Killing three people did not stop repeat drink-driver Gavin Hawthorn from driving drunk again and killing a friend. As GEOFF CUMMING reports, he is typical of the hard-core offender




Death found a dependable ally in Gavin Hawthorn. On that Tuesday night last June, he wouldn't have thought twice about his power to kill when he picked up the keys to his Mitsubishi Galant after drinking beer and bourbon at the Carterton house where he was dossing.



He wouldn't have dwelt on the time in 1989 when his drink-driving cost three people their lives after a head-on collision. The car-crazy 40-year-old was more intent on a fast, alcohol-fuelled drive over the Rimutakas and a night of bar and nightclub crawling in Wellington.



He even offered to lend a couple of friends $100 to go with him. Lance Fryer, high on home-distilled spirits, took up the offer - the last mistake he would make.

Advertisement


The earlier fatal crash and two-year prison sentence, when Hawthorn was 26, clearly had little impact on his behaviour over the next 14 years. By 1995, when he was sentenced on his seventh drink-drive charge, he had more than 30 convictions, 24 for driving offences. He had been in jail five times.



On that night last winter, police say he was on bail on several charges, including excess alcohol. Although he was not disqualified, his bail conditions included that he not consume alcohol, not enter licensed premises and observe a curfew at home between 7pm and 7am.



But as the beer and bourbon took hold, Hawthorn wasn't worried about risk or punishment. In fact, psychologists suggest the risk may have proved an irresistible drug.



"Gavin Hawthorn tended to think he was bulletproof," Sergeant Ben Offner of the Wairarapa police told the Weekend Herald after Hawthorn's conviction for manslaughter this week. "He had a range of behaviours which were not legal, most stemming from alcohol and drug abuse."



Hawthorn and Fryer made it to Wellington and visited several bars. The next morning, about 7.30, a motorist on the Rimutakas noted the Mitsubishi Galant flying around a dangerous bend.



Ten minutes later, police clocked the Galant doing 167km/h just south of Greytown, less than 10 minutes from home. The police car turned to follow as Hawthorn sped through Greytown at nearly twice the 50km/h limit.



According to the police summary, a motorist waiting at an intersection did not appreciate how fast the Galant was going as he pulled on to the main road. When he did, he took evasive action. Hawthorn swerved to avoid the vehicle and lost control. The Galant slid sideways into a power pole, the passenger side taking the full force for the 66km/h impact. Fryer, 34, died at the scene from massive internal injuries.



It was less than a kilometre from the scene of the 1989 carnage, when Hawthorn took a corner on the wrong side of the road. Then, he suffered severe burns before he was pulled from the wreckage; this time he was again injured. But he managed to move himself into the rear seat behind Fryer before police arrived. He also swung his legs so they were hanging out the passenger side door.



When police spoke to him at Masterton hospital, he appeared unaffected by his friend's death. "He seemed quite relaxed considering the circumstances and during the whole time I was with Mr Hawthorn that day he never asked me how the other occupant was," Sergeant Michael Sutton told a pre-trial hearing in January.



Hawthorn would even tell Melody Martin, on whose couch he had been sleeping in the weeks leading up to the crash, that he wasn't driving.



He did express remorse to a flatmate who visited him in hospital, saying "I killed Lance," and "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," the flatmate told the hearing. But at his trial, he would claim that Fryer was the driver.



Denial - it's a trademark of the repeat drink-driver, say those who work with them to try to change their thinking. While 20 years of tougher penalties and publicity have hardened the attitudes of most against drink-driving, a hard core continues to defy the best efforts of police, the courts, road safety agencies and rehabilitation programmes.



At least a third of New Zealand's drink-drivers are repeat offenders; most are male, aged 25-44. Six per cent of those convicted each year - up to 1200 drivers - will have five or more convictions. They are more likely to drive while more than twice the legal alcohol limit and their crashes are more likely to prove fatal.



Taking their licence away doesn't always work; nearly three-quarters of those convicted of drink-driving while disqualified are reconvicted within five years.



Roadsafe Auckland regional road safety co-ordinator Andrew Bell says most have an alcohol problem and their decision to drive is spur-of-the-moment. They may have booked a taxi or made other plans to get home but, after a few beers, rational thinking goes out the window.



The decision to drink may follow an argument with their partner or a bad day at work, says Richard Barge, the Corrections Department's manager of operational policy. Some see drinking and driving as a way to cope with stress.



"There are individuals who consider themselves pretty much immune," says Barge. "They may think they are not going to get their licence back anyway so what's the point."



Alex Dawber, a psychologist with alcohol counselling agency Care NZ, says the Barry Crump hard-man-Kiwi-bloke image has a lot to answer for.



"With men, there's a feeling 'I'm in control of the situation. I can handle my drink and I can handle my car'. They see it as a sign of strength. Other people have accidents but not them."



Dawber says it's not unusual for drink-drivers to blame the other motorist after crashes.



"When you start to talk to them about it they are most indignant. It's a sign of weakness to admit they are not in control."



