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A Reluctant Activist

One year after stepdaughter's death, Debbie Sausville speaks out to help Fairfax County Police with 'Safe December' program.

If only one family can be prevented from going through the same heartache Debbie Sausville and her family have endured in the past year, her work will have been worth it.

Sausville recently spoke at the Fairfax County Police Department's kickoff for the "Safe December" program, a month-long concentration on preventing drunk driving crashes from occurring and focusing on getting impaired drivers off the road. It's a role she never thought she'd have, until the death of her stepdaughter, Lauren, last year.

"When we lost Lauren, I wanted to do something to prevent this from happening to anyone else," said Sausville, who is married to Lauren's father, Pete.

She contacted Mothers Against Drunk Driving's Northern Virginia chapter to see if she might be able to give speeches to groups about how that night changed her family's life. Her story is a little different, however: Lauren, who was 16 when she died last December, had been drinking, courtesy of a man who purchased alcohol for her and some friends.

"I've spoken to church groups and at health fairs as well as with a victim's impact panel through Fairfax County," Sausville said. Giving the message to people who have been arrested for drunk driving or who have stories similar to hers has been emotionally draining, sometimes taking "two or three days" for her to recover.

"Every time I tell the story I'm reliving it," she said, but she would "rather do that a multitude of times than read about more kids killed like this or some other family being destroyed."

AFTER A PRESENTATION, it's not uncommon for someone to offer a hug of sympathy, which Sausville said she takes, but it doesn't do anything to help the pain.

"This is a heck of a story to read about, but to hear it from someone who has lived through it is something else," she said, hopeful that people learn this lesson the easy way.

When Lauren died, she was the 17th Fairfax County student to die in an alcohol-related crash between September and December 2004, Sausville said.

"I wish more than anything that there had been a cop in Lauren's path that night. I would much rather have gotten a call that she was in jail than the one we got," she said.

By the end of December, more than 100 people will be arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol, said Office Richard Henry, a public information officer with the Fairfax County Police Department and organizer of the Safe December program.

"The purpose of the program is to educate the public about the dangers of irresponsible alcohol use and purchases," he said.

The program has three components, Henry said, including weekly sobriety checkpoints, underage alcohol sale stings and an increase in officers looking for drunk drivers.

Sadly, although fewer arrests are made every year, "it's not uncommon for officers to have two arrests in a night," Henry said. Arresting someone for a drunk-driving offense takes several hours to process, he said, adding that sometimes the officer's job is made easier when their vehicle is hit at a red light by someone who's not paying attention.

In 2004, more than 18,670 car crashes occurred in Fairfax County, and 855 of those were alcohol-related, Henry said. There have been 13 fatal crashes involving alcohol and two involving drugs this year and four of those crashes involved a juvenile in some way, he said.

The month or so between Thanksgiving and New Year's tends to coincide when people choose to celebrate with alcohol, said Capt. Jesse Bowman, commanding officer of the Fairfax County Police Department's traffic division.

"From 6 p.m. until 4 a.m., we have officers from all over the county that are out looking for drunk drivers," Bowman said. These officers, typically one from each district in the county, are specially trained and have demonstrated their ability to distinguish drunk drivers and are selected for this project and "know what to look for," he said.

During last year's Safe December program, 147 drunk drivers were arrested in 27 days, Bowman said. "That's good news because they did well, but it's bad news because there were that many people on the road not getting the message," he said.

The officers benefit from hearing stories like Sausville's, he said, because sometimes they "get jaded" from only dealing with people they arrest.

"It reinforces the message we give to the officers," Bowman said. "They need to remember this is important and that their work is appreciated by residents."

A DUI arrest can take up to three hours to process, he said, because of the amount of detail needed to file the paperwork.

"There are so many things the officer must capture and collect and if any of that information is missing, the case is gone," Bowman said. "There's a lot of hoops for the officers to jump through."

For those who plan to drink while attending a holiday party, Bowman stresses the importance of planning ahead and having a way home without having to drive.

"Getting arrested for this is a nightmare," he said. "God forbid you have an accident and kill anyone. This is a very expensive arrest, even the first time. It can effect your career, your insurance company gets involved, there's fines and possible jail time. The time to think about the consequences is not when there's an officer on the side of the road."

Sausville and her husband drive past where their daughter was killed last year every day on their way to work, just another reminder of how different their lives have become.

"My husband will never be the same," she said. "He lost a part of his heart that night. As her stepmother, I'm one step removed, so my heart goes out to her mother, Linda. I've suffered watching my husband go through this, I can't imagine what it must be like for her mother."

Sausville said she is waiting for the day Landon C. Cousins, the Clifton man who purchased the beer for Lauren and her friends, "slips up" and finds himself face to face with police.

"I am doing everything in my power to find this guy," she said, including holding a press conference the day a wanted poster with his picture was released. The man has a lengthy record of prior crimes, including traffic tickets and moving violations, and has been a drug dealer in the past, she said.

"Eventually, he'll make a mistake and they'll catch him," Sausville said, which will "only spur me on to continue this work."