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In Massachusetts, a tragic history of failed attempts to get dangerous drivers off the road

Twice before, reforms faltered. Will this time be different?

Donna and Gordon Packer's 10-year-old daughter, Lacey, was killed by a drunk driver on October 1, 1989.  Afterward, Governor Michael Dukakis enacted a law to increase communication between state motor vehicle agencies and better target problem drivers. But many of the pledged reforms never took hold at the Massachusetts Registry.
Donna and Gordon Packer's 10-year-old daughter, Lacey, was killed by a drunk driver on October 1, 1989. Afterward, Governor Michael Dukakis enacted a law to increase communication between state motor vehicle agencies and better target problem drivers. But many of the pledged reforms never took hold at the Massachusetts Registry.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

First, there was 10-year-old Lacey Packer of Reading, killed by a drunk driver as she sat on the back of her father’s motorcycle on the edge of a highway. That was 1989.

Then there was Haley Cremer, 20, killed by a driver with a suspended license as she jogged in her hometown of Sharon in 2014.

Both times, the families channeled their grief into passing state laws to force the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to crack down on habitually bad drivers by better tracking their atrocious records.

But neither law could save seven motorcyclists from dying on a lonely New Hampshire road last year allegedly at the hands of a drugged driver from Massachusetts who should have been taken off the road long ago because of his bad driving record.

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Read the Globe’s “Blind Spot” investigation.

It turns out that, despite promises made in the wake of tragedy, parts of both laws weren’t enforced, seriously undermining reform efforts that span three decades. That inaction has allowed an unknown number of dangerous drivers from Massachusetts to stay on the roads — including Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, who had a long trail of crashes behind him before he allegedly killed seven people when he drove his pickup truck into a group of motorcyclists in Randolph, N.H., last year.

“What happened? How could this be? Again?” said Gordon Packer, the father of Lacey, at his home in Raymond, N.H.

The “Lacey Packer Bill” had promised to bring the Massachusetts Registry into the electronic age and ensure the state could communicate quickly and efficiently about problem drivers. In particular, it would close loopholes that had allowed Peter Dushame, the man who killed Lacey Packer, to hold a valid Massachusetts driver’s license even though he had been convicted of drunken driving five times and had been involved, but not found at fault, in two previous fatal crashes.

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Police officers led Peter Dushame away from the scene of a fatal accident involving his car and a motorcycle parked in the breakdown lane of Route 3 in Nashua on Oct. 1, 1989. Lacey Packer was killed while sitting on her father's motorcycle.
Police officers led Peter Dushame away from the scene of a fatal accident involving his car and a motorcycle parked in the breakdown lane of Route 3 in Nashua on Oct. 1, 1989. Lacey Packer was killed while sitting on her father's motorcycle.Brian Moore/Globe File/The Boston Globe

“I thought this is a new age and a new way of doing things and we need to start talking to each other and sharing information,” said Donna Packer, Lacey’s mother, recalling her efforts more than 30 years ago. “I thought, ‘Here we are. We’re blazing a trail.’ ”

But the New Hampshire crash showed how little progress the Massachusetts Registry had made in 30 years. Zhukovskyy still had a valid Massachusetts driver’s license because the Registry failed to process two violation notifications from Connecticut — violations that would have led to license suspension. It was the scenario lawmakers tried to prevent after Dushame’s troubling driving history came to light.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” said Donna Packer. “This could have been prevented.”

The scene where a procession of motorcycles and a truck driven by Volodymyr Zhukovskyy collided on a rural, two-lane highway on June 21, 2019, in Randolph, N.H.
The scene where a procession of motorcycles and a truck driven by Volodymyr Zhukovskyy collided on a rural, two-lane highway on June 21, 2019, in Randolph, N.H. Miranda Thompson/Associated Press

Indeed, it could. Despite the Packers’ advocacy decades ago, state motor vehicle agencies in Massachusetts and other states still routinely fail to communicate and sideline some of the most dangerous drivers on the nation’s roadways. In 1989, officials blamed a lack of technology. Yet even in today’s wired world, many states still send warning notices through the mail, while some don’t bother at all.

The Globe’s “Blind Spot” investigation found that more than one in 10 drivers have a conviction that doesn’t appear on their official driving record, often because state motor vehicle agencies don’t talk to each other and there’s no national database to track violators.

Nowhere was the failure to communicate more clear cut than Massachusetts, where Registry officials ignored or brushed aside warning signs for years. At the time of Zhukovskyy’s crash in 2019, the Registry had stacks of out-of-state driving violations in cardboard banker boxes in an office, waiting to be processed.

