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Drunken driver convicted in deaths of New Berlin couple

Oct. 4, 2012

The drunken driver who killed a New Berlin couple in a horrific crash on New Year's Day and then fled from the scene pleaded no contest Thursday to four charges.

Ed and Jean Thaves, who were 61 and 52 years old, were at N. 27th St. and W. St. Paul Ave. about 6 a.m. after a night at Potawatomi Bingo Casino. That's when Kelly Duke lost control of a stolen car, went airborne and crashed into the roof of the couple's vehicle.

Duke, who was seriously injured, climbed out of the car he'd been driving and ran from a witness. Duke's brother later appeared at the crash site and said the car belonged to his aunt and that Kelly Duke was likely the driver. He was arrested later at a relative's home.

Tests later showed Duke had a blood-alcohol level of 0.183, more than twice the legal limit for driving.

Duke, 17 at the time, was charged with nine offenses and had been set to begin trial next week before he reached a plea agreement. He entered the no-contest pleas to two counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, one count of hit-and-run involving death and to the misdemeanor charge of knowingly driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm.

Other counts were dismissed.

By pleading no contest, Duke avoids admitting liability in a lawsuit. His attorney, John Moore, also said Duke pleaded no contest because he has no memory of the crash. In a criminal case, however, the plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.

Duke, now 18, faces up to 45 years and nine months in prison at his sentencing Jan. 11, plus 30 years of extended supervision. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Borowski ordered pre-sentence reports for Duke.

Several of the victims' family members and friends attended the hearing. The couple's children were disappointed in the plea and the length of time the case has been pending.

"Why hurt our family any more by not just saying, 'I'm sorry, I did it, I'm pleading guilty,' " said Lyann Buena Franco, the victims' daughter. "This was really a blow to me."

Her brother, Edwin Thaves, said that Duke needed to be brought to justice "with a strong hand," and that if the system didn't make an example of him, the "epidemic" of drunken driving will continue to plague the community.

He called on lawmakers to pass laws toughening drunken driving, including minimum mandatory sentences to prevent "activist judges from letting sympathy get in the way of common sense and public safety."

Duke has been jailed on $200,000 bail since his arrest.

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