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After the sheriff's chaplain rings at 5 a.m., a family is changed forever

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Jon Cummings, founder of Minnesotans for Safe Driving: “This is a powerful, addictive, mood-altering chemical. [It] causes more misery, more death, more injuries, more treasure than all the rest of them combined. And it’s the legal one.”

Jon Cummings has delivered the talk about his son Phillip (and the drunk driver who killed him) more than 2,800 times over the past 18 years — for various Minnesota county jurisdictions, schools, churches, prisons, and driver’s-ed classes.

You’d think his story would by now have become rote or routinized. But even after all these years it reverberates with heartbreaking authenticity. It was no different on Saturday at Eisenhower Community Center in Hopkins, when Cummings addressed about 50 first-time DWI offenders during a Hennepin County court-ordered daylong seminar on addiction, treatment, alcohol’s effects on the brain, managing stress and strategies to avoid reoffending.

He doesn’t talk about Phillip right away; that comes at about the halfway point of his hourlong presentation.

First he introduces Tom Schaeppi, marketing consultant for IntoxBox, a Minnesota company that has developed a vending-machine-sized device that measures blood alcohol content (but does not collect personal information). The device, manufactured in Winona, has been placed in more than 80 bars and restaurants in Minnesota (including all Cowboy Jack’s, Cabooze in Minneapolis and Billy’s on Grand in St. Paul) and is making inroads in Wisconsin. The company boasts technology that’s more accurate than hand-held and other devices. It costs $2 to use the machine, which requires blowing into a disposable straw. If you’re over the limit, you can call a cab right from the machine.

Schaeppi tells the group that some establishments have declined to install an IntoxBox for fear that customers might buy fewer drinks. He says they have failed to calculate the cost of a customer never coming back at all.

But his main message is this: Nobody really knows their .08. “It’s a moving target,” he says, based on more than just sex, weight and height. It has to do with any medications you are taking, whether or not you spent time outdoors that day, what you had to eat, your age, whether or not you exercised, and many other factors. A majority of people arrested for DWI believe that they are under the legal limit when they decide to drive, he says.

Cummings takes back the mic to underscore Schaeppi’s message: “If ... you’ve had a few and think you’re fine and you’re not, well your life can change real quick.”

Always fresh material

As Cummings builds his case, he challenges his audience to remember some recent stories in the news. He tells these stories in plainspoken, no-bull vernacular, forgoing grammatical niceties and sometimes cussing for emphasis. There is, unfortunately, never a shortage of fresh material from which to draw.

He asks if anyone remembers the April 2011 hit-and-run case of Timothy Bakdash, the man who had been drinking at Library Bar in Dinkytown. After a perceived insult, Bakdash sped his car the wrong way down Southeast Fifth Street and onto the sidewalk, hitting three people and killing one. Benjamin Van Handel, of Appleton, Wis., who had been celebrating his upcoming graduation, was killed. The two women he was escorting home (also seniors) were badly injured.

Cummings, of St. Louis Park, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Minnesotans for Safe Driving, sat with the Van Handel family throughout Bakdash’s trial and stayed with Benjamin’s father as the autopsy photos were shown. Others who had been warned about the graphic nature of the photos had left the courtroom. Cummings noted Bakdash’s reaction:

Mr. Tough Guy? Mr. Bad Ass who’s going to teach everybody a lesson? He didn’t have the courage or the decency to even look at what he’d done. ... He’s not a tough guy anymore. Man, he’s like a lump of Jell-O in that chair, trying to get as low as he can possibly get.

Convicted him of second-degree murder. Forty-two years in prison. Twenty-nine years old. Just took and pissed his whole life away. Not to mention what he did to that Van Handel family. Do you think he’d ever thought of doing something that stupid if he hadn’t had that booze in him? Hell, nobody would ever think of doing something that dumb.

But that’s what this stuff does to people. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t do anything about it. We just let it go on.

Cummings tells the story of Greg, a man from Cambridge, who (a few years ago) was returning home on his Harley, just minutes after visiting his newborn granddaughter. His wife was behind him in their pickup truck. They were elated, and planning to go out to dinner in celebration. But a 21-year-old crossed the center-line and connected head on.

Greg lost his left leg and left arm and was permanently blinded. Cummings says he saw Greg last month, and that he was making the best of things: “I’ve got another grandkid now, a grandson,” he told Cummings. “I’ve got one arm left to hold those kids with. I’ve got one knee to bounce them on. But I’ll never see them. I’ll never see my grandkids.”

