based on information known only to him and his attorney.
“Once the trial begins, they’ll understand the truth and say, ‘Hey, this situation could have happened to anybody,’ ” House says.
A 1987 DWI conviction hints at prior problems with alcohol, but House has previously said that the plea agreement in that case was mistakenly entered into by his former lawyer, and he adamantly denies being an alcoholic.
In his hometown, House says, “They know this person is not a drunk. This is an unfortunate thing that occurred, but it happened. They need to know me as a genuine person.”
House has publicly expressed regret for the loss of life, using rambling, seemingly vague language that some people take to be insincere. For instance, he says, “We know the Milford, Cravens and Woodard families are hurt too. Those are things that are human and are there.”
Ray Twohig says that if his client doesn’t sound “guilty” enough, it’s because he comes from a culture that places less emphasis on notions of guilt and punishment. Where there is a transgression, Twohig says, the Navajo way is for the parties to try to heal the breach by agreeing upon some form of reparation.
House, meanwhile, clings to the shreds of his self-esteem as his career and family life continue to undergo drastic changes.
Last March he was transferred from his post as director of the House of Hope in Gallup, N.M., to a fund-raising job for the program’s corporate parent. That job was eliminated in August and the House family since has subsisted on unemployment checks.
Sue House is taking college courses in hopes of getting an elementary teaching degree, while her husband stays home with their children Ryan, 7, and Leatricia, 4.
In search of peace of mind, the family has attended some counseling, and House himself has engaged in traditional Navajo healing ceremonies.
House says that in the Navajo way he has tried to reconcile with the Milfords and other survivors through his attorney. He insists he has not meant to hurt them further by approaching them.
“In the cultural background I come from, it’s just a response, a normal type of reaction, that you touch a person with your hands and you hold them,” he says.
While everyone else is crying for justice, Gordon House says he is thinking about healing.
“We can’t separate and segregate,” he says. “My mind doesn’t work that way.”