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Part One: Night on the Bridge

Sharp spike in arrests of female drunk drivers

Stories and photos by Amelia Kuhardt
Published Sept. 25, 2010, The Quincy Patriot Ledger


QUINCY, MA — Marybeth Frisoli stood on the Neponset River Bridge next to her mangled Honda Accord – its left front wheel turned 90 degrees, the driver’s-side front end smashed, the windshield broken, the airbag deployed.

And she was the lucky one.

Mark Cronin, then 41, of Quincy lay 200 feet behind her near the concrete barrier in the middle of the road. He was yards from his overturned motorcycle and surrounded by broken glass and metal. Later that night, a State Police dog found Cronin’s severed left foot laying in a juniper bush under the bridge.

That Aug. 23, 2008, crash led to the March 2010 conviction of Frisoli, a 34-year-old Quincy resident, on felony charges of operating under the influence with negligence, causing serious bodily injury. Until her release Sept. 17, she was locked up in state prison.

Each year, more women are being caught and convicted of drunken driving. Nationwide, the FBI found that while male drunken driving arrests fell 8.8 percent from 1999 to 2009, the number of women similarly caught soared 41.8 percent. The figures were also stark in Massachusetts, where 30.1 percent more women were arrested in 2009 (the rate for men fell 10.1 percent) for operating a vehicle under the influence compared to 10 years earlier.

Yet, while the evidence is clear, the explanation is not.

Sarah Allen Benton, a licensed mental-health counselor who practices at McLean Hospital in Belmont and Confidential Care in Norwell, has worked with many women struggling with alcohol abuse or misuse. She thinks a “confluence of factors” may explain the jump, including police who are less willing to look the other way when they pull over a woman driving erratically.

“It could be a combination … of more women drinking and driving, but also a less tolerant police force who are seeing women’s alcohol issues and not letting people off because, ‘Oh, there’s this innocent looking woman that I just pulled over,’ but actually taking it seriously,” Benton said.

If anything, a recent national survey suggests more women should be pulled over – given how many admit to getting behind the wheel after a few drinks relative to men. While 23 percent of those arrested for drunken driving nationally in 2009 were women – such as the East Bridgewater woman arrested after swerving Tuesday on the Fore River Bridge – a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey released last month found half as many women said they did drink and drive in the past year: 14 percent of women admitting as much, compared to 27 percent of men.

However you break down the numbers, it is clear women are catching up. Braintree resident Maggie Towne sees the rise as a sign of the times. Drinking – and with it, drinking and driving – are becoming more common among women, just as women are more often out in restaurants, at bars and consequently on the road driving themselves home. Melissa Perry, 39, of Wareham, arrested for drunken driving in June 2009, adds that women – who she sees as increasingly independent – are “out in society more,” working and sometimes stressing to make ends meet.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, I need to go home and get dinner ready for my husband,’” said Towne, 27, who is on probation after being arrested in October 2009 for an OUI. “It’s, ‘OK, let’s go out for drinks with the girls after work …’ Things just aren’t the way they used to be.”

But often drunken driving arrests don’t happen in a bubble – stemming from a person having the rare drink and, just once, getting pulled over. Experts say that arrests are more likely to come only after time catches up with chronic alcohol abusers for whom drinking is a regular habit. “Other drugs are not as socially acceptable as alcohol,” said Benton.

“I hear so often from people trying to get sober, ‘But alcohol is everywhere.’ I hear … mothers are watching their children on play dates and drinking. (Or) after work, that’s what people do,” she added. “They don’t have any other means of communicating with each other, or of bonding with each other…. So not only do you get sober, but you have to reconfigure your lifestyle, which can be very, very hard.”

How Marybeth Frisoli’s life fell apart
due to her actions one summer night

QUINCY, MA — Entering that fateful summer night, Marybeth Frisoli appeared to have everything going for her.

A graduate of Weymouth High and Westfield State College, she’d earned a master’s from the University of Massachusetts. And Frisoli, living in Quincy, had a solid job as a probation officer in Boston Juvenile Court.

The night of the crash, she was driving home from the Marina Bay Beach Club. She went the wrong way up an exit ramp to the Neponset River Bridge, accelerated to 40 mph going north in the southbound lane, and hit Mark Cronin, head-on.

Motorists riding behind Cronin testified that they saw the collision in the distance and, after Frisoli passed them going the wrong way, called for help.

Despite losing his leg, Cronin remained conscious after hitting the ground. John Melson, a National Guard veteran who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived, took off Cronin’s belt and cranked it around Cronin’s thigh to staunch the bleeding. He held the tourniquet tight – likely saving Cronin’s life, doctors later said – until ambulances arrived 10 minutes later.

Frisoli, meanwhile, stood by her Honda, 200 feet to the north. She told state troopers she’d only had one drink, yet police testified at her trial that she smelled of alcohol, was unsteady on her feet, and spoke slowly with a slur, chewing gum.

“I initially asked Ms. Frisoli if she was injured, and she advised me, ‘ No,’ she didn’t know what happened,” Trooper Brian Sullivan said at the trial.

Frisoli was arrested after she was unable to perform the nine-step walk-and-turn and one-leg stand field sobriety tests. Nor could she recite the alphabet correctly, police said.

