A Grieving, Angry Mother Charges That Drunken Drivers Are Getting Away with Murder
On a sunny Saturday in May 1980, Cari Lightner, 13, was on her way to a church carnival in Fair Oaks, Calif, when a car swerved into the bike lane where she was walking and blind-sided her with such sickening force that she was knocked out of her sandals and hurled more than 40 yards down the road. She died within the hour. The driver, Clarence Busch, 48, never even stopped. “He was so drunk he literally crawled into bed,” his now estranged wife, Sharlene, recalls. “That weekend he was so obsessed with hiding the car that I finally called a friend with the California Highway Patrol to ask if anything unusual had happened. He said, ‘My God, haven’t you heard? A child’s been killed!’ ”
Busch was soon apprehended—implicated by his conscience-stricken wife. He subsequently admitted he had been drinking and claimed he remembered nothing that had happened before he arrived home. Though he had previously been convicted of drunken driving and related offenses three times in four years, grounds for automatic imprisonment in California, he had served only 48 hours in jail, and his license had been reinstated each time after probation. Just two days before killing Cari, Busch had been arrested for yet another hit-and-run while under the influence, and had been released on bail.
Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t have been surprising when a veteran cop predicted to Cari’s mother, “Lady, you’ll be lucky if this guy gets any jail time, much less prison.” But Candy Lightner, 35, was shocked—and desperately angry. “This was not an ‘unfortunate accident,’ ” she observes acidly. “Cari was the victim of a violent crime. If my daughter had been raped or murdered, no one would say of the killer, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ Death caused by drunk drivers is the only socially acceptable form of homicide.”
To ensure that her daughter’s death would have meaning, Lightner, a divorcée with two other children (son Travis, now 10, and Cari’s twin, Serena), quit her job to found Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. The response has been startling—for good reason. In the past decade drunken drivers have been responsible for the deaths of some 250,000 Americans—about five times the number that died in Vietnam. In just 13 months MADD has rapidly outgrown Candy’s small Sacramento office, expanding into a volunteer network with 14 California chapters, eight in Maryland, and one each in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In addition to counseling those who have suffered at the hands of drunk drivers, the organization is lobbying for tougher state laws requiring mandatory minimum punishments. In California today, notes Steve White, executive director of that state’s District Attorneys’ Association, “It’s up to the judge whether an offender goes to jail. California courts have been reluctant to deal with the problem partly because drunk drivers are a good source of revenue—they just pay their fines and go.” Nationally, MADD has been supporting bills in both the Senate and the House that would require a standard definition of intoxication, better record keeping to identify habitual drunk drivers, and mandatory imprisonment and license suspensions for repeat offenders.
Totally apolitical until Cari was killed (“I wasn’t even registered to vote”), Candy Doddridge was born in Pasadena, Calif. and grew up an Air Force brat. A onetime dental assistant, she attended American River College in Sacramento and later married Air Force Lt. Steve Lightner. She was divorced in 1979 and settled in Fair Oaks to sell real estate. Since founding MADD, however, Candy has gone without salary, supporting herself and her children with help from her ex-husband and her widowed father. By donating most of her personal savings, plus insurance money from Cari’s death, Lightner has provided more than 60 percent of MADD’s first-year budget of $41,000.
Soon, she hopes, such one-woman support will no longer be necessary. While more than 50,000 people have signed MADD petitions urging federal action, the organization is just now launching a formal membership drive, and is pushing to raise $100,000 during the next 12 months in corporate and foundation grants. Whatever happens, Lightner’s personal commitment is total. “If you have a drinking problem, it’s your problem,” she says. “But once you get behind the wheel of a car, it’s my problem. I’ve seen five-, six- and seven-time drunk-driving offenders get off.”
Although the man who killed her daughter wasn’t turned loose, neither was he prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Charged with three felony counts in the death of Cari Lightner, and with two additional charges hanging over him from his hit-and-run accident two days earlier, Busch was nonetheless allowed to plead nolo contendere on the single count of vehicular manslaughter. He was sentenced to two years in prison and stripped of his license. Though his probation report, based on a psychologist’s evaluation, noted that because of Busch’s “continued denial of a serious [drinking] problem” he was a threat to the community and ought to be imprisoned, the killer was sent to a work camp for three months, then transferred to a halfway house in Sacramento. Incredibly, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has already notified Busch that when he is released, on Sept. 7, his driver’s license will be waiting for him if he can obtain liability insurance.
Ultimately, it appears, Busch’s greatest punishment will have to come from his conscience. Her own pain, says Lightner, is unrelenting. “My children suffer from nightmares,” she reports, “and I live in fear it will happen again—that one of my children will be hit. Every time I hear an ambulance, or tires screeching, I get hysterical.” Still, she refuses to give in to despair. “There are so many people who are worse off than I am,” she says. “People who have lost two children or their whole family. Nobody cares for them, so it’s up to us to be the voice of the victims.”