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“It’s incompetence. That’s what gets you hitting your head against the wall,” said Kay Dudley, a former chairwoman of the Massachusetts chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1984.

In the wake of last year’s New Hampshire crash, Massachusetts’ registrar resigned and legislative hearings revealed the agency knowingly stopped processing alerts from other states about law-breaking drivers. A 106-page independent audit laid bare an agency culture that prioritized faster customer service over public safety.

“Do I feel responsible for the motorcyclists who were killed in New Hampshire? Yes,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said in an interview.

She described a herculean agency-wide effort over the last year to tackle longstanding flaws and better identify menacing drivers. “We need to get them off the road and we need not to have these things happen again,” she said.

But for the families touched by past, preventable roadway tragedies, these pledges may ring hollow. They’ve heard the promises before.

“It takes a tragedy to make change,” said Donna Packer. “That’s just horrible, but it’s the way life is.”

***

Gordon Packer comforted his wife, Donna, as they left the Old South United Methodist Church in Reading on Oct. 6, 1989, after the funeral for their 10-year-old daughter, Lacey.
Gordon Packer comforted his wife, Donna, as they left the Old South United Methodist Church in Reading on Oct. 6, 1989, after the funeral for their 10-year-old daughter, Lacey. Janet Knott/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

On the afternoon of Father’s Day in 2014, Haley Cremer, 20, jogged through her Sharon neighborhood and stopped to talk to a woman.

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An SUV sped from around a corner, drove across a lane marker, and struck Cremer, catapulting her more than 85 feet down the street, right out of her shoes, authorities said.

The driver, Jeffrey Bickoff, had 20 driving-related violations on his record, including 10 speeding tickets and 10 car crashes for which he was found to be at fault.

After the crash, Sharon police said the Massachusetts State Registry never notified officers that it had suspended Bickoff’s license. Had they known about the suspension, police said, they could have arrested Bickoff if they spotted him driving.

Much like the Packers, Cremer’s father, Marc, lobbied legislators for a law to address this shortcoming. About six months later, legislation sometimes referred to as “Haley’s Law” was signed, aiming to address flaws in how information about habitual traffic offenders was shared between the Registry and police.

Again, the Registry fell short. The Globe revealed last summer, in the wake of the fatal New Hampshire crash, that the agency wasn’t regularly notifying local police departments when residents had their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked.

Marc Cremer, Morgan Cremer, and Ivie Cremer listened to family friend Brian Kelly give a statement after the sentencing of Jeffrey Bickoff at Norfolk Superior Court on July 31, 2015. Bickoff was convicted of motor vehicle homicide for a crash that killed Haley Cremer, 20, in 2014.
Marc Cremer, Morgan Cremer, and Ivie Cremer listened to family friend Brian Kelly give a statement after the sentencing of Jeffrey Bickoff at Norfolk Superior Court on July 31, 2015. Bickoff was convicted of motor vehicle homicide for a crash that killed Haley Cremer, 20, in 2014. (Scott Eisen for The Boston Globe)

“It’s appalling that we fought so hard to get this legislation only to have it not enacted as intended,” Marc Cremer said at the time. “We did this to save lives, and potentially prevent families from going through the tragedy that we live with every day.”

After the avalanche of Registry scandals, Cremer worked with Jamey Tesler, the current registrar, to address the agency’s failure to follow the law.

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In early August, a new notification system developed by the Registry and the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services began sending alerts to Massachusetts police departments.

“They promised me that this would be done right and they did it right,” said Cremer, who is now pushing House lawmakers to pass a bill that would establish new criminal offenses for driving with a suspended license.

***

A key part of the Lacey Packer Bill, sadly, has yet to be realized.

Governor Michael Dukakis signed the legislation into law at a State House ceremony in November 1990. Surrounded by schoolchildren and police officers, Dukakis vowed that reckless drivers could no longer skirt scrutiny between states.

Thirteen months earlier, Dushame, 33, of North Andover, Mass., consumed five vodka tonics and plowed his Pontiac into a motorcycle parked in the breakdown lane of the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua.

Gordon Packer had pulled onto the side of the highway to put his helmet back on before crossing into Massachusetts. Lacey sat behind him with her helmet on, waving to passing motorists. Father and daughter were headed home to Reading, Mass., after a Toys for Tots event.

