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Gratitude, new life a decade after DWI charge

Cottage Grove police officer Mike Vandervort hugs Melissa, a woman he arrested for DWI a decade ago. Melissa celebrated her 10 years of sobriety by surprising Vandervort Thursday, Dec. 19. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)1 / 2
Through tears, Melissa shares the original ticket Cottage Grove police officer Mike Vandervort issued her a decade ago after he arrested her for DWI. The Prescott woman surprised Vandervort Thursday, Dec. 19. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)2 / 2

It only takes a brief moment to take a life or save one. Melissa said her life was spared the evening she was arrested for driving drunk.

A decade to the day after her run-in with Cottage Grove police officer Mike Vandervort, a 16-year veteran of the force, Melissa reflected on hitting rock bottom and took the opportunity to thank the officer she said was responsible for helping her find sobriety. With other officers’ help, Melissa surprised Vandervort at the police department on Thursday, Dec. 19.

Vodka was ‘drink of choice’

The end of 2003 was a culmination of two bad years for Melissa, who asked to have her last name withheld for personal and professional reasons. Having left an abusive relationship with a man with whom she had a child, coupled with the loss of a job, repossession of her vehicle and facing an eviction from her apartment in South St. Paul, Melissa, then 24, said she consoled herself with alcohol.

“My drink of choice was vodka,” she said in an interview. “I had gotten to the point where I would black out and wake up in my own vomit. Or I wouldn’t know where I was. I was so afraid to fall asleep sometimes. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know how to get it.”

On the evening of Dec. 19, 2003, Melissa attended a holiday party with coworkers at her new job. The party sent them bar hopping where they ended up at a pub in Mendota Heights. The level of her intoxication that night was nothing abnormal, she said, and she decided to drive home.

“I was actually following a coworker who was drunk back to his house in Cottage Grove to make sure he got home safe,” she said. “Once he got home I got back on the highway and headed home.”

Melissa didn’t get home that night.

Patrolling the streets of Cottage Grove on the overnight shift, Vandervort said it was a typical December evening. At 2:45 a.m., according the the police report, he pulled over a vehicle he documented as “dramatically” swerving.

“I remember she was very cooperative and compliant,” Vandervort said after re-reading the initial police report he filed 10 years ago.

Melissa had expired tabs, which Vandervort said caught his attention. At the time, Highway 61 was undergoing a massive reconstruction and concrete retaining walls were littered throughout the stretch of road.

“I remember him telling me that I almost hit a wall,” she said.

Once he made contact with Melissa, he detected a strong alcoholic odor.

“He knew I was drunk and I told him I was in the wrong,” Melissa admitted. “This wasn’t my first time driving drunk. I had done it many times and never got pulled over.”

At the scene, Melissa’s preliminary breath test registered a .189, more than twice the legal limit.

A chance for help

Once at the police station, Vandervort said he gave her the option of finding a sober ride home, jail time or detox. In the police report, Melissa adamantly requested that she go to detox.

“I knew this was my chance, I knew I would finally be able to get the help I needed,” she said. “I spent 72 hours in detox and when I was let out I immediately went to an (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting.”

Feeling ashamed of her actions but determined to get back on track, Melissa said she quit drinking, adhered to her one-year probation sentence, attended regular AA meetings and participated in a Mothers Against Drunk Driving session.

For Melissa, the DWI charge was a blessing in disguise, something bigger than just a criminal offense.

“About a week before this happened I was at my apartment drinking when I blacked out,” she recalled. “When I woke up I was surrounded by phone books. I was looking for places I could go to get help.

“I feel this was instrumental for me to get me to where I am today,” she said. “It had to happen. I’m grateful I didn’t die or kill or injure anyone. But for me, this is what I needed.”

Afterward, Melissa met her now-husband, a man she said has helped raise her child. She got a new job working at a Hastings church, rededicated herself to her family and battled her way back from endometrial sarcoma, a rare form of uterine cancer.

With the support of her husband, who she said is also in recovery, Melissa said she has been sober for a decade.

“This validates everything we are taught,” Vandervort said. “We’re not going to be able to change everybody but we hope that we can make an impact. Once we drop them off at detox we never see them again. We don’t often get to see the choices they’ve made down the road.”

Melissa’s story is not uncommon. According to the state Department of Public Safety, about 33,000 Minnesota drivers test over the legal 0.08 limit each year. And while Melissa left the situation unscathed, about 240 of those involved in alcohol-related collisions aren’t as fortunate.

This can be prevented, veteran Cottage Grove police officer Gail Griffith said.

“It’s just not worth it,” she said of driving drunk. “People need to designate a sober driver before going out because once you’ve been drinking you aren’t capable of making those good decisions anymore. There are so many bad scenarios that just don’t have to happen.”

Melissa said she continues to reflect on her situation and encourages others who find themselves in her position to not squander the second chance they’ve been given.

“Use this to your advantage to change your life for the better,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be alive.”