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Mourners at 27th MADD vigil share the pain of losing a loved one to drunken driving

Ashley LeBlanc, 24, center, of Tampa lights a candle with the support of friend Taylor Asermely, at right, in remembrance of her boyfriend, Doug Kozar, who was 23 when he was killed on Oct. 30 in an alcohol-related crash. The Hillsborough County Mothers Against Drunk Driving 27th annual candlelight vigil was held at the First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace on Thursday night.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

Ashley LeBlanc, 24, center, of Tampa lights a candle with the support of friend Taylor Asermely, at right, in remembrance of her boyfriend, Doug Kozar, who was 23 when he was killed on Oct. 30 in an alcohol-related crash. The Hillsborough County Mothers Against Drunk Driving 27th annual candlelight vigil was held at the First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace on Thursday night.

TEMPLE TERRACE — One by one, family and friends of people killed by drunken drivers walked to the front of a church, said the loved one's name aloud, and lit a candle of remembrance amid a sea of framed photos.

Some had been coming to the Hillsborough County's Mothers Against Drunk Driving Candlelight Vigil for years. At the 27th one on Thursday night, the walk still was not any easier.

Those familiar faces mixed with new ones, coming to remember victims of crashes that have captured the community's attention lately.

Although law enforcement agencies throughout the Tampa Bay area say there has been no statistical increase in casualties caused by alcohol, some of those most involved fear the problem is growing worse. And in Tampa, police are about to begin efforts to keep that from happening.

Most of the 29 DUI enforcement deputies from the Sheriff's Office attended the vigil at the First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace, as well as the newest class of cadets who lined the parking lot as people took a walk of remembrance outside the sanctuary, serenaded by the MADD choir.

A slide show flashed on two big screens in front of the sanctuary detailing the name, age and death or injury date of a victim with accompanying photos.

More than 300 participants streamed out of the church.

Five chimes tinkled before LaChan Knowles stood to tell her story and light a candle for her friend, Tina Howard-Harrison.

Knowles said she was driving in April 2009 when she stopped at a light and a drunken driver rear-ended her car. Her car flipped and Howard-Harrison, her passenger, died.

"Each day I had to make a decision to open my eyes," Knowles said. "It took courage to make that decision."

Later, people came up to the altar to light one of the 288 candles laid out for families of victims. Familiar names rolled off the tongues of mourners: Sgt. Ron Harrison, a Hillsborough County DUI enforcement deputy shot on duty in 2007; Jennifer O'Boyle, a mother hit by a driver going the wrong way on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in 2008; and Douglas Kozar and Kate Kohlier, two Marriott Hotel employees killed while walking along the Harbour Island bridge on Oct. 30.

Cindy Collins, Kohlier's mother, said it was the first time she had attended a MADD event.

"I hope I don't ever have to do this again for another family member again," she said.

She said it was disturbing to see people still being brought to tears from relatives who died years and even decades ago.

"I don't think this pain ever goes away," she said.

Starting in January, Tampa police plan to start notifying bars when a patron is arrested for DUI, or if an underage drinker is arrested after leaving the establishment, said Sgt. Raymond Fernandez, a 13-year veteran of DUI enforcement.

Officers are also going to ramp up public education, starting with valets who should know how to deal with a patron who should not be driving, he said.

The Tampa Alcohol Coalition heads education programs, but Fernandez said he's going further by approaching businesses and giving out his cell phone number.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," he said.

On Thursday before the vigil, a prosecutor in charge of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office traffic homicide division said she has seen a surge in fatalities caused by alcohol in the past two months.

"It could be coincidence or the holidays," prosecutor Barbara Coleman said. "I don't know what the factors are, but I've seen a large number of crashes."

Finding official statistics to verify that is elusive. A Pasco County MADD representative and a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman each said they haven't noticed increases in their counties. Plant City police and Temple Terrace police also say they haven't seen an increase.

Traffic fatalities — not only those attributed to drunken driving — have increased since 2009 in Hillsborough, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Deputy Larry McKinnon. Linda Unfried co-founded the Hillsborough MADD chapter after her sister was killed in a DUI-related crash 27 years ago. She said she's worried about the number of crashes these past few months, and said that local MADD members are regrouping and trying to figure out why people aren't getting the message. "It's a very simple message: Don't drink and drive," she said. "And people just aren't getting it."

Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Curtis Krueger and Bridget Grumet contributed to this report.

Mourners at 27th MADD vigil share the pain of losing a loved one to drunken driving 12/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 10, 2010 12:14am]
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