Lacey Packer and her father, Gordon, prepared to leave for a Toys for Tots event in New Hampshire on Oct. 1, 1989. Later that day, she was fatally struck by a drunk driver as she sat on the back of the motorcycle, which was parked in a breakdown lane.
Lacey Packer and her father, Gordon, prepared to leave for a Toys for Tots event in New Hampshire on Oct. 1, 1989. Later that day, she was fatally struck by a drunk driver as she sat on the back of the motorcycle, which was parked in a breakdown lane. Family photo/family photo

A couple traveling with the Packers saw the careening car first. They waved their arms and tried to alert the driver.

Dushame lifted his hands from the steering wheel and waved back, then rammed into the motorcycles.

The tragedy erupted into scandal when details emerged of Dushame’s earlier drunken driving convictions and involvement in two fatal crashes, for which he was charged criminally, but later cleared.

Massachusetts suspended Dushame’s driver’s license in 1988 as a result of one of his drunken driving cases in New Hampshire, but reinstated it in January 1989. New Hampshire officials had barred him from driving there in 1983, an order that remained in effect when he struck the motorcycles.

Peter Dushame, 33, of North Andover, Mass., was led out of Nashua District Court in Nashua on Oct. 3, 1989, by police officers after his arraignment on a negligent homicide charge. Dushame was later convicted of manslaughter for the death of 10-year-old Lacey Packer. (Associated Press/Wire Photo)
Peter Dushame, 33, of North Andover, Mass., was led out of Nashua District Court in Nashua on Oct. 3, 1989, by police officers after his arraignment on a negligent homicide charge. Dushame was later convicted of manslaughter for the death of 10-year-old Lacey Packer. (Associated Press/Wire Photo) Associated Press/Wire Photo/The Boston Globe

The legislation signed by Dukakis gave the Registry the authority to apply all out-of-state driving convictions to the records of its drivers, a measure that could have stripped Dushame of his license. It also loosened the requirements for sharing driver information, easing the way for an electronic data exchange.

“It should,” Dukakis said at the bill-signing ceremony, “send a message that reckless drivers inside and outside the Commonwealth will not escape the law.”

But through the 1990s, the lessons learned from Lacey’s death appeared to have faded away. Sometime between 1999 and 2002, an undated memo from the Registry’s legal counsel warned that the state was inheriting “many bad drivers” from other states and granting them “clean records” because Massachusetts was among four states that refused to join an interstate agreement for sharing driving records.

The memo, its letterhead listing then-registrar Daniel Grabauskas, was uncovered in an audit commissioned last year by Governor Charlie Baker. In 2004, another memo raised red flags. This one was sent to a group of state employees considering whether Massachusetts should sign onto the interstate agreement.

The state resisted the move to this day. Few people outside the Massachusetts Registry seemed aware of the potential consequences. Meanwhile, the Registry was failing on another whole front and this too would prove deadly.

***

In many ways, Massachusetts is in the same spot it was 30 years ago when it comes to sharing driving records electronically with other states.

Joshua Packer, 9, paused following a State House signing ceremony in 1990 for a bill named for his sister, Lacey, who was killed in 1989 by a drunk driver who had a valid Massachusetts driver's license despite a record of convictions for drunken driving.
Joshua Packer, 9, paused following a State House signing ceremony in 1990 for a bill named for his sister, Lacey, who was killed in 1989 by a drunk driver who had a valid Massachusetts driver's license despite a record of convictions for drunken driving. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

The United States still has no effective national system to keep tabs on drivers who commit serious offenses in another state. Agencies nationwide still heavily rely on mailing paper documents to notify each other about infractions.

“All of us have smartphones and smart appliances and are surrounded by technology that seems to make it feel like, ‘How hard can it be to do this?’ ” Pollack said in an interview. “It’s hard.”

The Registry now has a unit dedicated to processing incoming and outgoing notifications about out-of-state violations and an electronic system for exchanging driver records with New Hampshire. But that’s the only state the Registry has such an arrangement with. The agency uses the National Driver Register, a federal database, to identify traffic violations by Massachusetts drivers in states that don’t send notices.

Registry officials aim to keep driver records accurate and current, Pollack said, but the agency has no authority requiring other states to do the same. Pollack said she believes a national system would solve the problem, but such an effort is likely years away.

The situation is baffling to people like the Packers.

“There should be a federal agency that everybody can plug into,” said Donna Packer. “Come on. We have the cloud."

But in this case, cloud computing has yet to deliver a solution. In 2020, the defense against the disaster in New Hampshire remains mailing a paper notice and hoping the receiving state bureaucracy doesn’t hide the alert in a box.

Read the Globe’s "Blind Spot investigation.



Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.