Smithfield, N.C. — Seven-year-old Marcus Lassiter won't see his eighth birthday. George Smith was on his morning commute to Duke University but never made it to work. Betty Coates might struggle with daily tasks for the rest of her life.
Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell sees a pattern among the cases of these victims of drunken driving: Each accused driver was in the United States illegally.
Bizzell pointed to Hipolito Hernandez, an illegal immigrant who faces second-degree murder charges in the hit-and-run that killed Marcus last Sunday.
"This case here is a prime example of the justice system letting the people down," Bizzell said.
Nearly 300 illegal immigrants were convicted on driving-while-impaired charges and placed in North Carolina prisons in 2007.
Hispanics also account for 18 percent of drunken-driving arrests, while making up less than 7 percent of the state’s population, according to a study from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center aired in WRAL's documentary "Focal Point: Crossing the Line."
The study also showed that Hispanics involved in car crashes were 2.5 times more likely to be drunk than white drivers and three times more likely to be drunk than black drivers.
In the three cases listed above, each of the accused drunken drivers had extensive contact with the judicial system – but had managed to elude the immigration system until these incidents.
Hernandez, who originally gave an alias to police who arrested him Monday, had been charged with DWI four times. Those cases were either pending, dismissed on technicalities or reduced.
WRAL uncovered no evidence that immigration authorities ever detained Hernandez during those times in court.
"He (Hernandez) shouldn't be here to start with. But he is," Bizzell said. "He's violating the law. He's driving drunk. He's killing kids." Hernandez stands accused of murder in the case but has not been convicted of any charges.
Eblin Fabiel Ocampo Cruz, 22, was convicted in the wreck on Interstate 540 that injured Betty Coates on Oct. 25, 2007. An illegal immigrant, Cruz was charged with a DWI in 2006 and had been in court six times that year.
Ricardo Contreras-de la Torre had been deported from the U.S. twice before he plead guilty to DWI in the motor-vehicle death of 54-year-old George Alwyn Smith on June 4, 2007.
A new law, though, has begun changing the judicial process for those suspected of being illegal immigrants. When suspects are fingerprinted and processed in jail, their information is often cross-referenced with immigration records.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a detainer on Hernandez. Cruz and Contreras-de la Torre will be deported when they finish their prison sentences – both set to no more than three years, thanks to plea deals.
Latino advocacy groups often urge the public to step back from the emotion over immigration and focus on the individual crimes.
Advocates admit that drunk driving is a problem within the Hispanic community and have aired public-service ads to combat the problem.
Drunk driving is also the No. 1 killer of young Hispanic men, according to the UNC study.
Bizzell said the tragedy is that deaths such as Marcus' and debilitating injuries such as Coates' are preventable.
"This isn't about race. This isn't about Mexico versus the United States," Bizzell said. "It's about a drunk Mexican that's illegal, driving drunk, no operator's license, stolen vehicle, killing a little 7-year-old boy."