So they rationalise the crash as "bad luck. 'I just got unlucky that time', or 'someone else was to blame. If that car hadn't been parked in the wrong place, if that person hadn't been driving ... '



"They tend to minimise the risk. 'It was not as bad as the police made out. The TV ads are over the top - it won't happen to me."'



They cling to a belief that drink-driving is the norm - their friends drink and drive and they assume everyone does so."



Dawber sees middle-aged family men with respectable jobs who set aside drink-driving as a separate part of their life. But research suggests that most are younger men with anti-social attitudes and anger management problems. Many will have experienced trauma and abuse.



Niki Harre, a senior lecturer in psychology at Auckland University, says hardcore drink- drivers often exhibit several risk-taking behaviours.



While a brush with the courts is sufficient humiliation for most of us to mend our ways, being fined or jailed is no deterrent for others, she says.



"I hate to sound like a psychologist, but these things do go back to childhood. If you grow up in a stable supportive environment where people try to do the right things, you may go through a period of risk-taking behaviour but you are more likely to grow out of it.



"In other situations, the parents may be under stress and don't know what the kids are up to.



"With people who have consistent anti-social patterns in their life, such as drink-driving, you can usually trace it back to inappropriate role-modelling as children."



Punishment often makes no difference, as an addiction to something like alcohol affects people's reasoning. Drinking and driving can become a compulsion - there is the thrill factor, says Harre.



A Wellington man who grew up in Wairarapa remembers Hawthorn well. "He was a mad bastard. He'd go to the pub and get pissed and start fights. You could always wind him up to do anything. I even got into the car with him a couple of times before that first [fatal] crash. He was crazy. He always drove. He didn't care that he was pissed or whether he even had a licence."



It is more than five years since Hawthorn's mother, Maria Guildford, washed her hands of her son, the first of four children from her first marriage. Growing up in Wairarapa, he was not a problem child, she told the Manawatu Standard this week. Now living in Southland, Guildford says his troubles arose from being spoilt by older relatives - and buying a motorbike when he was about 15.



"It all started from there. He used to tear all over the place and he became car mad."



A photo of Hawthorn, clutching a Performance Car magazine outside the Masterton court when he was charged in October, suggests little has changed. His mother says he received counselling. "I have long said, 'When will he ever learn?' I don't think he ever will."



If fines, loss of licence, periods in prison and counselling won't work for the Hawthorns of this world, what will? Following his conviction this week, relatives of some of his victims said he should never be allowed to drive again. Others are of the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" school of treatment.



Drink-drivers who cause injury or death can be fined up to $20,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. But Richard Barge of Corrections says the reality is that people are eventually let out of jail and need to be reintegrated into society. Imprisonment is also hugely expensive - around $50,000 an inmate each year compared with an average $3000 spent on rehabilitation. And prison beds are at a premium.



Community probation officer John Thrush says high-risk offenders can be turned around, as long as they show willingness to change. Corrections spends nearly $1 million a year on Making Our Drivers Safer (Mods), a 100-hour programme for repeat offenders sentenced to community supervision.



Nearly 300 people went through the programme last year. It went nationwide in 2001 after trials in Christchurch showed an 18 per cent lower reconviction rate after three years.



Thrush says the programme teaches repeat disqualified drivers to recognise the behaviours that lead them to offend and provides them with alternatives.



"If nobody goes back and shows them what's going on in their lives, they keep doing the same thing. We teach them to recognise the early warning signs."



But not every recidivist is sentenced to community supervision and Thrush says not all are suitable for Mods. Many need specialised treatment first for their serious drinking problem. Because Mods is a group programme, it is confined to large centres - which tends to rule out the hardcore in rural areas. Some sentences are too short for the 10-week programme.



In Otahuhu, Care NZ has just piloted a less intensive programme for offenders awaiting sentencing, which it hopes to add to the various intervention services.



"We have to challenge their beliefs," says Alex Dawber. " We have to bring people to the point where they can acknowledge other people's feelings."



Last December, the Government stiffened penalties for repeat drink-drivers and those with high alcohol readings, introducing month-long licence suspension for people with a conviction within the previous four years and 28-day vehicle impoundment for those with two previous convictions within four years.



It is considering a further weapon - alcohol ignition interlocks, which immobilise intoxicated drivers' vehicles. Used successfully overseas, the devices require drivers to blow into a breathtester fitted to their ignition before they can start their car. But there are doubts that judges here could order installation under present laws.



In January Auckland lawyer Barry Hart criticised police for staking out the homes, workplaces and pubs of repeat offenders. Police national road safety manager Steve Fitzgerald defended the tactic of compiling databases, including photographs, of notorious drink-drivers, saying offenders were mostly disqualified drivers who refused to drive under the legal alcohol limit.



Which leaves intervention as the most cost-effective approach - to try to make recidivists see the error of their ways and the consequences of their actions.



Sergeant Ben Offner isn't sure whether intervention could have changed Hawthorn. He understands Hawthorn underwent programmes "but it was just too late. Intervention has to be done early - you can't rely on the [deterrent] value of the sentence they get.



"Gavin Hawthorn never acknowledged that his behaviour affected anybody else, he never took responsibility for it. He saw things from a completely different angle to everybody else."