Cummings tells other stories: About the intoxicated 70-year-old St. Paul man who drove through the back of his garage and into his neighbor’s house. About the Belle Plaine man who had been drinking and smoking pot and killed his 8-year-old while out for a turkey hunt. About how Amy Senser’s hit-and-run trial turned him into “an expert in denial.” About how Carl Eller’s “big-shot buddies” were nowhere to be seen when “click-click, sheriffs hooked him up, and out the back door he goes.”

Two-way agony

Lest you think he might be just preaching or pointing fingers, Cummings complicates things — first by talking about his own culpability, and then by telling of the pain (the “kill-yourself” guilt) felt by those who are guilty of alcohol-related crashes, fatalities and crimes — at least those who are willing to take responsibility.

Cummings tells the group that he grew up on the Iron Range in a family whose gatherings were defined by “getting hammered.” It was, he says, “a family values thing.” Cummings says his drinking continued apace after he left home and moved to south Minneapolis.

“I did all kinds of stupid stuff,” he says. “I paid all kinds of penalties for it.”

After having two children, he says, “a bell goes off” in his mid-30s. Cummings resolves to quit drinking, and he does. He hasn’t had a drink in 30 years, he says. He got smart before his luck ran out, he says.

There’s a very thin line that separates him from someone like Jonathan Markle, whose 2-year-old drowned when he took a shortcut on the ice in his SUV en route to Lord Fletcher’s. He’d been drinking beer.

“If you want to see the harm and the pain that this stuff causes, you go look in that man’s eyes,” Cummings tells the completely silent group. “There’s no bottom. He told me, ‘I want to kill myself every day.’ He just knows what that would do to what’s left of his family, so he doesn’t.”

Markle, who was sentenced to tell his story in public 100 times, has paired up with Cummings to hammer home the message (as has former GOP Senate staffer Michael Brodkorb).

“He comes out here, and is trying to just be real,” Cummings said of Markle. “I gotta admire him for that. I can’t imagine what it’s like to stand up there and talk about that. He does it because it’s got to be done.”

Losing Phillip

Life was good after he quit drinking, Cummings tells the group. Though at first, he’d been miserable and resigned.

I remember when that first came out of my mouth out loud and people actually heard me say, ‘I’m done with this stuff.’ First thing I thought was, oh man, now you’re going to lose all your friends, you’ll never have any fun anymore, life for you is basically over. That’s the kind of grip that stuff gets on you. But I’m stubborn. I did it. A little time goes by. I look back: What was I so afraid of missing out on? What was I so afraid of losing? It’s just another bad habit — like Vikings football, same damn thing over and over again.

After 10 years of sobriety, he found himself reflecting: His dental lab business was thriving, his sons and wife were thriving. “And I got to thinking: We got what everybody’s looking for. Hell, we’re actually happy.”

He spoke with his sons earnestly, honestly and often about drinking — breaking new ground in his family.

And then on May 4, 1994, “everything went to hell anyway.”

Five o’clock in the morning. I was still in bed and my wife was up getting ready to go to work, and a doorbell rings. And you can feel it coming. It’s like a presence moving in. I remember thinking, Just don’t answer it, just leave it alone. But of course she did. And I can close my eyes and I can still hear her scream, Oh God, no, not Phillip. And it’s the Hennepin County Sheriff’s chaplain come to our door to tell us our son Phillip was involved in a car crash, and he didn’t make it. So every parent’s worst nightmare comes to our house.

Courtesy of Jon Cummings
A poster-sized photo of Phillip Cummings on his 23rd
birthday, the last photo his dad ever took of him.

Cummings places a poster-sized photo of his son on an easel where everyone can see him. (As an aside, the easels Cummings uses in his public presentations were handmade for him by convicted murderers at Faribault, who felt bad about the way Cummings’ photos kept falling to the floor; they’re all-wood, so they don’t set off the metal detectors. The inmates took particular pride in that.)

This is Phil. That’s Phil’s 23rd birthday, his last birthday, and the last picture I ever took of him. I can talk about him all day long. You just look at that silly grin on his face there. That was there all the time — tell you all you need to know about him. He’s just a nice guy, didn’t have an enemy in the world. He was just figuring out what this living’s all about. Then bam! That damn doorbell rang and everything changes forever.

