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Family's wound from drunken-driving death can't heal

Nearly 26 years to the day after James Pratt slammed his car into the motorcycle that William Collins was driving, killing Collins instantly, Pratt was stopped by police for allegedly driving the wrong way up a Route 2 exit ramp, headed toward the highway.

If she were alive today, Billy Collins' mother would have clipped the brief newspaper article about Pratt's arrest and slipped it into a notebook she kept with all the others.

Since 1984, the Collins family, of North Stonington, has watched as Pratt has been arrested time and again. His record of drunken driving arrests and charges of driving with a suspended license stretch back for a period of time longer than Billy Collins' entire life of 19 years.

Pratt's additional arrests and convictions, for charges ranging from disorderly conduct to drugs to assault, have run in the dozens. He has been in and out of jail, his longest term being 16 months in Rhode Island for a domestic assault. He has also been in and out of rehab, which has often been part of his sentencing.

Despite four drunken-driving convictions, police say Pratt, 45, was intoxicated and behind the wheel again without a valid license for his latest arrest.

That arrest, on April 4, was particularly difficult for the Collins family: the anniversary of Billy Collins' death was three days earlier.

"Our family, every time we see something in the paper, it's like, 'When? When is something going to happen to him? Twenty-six years - when is justice going to be served?' " asked Collins' sister, Peggy Sue Long.

Long was 18 years old when her older brother was killed on April 1, 1984. She, her parents and her older sister, Jody, had just gotten home from a firemen's banquet when two cars sped past the house.

"And my father said, 'Oh my God, they're gonna kill somebody,'" Long said. "Little did we know, a half mile up the road, they did."

Billy Collins' parents had asked him not to ride motorcycles, but he had a mischievous streak. He would borrow his friend Greg's Suzuki, then park it at a neighbor's house and walk about a half mile to get home.

Jody Collins, now Jody Whipple, heard the motorcycle coming down the road. Then she heard a car drive up the road.

"I remember going to sleep saying, 'Billy's home,' " Whipple said. "I never realized he hadn't pulled into the driveway. I'll never forget that knock on the door at 5 a.m."

Whipple answered the door to two state troopers and a close friend, also an EMT, telling her what had happened. She woke up her parents and siblings.

At 6:37 a.m., four and a half hours after the accident, when Pratt took what was then called an "intoximeter test," his blood alcohol content was registered at .138.

Collins was driving on Anthony Road, a country road in North Stonington, and came around a fairly sharp turn when Pratt came the other way.

The state police, Long said, told the family, "There's no way he knew what hit him."

Pratt's record revealed

Billy Collins' death at the hands of a drunken driver is hard to find in the Connecticut criminal court records.

Pratt's 1984 conviction did not appear in The Day's search of his criminal record; it does not appear on his motor vehicle record in Connecticut, but there is a mention in the Rhode Island DMV files.

Instead, the accident shows up in bits and pieces, a ghost of a trail.

Pratt, who lives in Westerly, served jail time at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution from July 9, 1984 to Oct. 23, 1984, according to the Connecticut Department of Correction. The record does not say why.

Pratt's license was suspended on July 8, 1985, because of a "fatal accident involving negligent driving," according to the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles. Notification of the accident came from Connecticut, but there are no additional details.

When Pratt was stopped in Ledyard on April 4 of this year, he was initially given a misdemeanor summons and posted a $500 bond.

That infuriated Judge Kevin P. McMahon when Pratt appeared for his arraignment in New London Superior Court on Friday. McMahon lashed out at police, whom he accused of bungling the original background check, and said the court would raise Pratt's bond.

"Five hundred dollars bond for this case," McMahon said of the original amount, "is ludicrous."

A bail bondsman, reviewing Pratt's record, said Pratt had been charged with second-degree manslaughter and pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in 1984. He had received a six-month sentence.

The bondsman and the prosecutor reviewed Pratt's record in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

"It's his fifth time in front of the court on a drunk-driving situation, including one with a death," McMahon said. "I didn't know the strength of the state's case."

McMahon raised Pratt's bond to $99,000. He said Pratt's sentence could range from 120 days to one year, and his case was continued to April 30.

Pratt, who didn't anticipate his bond being increased, was allowed to speak to his mother in a side room in the courthouse before being led away.

