Clarence Busch, the Drunk Driver Who Inspired a Movement, Faces Prison After Another Accident
Driving home from a friend’s house one night last spring, Carrie Sinnott, 19, stopped her blue 1977 Mustang for a red light on a suburban Sacramento street. When the light changed, she eased into the intersection and was suddenly hit by a 1980 Chevy Citation making a left turn against a red light. Sinnott was lucky. Although her car was totaled, her injuries were minor. As she was rushed to a hospital, highway patrolman Lloyd Boden noticed that the driver of the Chevy had “slurred speech, the smell of alcohol and bloodshot eyes.” When he failed a field sobriety test, Boden arrested him. Later a chemical test revealed that he had a blood alcohol level of .20—the equivalent of 10 drinks and double California’s legally mandated level of intoxication.
At first the case seemed routine, another of America’s annual 660,000 police-reported alcohol-related traffic accidents. But the incident contained several ironies: It marked the return of the man who inadvertently spawned a powerful movement against drunk driving, and it revealed, starkly, the limits of that movement’s gains. The drunken man was Clarence William Busch. On May 3, 1980 Busch had plowed his car into 13-year-old Cari Lightner as she walked alongside another Sacramento thoroughfare. The Lightner girl was hit so hard that she flew 120 feet through the air. She died less than an hour later of massive internal injuries. Busch, who fled from the scene, was arrested a few days later. That was his fifth arrest for drunk driving (the fourth had occurred just two days earlier), yet for all the charges, he had spent only 48 hours behind bars. Outraged, his victim’s mother, Candy Lightner, then a 34-year-old real estate agent, formed Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Today MADD has 366 chapters in 47 states and has achieved phenomenal success in lobbying for tougher laws against drunk driving.
But none of those laws could prevent Busch from driving drunk once again. Convicted of vehicular manslaughter and later of parole violation in the Lightner case, Busch served about 2½ years in various jails, work camps and halfway houses before he was paroled last February. Two weeks later, despite his record of five convictions for alcohol-related traffic offenses, Busch obtained a temporary driver’s license. It had not yet expired when he hit Carrie Sinnott on April 17. “I was hysterical when I heard,” Lightner says. “I cried. I thought, ‘Will we ever be free of this man?’ ”
Last month, after an eight-day trial, a jury convicted Busch, a former machinist and quality control technician, of two felony counts of drunk driving. He is scheduled to be sentenced on October 15 and faces up to four years in prison. His lawyer, James Lee, hopes Busch—who attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during his previous paroles—will be put in an alcohol treatment program instead of a prison. “Mr. Busch is not a criminal,” says Lee, “but he has an alcohol problem. If they want to change his conduct, they have to do something to alleviate that.”
Candy Lightner disagrees. “Alcoholism may be a disease, but drunk driving is a crime. Rehabilitation is not effective,” she says. “Clarence William Busch is, unfortunately, a typical alcoholic. I’m not sure there is any hope for him except to remove him from society permanently and never allow him to own or drive a car.”