The night he was killed, Phillip finished his cooking shift at Chili’s and called his roommate and friend, Jeff, to see if he’d like to accompany him to Mystic Lake. But Jeff admitted that he’d been drinking and shouldn’t drive. So Phillip drove from Bloomington to Plymouth, and, with Phillip as the designated driver, the two headed for Mystic Lake Casino in Prior Lake.

“And the reason he did that is because we taught him that. You drink, and you don’t drive. No big deal,” Cummings says.

As they exited 494 in their pickup truck, “there was a flash of light.” When Jeff regained consciousness, he was covered in glass. His friend was dying, pinned by the steering wheel. “Hang on, buddy, hang on,” he told him. “It’s going to be OK.”

Courtesy of Jon Cummings
Phillip Cummings, his best friend and roommate Jeff,
and the truck they'd been in.

A West St. Paul bar owner — after three hours of drinking with his friends at a country club — was accelerating the wrong way up the exit off 494 in Eden Prairie as Phillip and Jeff were exiting, Cummings says. The bar owner survived the crash, and was sentenced to five years in Stillwater.

Jeff also survived, but with a crippling dose of survivor’s guilt. “That’s an ugly, ugly thing to deal with,” Cummings says. “Doesn’t make any difference how many times we tell him, ‘Jeff, there is no way, shape or form you are in any way responsible for this. You guys did exactly what you were taught to do, and you should have been acknowledged for it.’”

The word “closure,” Cummings says, is code for “‘Shut up, we’re tired of hearing about it.’ There’s no closure for us. We never, ever forget Phillip. We never stop loving him, and we never, ever forgot the way he died.”

‘Happens all the time’

Cummings still grinds his teeth when he recalls the moment the bar owner's defense attorney suggested that Phillip was at fault “because he was sober and should have gotten out of the way.”

There are other injustices that gnaw at him: How outraged people become when a sex offender kills, but how quickly the victims of alcohol-related crashes are forgotten. What little time it takes for defense attorneys to blame the victim. How elected officials and the culture at large seem to accept the toll as par for the course. How "we always call it an 'accident.' "

But overall, he says, in the many years of bringing his story to the people, he has grown less angry and more amazed by the humanity of all who are touched by these tragedies — offenders and victims alike.

At the end of his talk, Cumming puts up a photo of his granddaughter. If there’s one message he’d like to drive home on this Saturday, and every other time he faces a group of first-time offenders or young drivers-in-the-making, it’s this:

Take a second, think of that special person in your life who really means something to you. And then picture them. I’m telling you, in the blink of an eye, a flash of light, they’re gone. And lives change forever. And dead is dead and you cannot fix it, and "sorry" don’t work.

Everybody’s sorry. I sit in these courtrooms and see it over and over again: "Oh, your honor, I’m so sorry, I made this huge mistake." Bullshit, there’s no mistake here. ... I could stand up here for hours talking about the people I know who never thought it could happen to them, but it did. And it didn’t have to.

As the first-timers leave, they shake Cummings' hand. Some of them offer a hug. And some of them say, "I'm so sorry for your loss."

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Comments (2)

Phillip Cummings

After knowing Jon and Geri for 18 years since Phillip was killed, after knowing the story well from all the victim impact panels Jon's spoken at and visiting Phillip's marker whenever I go to Lakewood Cemetery, I still weep at my desk as I read this, because Jon is still right and Phillip is still gone, forever 23. Think about them the next time you want to text while driving.

IntoxBox and "What's your .08?" campaign

These developments are so critically needed to get people who drink on board with taking personal responsibility. As the IntoxBox site mentions:

"Through our surveys of Minnesota DWI offenders, we’ve identified that the primary cause of drunk driving is lack of information on the part of the drivers. Over 60% of drunk drivers believed they were under the legal limit when they decided to drive.

"The goal of the 'What’s Your .08?' campaign is to remove this uncertainty by making highly accurate breathalyzers available at no cost in over 80 Minnesota drinking establishments for 2 months!"

I've seen it criticized during discussions of personal or other breathalyzers not in use by peace officers that the devices would only either encourage binge-drinking contests or be shunned by those who need it most. But it's absolutely true that moderate-to-heavy drinkers often still feel lucid and in control at .08, with high tolerance enabling them to double or triple that on a regular basis without feeling too bad the next day. The same folks are often also clueless that drinking until midnight or later and "sleeping it off" until 7 or 8am doesn't mean they're fully sober to drive to work.