Her attorney, Dan O’Malley, contended in court that his client was “distraught, sobbing uncontrollably and visibly shaken.” After being jailed at the South Boston police barracks, Frioli was taken to Boston Medical Center because she was having trouble breathing without her asthma inhaler. There, medical records stated, “Patient appears comfortable, alert and oriented, eyes normal.”

All this information came out in three days of court testimony. But it only took jurors four hours to reach a verdict: guilty.

Norfolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders sent Frisoli to prison for six months, the mandatory minimum sentence required by law. The Quincy resident also got three years of probation, had to meet various requirements and lost her driver’s license for two years.

Yet well before her sentencing, Frisoli steered clear of alcohol: According to her attorney O’Malley, she had not had a drink since that summer night two years earlier.

“The individual before me has no criminal history, and there is no reason to expect that she will re-offend,” Judge Sanders said at her sentencing. “Indeed, that she will have to live with her actions, I think, should be enough to deter her from ever repeating what happened on Aug. 23, 2008.”

Forgiveness key for man whose life was
changed by woman drunk driver

QUINCY, MA — The car headlights come at Mark Cronin in the middle of the night. Two years after Marybeth Frisoli’s car hit him and he lost his left leg, he still has trouble sleeping. He replays the details, dreaming how things may have ended differently. But his mind always comes back to the bar serving up the drinks to Frisoli.

“I’m not angry at the young girl who hit me… It was a mistake,” said Cronin, a Quincy resident at the time of the crash who now lives in Weymouth. “Was it avoidable? Maybe. If she didn’t go to that bar and they didn’t over serve her and keep feeding her drinks, maybe… … So I feel like I’m more angry with them than I’m angry with her.”

With a wife and three young children, the 43-year-old’s life hasn’t stopped. Cronin said he is not bitter, seeing forgiveness – aimed at Frisoli, after she got six months for driving drunk with negligence, causing serious injury – as key to his recovery.

“There’s no winners here. There’s no, ‘Yay, she’s getting put away.’ There’s none,” Cronin said after the jury announced its verdict last spring.

Cronin said he knows people drink, and sometimes drive – which he admits he has done before. He doesn’t think Frisoli meant to drink and drive that night, much less hurt him.

“We all drank when we were younger. We did that, and we drove our cars. We thought we were invincible,” he said. ‘No, nothing’s going to happen to us.’ I did it myself. I drove home and the next day would wake up and say, ‘I shouldn’t have drove my car last night.’”

After the trial, Cronin started to receive mail from people he didn’t know.

“You have restored my faith in humanity. I applaud your kind and forgiving soul,” a Roslindale woman wrote to him. “I wanted you to know that your selfless act of kindness did not go unnoticed.”

Wrote a Quincy man, “You have had the foresight to look beyond yourself and your injury and project how becoming bitter and resentful could affect your family and the ones that you love, especially your children.”

Cronin’s forgiveness of Frisoli also made a strong impression on Norfolk Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders who presided over the trial and said Cronin’s “feelings and his desire that I myself be compassionate really carry tremendous weight with this court.”

While he got letters from strangers and praise from Judge Janet Sanders for his compassion, physically, Cronin continues to adapt. His computerized artificial limb still doesn’t fit right, and he is working with technicians to find a socket that will attach it snugly to his body.

A former union laborer, he said he will need to retrain to get another type of position in construction. Meanwhile, his kids – Mary, 12, Colleen, 8, and Aidan, 7 – keep life busy for Mark and his wife Carolyn, now forced to do chores like mowing the lawn and taking out the trash that her husband used to do.

“We just do what we have to do,” said Carolyn.

Yes, the family feels lucky that Mark is alive. But there are tough days. Yet Mark won’t let his family see him cry.

“It makes me feel like less of a man. You know, if I’m down, that means the kids are going to be down, everyone’s going to be down. If I don’t let them think that there’s anything wrong with me, then they’re going to deal with it a lot easier. I still want to be a hero to these kids.”

“You are,” said Carolyn.

Here is Cronin’s victim impact statement, which he made March 25, 2010 at the sentencing of Marybeth Frisoli after she was convicted of driving drunk with negligence, causing serious bodily injury:

“This is the hardest thing I’m ever going to have to do. I had an opportunity to speak with Marybeth. I truly feel that she was sorry for her actions. And if we could take that night back, I know she would. It was an accident, I feel. And I feel a long probation, and if you do, Marybeth, have an alcohol problem, that you do get the help you need. I know you’re sorry. I really do. I wish we could turn that night back, but we can’t.

“I lost my leg, my family lost a lot. I know your family, a good family, lost a lot, too. And it’s so hard for your mom and dad to see their daughter going through this. And my kids also. I can’t be bitter, because what I do in my life is going to reflect on my three small children. So I have forgiveness for you. And I do hope the best for you. And I wish there was something we could do.

“And I hope in the future that we can get together and maybe talk to young kids about the evils of drunk driving and we could show them. If we could save one life or something good could come out of this, it would be great.

“And I appreciate the jurors for everything they’ve done and all the time everyone has spent here. I just really hope the best for everything. And I’m sorry for everything, too.

“Good luck.”

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