Pratt admits problem

Asked by a reporter at the courthouse Friday about Billy Collins' death, James Pratt grew angry and said it was an accident.

He said it was a long time ago and began to describe everything that went wrong with the case - including, he said, a lot of lost files, including a lost autopsy and "all kinds of shady (expletive) that went on."

Asked why he was subsequently arrested for DUI and for driving with a suspended license, Pratt said he doesn't remember because those, too, were a while ago.

Pressed for an answer as to why he continues to drink and drive, Pratt shrugged.

"Drinking problem," he answered.

Does he ever think about the accident that took Billy Collins' life?

"Every day," he said, and paused. "Why do you think I drink?"

He ended the conversation after stressing that he didn't want his photo in the paper.

Liked to joke and talk

In family photos, Billy Collins is either laughing uproariously or staring into the camera with a somewhat coy expression.

It was the early 1980s, and his hair was feathered. There was a hint of fuzz above his upper lip in his senior class photo for Wheeler High School, in which he sat up straight and looked far more serious than usual.

"He was so nice," said Lara Cole, then Lara Cummings. "(And) funny - oh my God, was he funny."

Although Collins was two years older, he and Cole had a typing class together, but Billy, Cole said, only cared about joking and talking.

"We got spoken to," Cole said with a laugh when asked whether they got in trouble. "We were told we should be typing. I still to this day can't type."

Jody Whipple said she and her brother were a lot alike.

"We could sit at a dinner table and tell a joke, and my parents would look at each other and shake their heads because neither of us knew what we were talking about. … We didn't know what we had said, but it was totally inappropriate."

Collins was a regular at the roller skating rink in Westerly, was a volunteer firefighter in Ashaway and, about a month before his death, had started his first real job at Electric Boat.

The students at Wheeler High School, where Collins had graduated a year earlier, learned of his death on a Monday morning. Cole remembers sitting in a home economics class where the teacher dropped her class plans and let the students sit and talk.

Family friend Mary Evans remembers repeatedly seeing the spot where Collins was killed.

"This family went through hell 26 years ago when they lost their son," Evans said. "Any of us who rode the school bus and would go by the spot, and know that was the spot where he had been killed, went through hell."

Of the six Collins siblings, Billy was number four and Peggy Sue number five. They were a year apart. Long said her brother was her best friend.

Billy Collins would have been a groomsman in Whipple's wedding on April 28 that year. Whipple considered postponing the date but kept it after talking with her parents and the priest.

"It wouldn't have mattered," she said. "If I put it off, it would have been the same pain. It wouldn't have mattered; he was missing. He was a missing part of one of the biggest days of my life."

Whipple's husband's youngest brother stepped up to fill in.

"I think I laughed through most of the day," Whipple said, "because I knew if I started crying, it would never stop."

MADD seeks changes

Family and friends of Billy Collins often talk about justice not being served.

"Now it's been over 26 years that this drunk driver has been able to go and drive around time and time again," Evans said, "and Billy was killed and didn't get to live his life."

Yet it appears there isn't much more the courts can do. Even now, facing a potential fifth DUI conviction, James Pratt might be sentenced to only 120 days in prison. It was unclear on Friday how or whether his Rhode Island convictions could factor into a potential sentence. McMahon said during the arraignment that the sentence might be as much as a year in jail.

And then James Pratt might drive again.

"You can suspend everybody's license that you want to," said Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "That does not keep them from drinking and driving."

According to the organization, there are about 12,000 DUI arrests a year in Connecticut, and of those, 4,000 are repeat offenders.

MADD is lobbying the state to change its laws to require first-time DUI offenders to have ignition interlock systems installed in their cars. A breathalyzer would prevent a driver from being able to start up a car if he is over the limit.

"The issue for us is that we're trying to change the behavior of the drunk driver," Heggie Margolis said.

But an ignition interlock system might not stop Pratt from driving. The night of Collins' accident, Pratt was driving a friend's Ford Mustang. At a 2005 stop in Rhode Island Pratt was driving a friend's Pontiac. On April 4, Pratt was driving someone else's car.

"Somebody like this is being enabled to drive," Heggie Margolis said. "Certainly, he needs to be in AA and his whole family needs to be with him. … Whatever vehicle he's driving has to have interlock ignition."

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