MADD representative honored for work
(Editor's note: Each year, The Mountaineer honors an individual in the community who has made a difference. This year, Ellen Pitt, MADD representative for Western North Carolina, has earned that honor.)
On any given day in district court, at least one face can always be found sitting in the front row, quietly taking in every motion, jotting down every word dealing with driving while impaired cases.
As MADD representative for Western North Carolina, monitoring DWI court cases is just one aspect of Ellen Pitt’s job that she takes very seriously, and it’s a daunting task.
On a regular basis, Pitt , 61, keeps detailed statistics of hundreds of cases, following them through months and months of court appearances. It’s her way of keeping up with trends and holding police and prosecutors accountable for their jobs.
It’s also not unusual to find her standing out at license checkpoints alongside law enforcement late into the night or supporting victims and their families while they deal with the emotional toll following a DWI-involved wreck.
Since creating the Haywood County chapter of MADD in 2003, which eventually expanded to all of western North Carolina, Pitt has worked closely with local law enforcement, prosecutors and legislators to make sure justice is swift for DWI offenders.
From finding state funding to help officers receive up-to-date training to making trips to Raleigh to discuss stricter DWI laws, Pitt has been a driving force in local DWI enforcement.
She's also an integral voice in the local DWI task force, which includes District Attorney Mike Bonfoey and each police chief and the sheriff.
Currently, Pitt is most passionate about finding a way to get legislators to fund expansion of an SBI lab in western North Carolina, which would quicken DWI test turn-around times dramatically. That, in turn, would make prosecuting DWI offenders quicker and easier.
And she’ll not stop lobbying for it until it happens.
“The top priority of our task force is to get lab services straightened out, whatever that entails. We’ll do whatever we have to do to get something done,” she said.
And it’s not in her nature to quietly sit back and let things unfold. With her flowing blond hair and direct personality, once a person meets her, they won’t soon forget her and they certainly won't forget her cause.
Sgt. Matthew Wike with the N.C. Highway Patrol was among the first group to see Pitt’s firey personality in 2004 when she decided to start the MADD chapter in Haywood County.
“She’s like an attack dog at times. When she sets her mind to a cause and she sees a need, she doesn’t give up until she sees change for the better,” Wike said.
That’s why she’s been so successful in her endeavors — she simply makes it impossible for anyone to ignore her.
Personal experience has fueled her undying passion to keep drunk drivers off the road.
About 10 years ago, her granddaughter, who was 6 years old at the time, was living in a home with a man who had a trail of criminal charges throughout North Carolina and beyond, many of which related to impaired driving charges.
Pitt learned through conversations with her young granddaughter that Sanford Lee Parker had driven her around drunk on several occasions and had once left her in her carseat for hours while he was in the magistrate’s office.
At that particular time, he had four DWI charges pending in Western North Carolina — each one issued within a 15-month window of time, she said.
Further research revealed that Sandford Lee Parker also had additional convictions in other counties and states, including a list of failure to appear charges reflecting his failure to appear in court on pending DWI charges.
His license had been permanently revoked, Pitt said, yet he continued to drive no matter how many times he was caught. Furthermore, Pitt’s granddaughter was often in the car while Parker was behind the wheel.
In 2003, Parker led police on a high speed chase across Waynesville Mountain.
Luckily, her granddaughter was not in the car that day, but Pitt was terrified to think that it would happen again.
“I cried and cried because I felt like he was going to kill my granddaughter,” she said.
Desperate for help, Pitt reached out for help to local authorities, but found little recourse.
She then called MADD’s national office in Texas. She was put in contact with a Buncombe County representative, who helped her follow Parker’s court cases and supported her to make sure her granddaughter stayed safe.
After her experience, MADD officials in Raleigh asked her to start a local Haywood County chapter in 2003. At first she was hesitant, but decided to attend a training seminar anyway.
"That was probably a big turning point in my life because I saw that for every child like my granddaughter, there's a million more out there like that," she said. "I thought, 'well, I can't do everything, but maybe I can do this one thing,'" she said.
Eventually, even state MADD officials recognized Pitt's passion and asked her to expand the local chapter to a regional chapter.
"You don’t find people in every community willing to be as dedicated as Ellen to the cause. Ellen is always ready to go and advocate on behalf on law enforcment and victims," Wike said.
Serving as a victim's advocate, Pitt always makes herself available to help with whatever she can, whether it's a shoulder to cry on or an aggressive call to state authorities.
"Her presence in the courtroom is a reminder of the strong front that MADD has when it comes to seeing through impaired driving cases," said Assistant District Attorney Rachael Groffsky.
Pitt is a strong voice for victims in the courtroom and doesn't mind letting prosecutors, judges and attorneys know when she finds an issue that needs to be addressed.
"The community of victims that we have in this part of the state wouldn’t have the personalized guidance and support that she gives if she were not here," Groffsky said.
There have been times when Pitt thought she might be ready to retire, but those thoughts are fleeting.
“Any day that I decide I’m too tired or too old to do this, that will be the day that I get a call from somebody and they say things like, ‘we wouldn’t know what to do if you hadn’t been there,’” Pitt said.
She hasn't slowed down in 10 years and she suspects she probably never will.
“There’s a lot of things wrong that I think if I can make people realize it, it will change. I guess I’ll be fighting alcohol and drugs until my dying day because I know what it’s done in my family and I see it affecting people everywhere,” she said.