The Repeat Offender

Just what started Brenda Sawyer down her troubled road is uncertain. Now, after 10 drunken driving arrests, the question is: Can she turn herself around?

Cover Story


ELDERSBURG -- It's a rather steep drop from the ridge of trees off State Road 26 to the open field and woods in this parcel of Carroll County. But serpentine footpaths and beer and liquor bottles prove people have made their way down off the highway and into this wooded cover, where a woman could hide, if not from herself.

Twenty-two minutes, the police report noted. That's the time Brenda Sawyer spent in these woods Nov. 27 near the scene of her 10th arrest for driving drunk. Shoeless, apparently intoxicated (white zinfandel again?), covered in dirt, eyes bloodshot, Sawyer had to come out sooner or later; a K-9 unit had been called to flush her out.

They didn't need the dogs.

Sawyer stumbled out, protested her innocence, then broke into sobs. She was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a revoked license, rear-ending a trooper's parked cruiser and running from the scene of an accident, among other charges. She became front-page news. It's an outrage -- she could have killed someone, many would say. Wasn't a Baltimore woman charged with drunken driving and killing a 7-year-old girl crossing Moravia Road just days before Christmas?

Twenty-two minutes in the woods. Were they Sawyer's lowest point in a 21-year span of drunken-driving arrests? "Everybody has a different rock bottom. For some, it might be losing their house or getting a DUI and going to jail," says Danean O'Haver, an addiction counselor in Frederick County. Spending four months in jail before her latest arrest apparently wasn't Sawyer's lowest low. Addiction specialists say every rock bottom can have a trap door.

Brenda Sawyer's life has been saddled by a recurring prefix: ex. Sawyer has ex-jobs, an ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend, ex-friends, an ex-home. Alcoholism has cost her almost everything, except the love and support of her parents and yet another chance at recovery and redemption.

There is another side to the 42-year-old Sawyer: the sober side. That's the Sawyer who would work at soup kitchens or buy needy families toys and clothes at Christmas time, a woman who might finally realize she has a serious problem. When sober, what an earnest person and loyal friend, a treasured daughter and sister, a workhorse, people say. When sober.

Alcoholism not only runs in Sawyer's family, her mother says, it's continued to run over her daughter's life. "Brenda is very ill," says Glenda Sawyer of Virginia. "She is not a criminal."

Her daughter awaits trial in May. As a nonviolent repeat offender, if she serves only one year in jail, it will still be her longest time behind bars. Alcoholism might be a seductive disease, "but there's still not a disease that makes people drive," says the prosecutor in Sawyer's case, Senior State's Attorney David Daggett of Carroll County. "I don't have any sympathy for her."

A homeless and unemployed Sawyer rang in the New Year in a drug treatment center in Sykesville. She called her estranged 17-year-old son, Joe Kennelly, who lives with Sawyer's ex-husband in West Virginia. It was a short conversation, as usual. She told him she wants to go to school and become a drug counselor.

"The way she was talking, it sounds like she's doing better," Joe says. "But that's nothing she hasn't said before."

Maybe Sawyer is serious about recovery this time. Maybe she hit bottom in those 22 minutes before she emerged from the woods last November. But, in a sense, Brenda Sawyer has been lost in the woods for a long time.


"These people are usually not the subject of public notice or concern. But each one of them is a precious soul who was once a little girl or boy filled with promise and dreams."

-- Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern, writing in his 1996 book, Terry: My Daughter's Life- and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.

A subject of public notice, Brenda Sawyer declined several requests to be interviewed. Court records, accounts from family members, friends, former co-workers, attorneys, addiction specialists and researchers, law enforcement officials and newspaper articles were used to create this portrait of a drunken-driving repeat offender.

Brenda Lee Sawyer was born June 3, 1959, in Jacksonville, Fla. Her father, William, was in the drywall business; her mother, Glenda, a homemaker. After moves to Indiana and Texas, the Sawyer family settled on a 100-acre farm near Rochester, N.Y. There, in the 1960s, Brenda Lee grew up alongside her two younger brothers, Robert and Edward, and her older sister, Debbie. The farm served as one big playground.

Sawyer was an average student who loved playing baseball and riding horses. She still keeps the blanket from her old horse, Gambler. She had a fine singing voice and would enter local beauty pageants, her mother remembers. Brenda was fearless, her family says. Her grandfather nicknamed her "Steeplejack" because no tree was too high for Brenda to climb.

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