‘This can’t keep on:’ Short prison stays do little to deter the most persistent drunk drivers

MILWAUKEE— Most people caught driving drunk once never do it again.  But some just can't seem to stop.

FOX6 Investigators got a tip that  a habitual drunk driver was headed back to the bar. Nick Rankovich was already charged with his 7th drunk driving offense when an anonymous source told FOX 6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn where and when he could be found drinking and driving again.

Nick Rankovich had a BAC of .184 when he was stopped for his 7th OWI last summer. A week before trial, he was arrested again for his 8th.

Turns out, we weren't the only ones who got the heads up.

The 60-year-old grandfather had already been convicted of drunk driving six times before. But that did not stop him from meeting coworkers for beers one night in February. As he left the bar, Waukesha Police followed him to a nearby fast food parking lot and pulled him over.

Dash cam video obtained by the FOX6 Investigators shows Rankovich as he delivers a surprise to the arresting officer.

Rankovich: "I got a jury trial on Tuesday."

Officer: "You got a jury trial on Tuesday, what's that for?"

Rankovich: "For OWI."

Waukesha Police Lieutenant Kevin Rice says the arrest was prompted by a tip from an anonymous source, something that will come as little surprise to Rankovich.

"I'm thinkin' somebody tipped you off on this," Rankovich said in the video from inside the police car after his arrest. "I got a pretty good inkling who."

The FOX6 Investigators received a similar tip that Rankovich had been "bragging at work" he was "only going to get 3 years" in prison for his 7th offense. The tipster said he still frequented a bar near the workplace. Before we could go to see for ourselves, Waukesha Police picked him up for his 8th offense.

Waukesha Police Lt. Kevin Rice says penalties need to be tougher, but he also believes Wisconsin's drinking culture needs to change.

"This individual is extremely dangerous to the community and the fact this tipster came forward and gave this information is outstanding and we strongly encourage that," Lt. Rice said.

While an 8th offense may sound outrageous in Wisconsin, it is hardly unusual.

Michael Baeckman got his 8th OWI last year, after crashing into a truck on I-43.

Michael Spizzirri picked up his 9th on St. Patrick's Day this year.

Daniel Nordell crashed into a mailbox, a speed limit sign, and a utility pole on the way to a staggering 14th offense in May.

Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt says recent changes in state law have made an impact, but more needs to change.

"This can't keep on," said Milwaukee County Sheriff Richard Schmidt, who has made drunk driving enforcement one of his top priorities. He says 27 percent of the intoxicated drivers they arrest are repeat offenders. That's one out of every four.

"So, is it something that requires massive change? Yes," he said.

Wisconsin lawmakers have tried to crack down on the most persistent drunk drivers in recent years.

In 2009, they required ignition interlock devices for all repeat offenders.

In 2013, they set a minimum three-year prison sentence for the 7th offense or greater.

In 2015, they made the 4th offense a felony.

The legislative changes appear to have some positive impact.

Between 2007 to 2016, Wisconsin saw a 40 percent drop in drunk driving fatalities. The 8th biggest drop in the country.

"But here's the problem, it's not working in so many cases as we have seen," Schmidt said.

Even with the decline, there were still 190 people killed by drunk drivers in Wisconsin last year.

"If one of those 190 people that died is your wife or your husband or your child or your friend or loved one that is catastrophic," Schmidt said.

Just ask Holly Marquardt or Katie Mortensen.

Holly Marquardt's mother, Tammy Kempf, was killed by a repeat drunk driver in Allenton (near West Bend) in 2016.

"It was devastating," Marquardt said.

"I can remember screaming and not hearing my own voice," Mortenson said.

The sisters have five young children between them with a sixth on the way.

"Her pride and joy was her grandkids," Marquardt said.

But the children will grow up without their grandmother, Tammy Kempf, who was killed by a drunk driver in a horrific, head-on collision near West Bend in 2016.

"It changes your life forever and everybody's like, 'Oh, it gets better.' I'm like, 'No it doesn't get better. It gets different,'" Mortenson said.

Ryan Muth had a blood alcohol level of .22 -- nearly three times the legal limit.

"He was completely hammered. He had no idea what he was doing," Marquardt said.

The head-on collision that killed 53-year-old Tammy Kempf in Allenton in 2016 left her car barely recognizable.

It was his third drunk driving offense and his second drunk driving crash.

"He hit someone before. Knowing that, why wouldn't that be your wake up call to say, 'Hey, I need to change,'" Marquardt said.

"So, what can we do to change it? What is the solution to this?" Schmidt said.

"The only prevention is stronger penalties," Lt. Rice said.

The legislature recently increased the maximum sentence to 12-and-a-half years in prison for the 7th offense and 15 years for a 10th offense.

"How do we get up to a 10th offense?"  Schmidt said.

The FOX6 Investigators found most 7-time offenders do not get anywhere near the maximum sentence. In fact, they usually get closer to the minimum.

"It's just been one bad luck after another that I created," Rankovich said in court.

Rankovich will serve 4 years in prison for his 7th offense and 3 years for his 8th, but the sentences are concurrent, meaning he'll serve them at the same time.

Rankovich was sentenced to 4 years in prison for his 7th offense and 3 years in prison for his 8th. But he will serve both sentenced as the same time, meaning he'll be out of prison in 2022 at the age of 65.

He'll be out again by the time he's 65.

"I do believe that people deserve a second chance, but I don't believe people that have this problem deserve to be given time after time of chances," Marquardt said.

It seems the only way a repeat drunk driver in Wisconsin can get more than a few years in prison is to kill someone else.

"Why does someone have to die over something that can be prevented?" Mortenson said.

Ryan Muth received a 13-year prison sentence for homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. It was his third drunk driving-related offense and second drunk driving crash.

Tammy Kempf won't get a second chance to raise her grandchildren.  The man who killed her, Ryan Muth, will get another chance at freedom in 2029.

"Will he go back to drinking? He says he won't but I don't know," Marquardt said.

So far in 2018, 29 different people have been charged in southeastern Wisconsin with their 7th drunk driving offense or more -- that's an average of one every week.

Those are just the cases the FOX6 Investigators found from 2018 in Milwaukee County and six surrounding counties.

So, in spite of all the changes in state law, persistent, repeat drunk driving is still a pervasive problem. The repeat offenders have their licenses taken away. They're ordered to get breath-testing devices in their cars but still drive illegally by borrowing cars and ignoring court orders. For example, Rankovich was on out bond for his 7th offense and had been ordered to maintain absolute sobriety, which was supposed to be monitored. Yet, he was drinking at a tavern then driving a car with no ignition interlock device installed.