According to the defense, Leonel Villarreal was a shining example of a five-time convicted drunken driver who had made a spectacular turnaround and deserved another shot at probation.
The prosecution saw it differently: the 37-year-old former hotel and restaurant manager had already failed twice at probation, and prison would prevent Villarreal from possibly killing a family while acquiring a sixth DWI conviction.
Those were the conflicting arguments District Judge Steve Ellis heard Thursday from defense attorney Fred Franklin and prosecutor Sam Moss in 35th District Court after Villarreal pleaded guilty to his fifth DWI.
Ellis placed Villarreal on 10 years probation, but Villarreal won’t avoid incarceration. Ellis ordered him confined to a Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility (SAFP), which will mean nine months of lockdown while undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse. Ellis also ordered him confined to the Brown County Jail until space in a SAFP is available, typically a wait of three to four months, and fined him $5,000.
Department of Public Safety Trooper Martin Molotsky arrested Villarreal early on the morning of April 1, 2006, after seeing Villarreal driving the wrong way on U.S. Highway 67/84 between Bangs and Brownwood, testimony showed.
“Is this the same old thing again — ‘please give me another chance, I’ll try’?” Franklin asked Villarreal before he was sentenced. “ … What’s different?”
“I’m different,” Villarreal, soft-spoken, neatly groomed and wearing a suit, replied. Villarreal, a lifelong bachelor who lives with his parents, formerly managed the Holiday Inn Express and works at Studebakers, testimony showed. He attends St. Mary’s Catholic Church and is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Through testimony of friends and letters of support entered into evidence, Franklin presented Villarreal’s story. Convicted of four previous DWIs, and already on felony probation from Callahan County, the self-admitted alcoholic was jolted into changing his life after his last arrest, testimony showed.
On his own initiative, he completed by an intensive counseling program through the Mid-Tex Counsel on Alcohol and Drug abuse and has been sober for the 15 months since his arrest.
He has changed from a fun-loving entertainer to a more mature man who is remorseful of his past, friends testified.
“That last arrest was a point of reckoning for Leo,” longtime friend Carmelita Thomas testified.
Franklin acknowledged that it would be unusual for someone who was on felony probation when he committed another felony offense to be given another chance. But Franklin asked Ellis to see Villarreal as an exception.
“Back then, I didn’t think I had a problem,” Villarreal said, referring to his earlier convictions. “It never dawned on me that drinking was part of my life.”
He said sobriety has been “a great triumph. It’s been a milestone in my life.”
Villarreal said he spent a night in the Brown County Jail after his arrest, and earlier spent a night in the Callahan County Jail after an arrest. He said he also spent about two weeks in that jail after another previous arrest.
Moss disagreed with Franklin’s assertion that it would make no sense to incarcerate someone who is “a shining example of someone who has turned the corner.”
“(Incarceration) will make perfect sense if he drives tomorrow and kills a family,” Moss said. “… My position is, it’s not a chance we can take.”
As Ellis prepared to announce his sentence, he said he wanted Villarreal to hear a story. Ellis said when he was a prosecutor, a drunken driving case went to trial. The defendant’s circumstances were similar to Villarreal’s — right down to driving the wrong way on the same stretch of highway as Villarreal.
The defendant crashed head-on into an oncoming car occupied by a young mother and infant. The car was filled with Christmas presents as the mother drove to meet her husband. She was killed in the crash, Ellis told Villarreal.
He said he still remembers the trial and the photos. When driving drunk, Ellis told Villarreal, “you’re more dangerous than a loaded gun.”
Ellis also said he didn’t want to discourage the “positive direction” of Villarreal’s life. “I’m proud of you for doing that,” he said.