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Conn. ended push for 24-hour bars at casinos after crash

State had hoped to collect more slot machine profits

DRIVER CHARGED A sailor, Daniel E. Musser, 24, is charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence and faces up to 19 years in prison. DRIVER CHARGED
A sailor, Daniel E. Musser, 24, is charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence and faces up to 19 years in prison.
By Gregory B. Hladky
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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HARTFORD - Officials looking to help solve Connecticut's multibillion-dollar deficit thought they had found an easy way to raise another $5 million a year: allow casinos to serve alcohol 24 hours a day.

More hours of bar service would mean more gambling, they figured, which would mean the state could collect more slot machine profits.

But the proposal by Governor M. Jodi Rell's administration came to a sudden end at about 3:30 a.m. on March 7, when a car leaving the Mohegan Sun casino turned the wrong way down Interstate 395, headlights off, and slammed into a van full of college students on their way to Logan International Airport. They were scheduled for a flight to Uganda, where they had plans to help out at an orphan age over spring break.

Elizabeth Durante, a 20-year-old pre-med student at Connecticut College in New London, was killed.

The car's driver, Daniel E. Musser, 24, a sailor from the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, was charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence and faces up to 19 years in prison.

The next day, Rell called Durante's death "an unconscionable tragedy" and pulled back her budget proposal to make alcohol available 24 hours at the casinos.

"Even though this accident occurred under the laws as they have been for many years, the governor said it does give one pause to question the wisdom of extending liquor service hours at the casinos," Christopher Cooper, Rell spokesman, said recently. "We don't believe the bill is going to move forward this session."

Chuck Bunnell, chief of staff for the Mohegan Tribal Council, agreed.

"The Tribal Council in general has taken the position that it's time to pause and mourn the loss of this very bright light of humanity," Bunnell said, "that it's not appropriate to have those discussions right now."

Bunnell said the tribe was originally "approached on a bipartisan basis" by lawmakers looking for ways to increase state revenue.

Lori A. Potter, a spokeswoman for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, said analysts at the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino stand by their prediction that extending casino bar hours would result in an increase in state revenue.

"It is important to note that it would be impossible to find a more heavily regulated serving establishment in the state of Connecticut than the two casinos," Potter said.

Connecticut law requires the casinos' bars to stop serving by 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and by 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. One of the arguments originally used in favor of allowing longer serving hours was that their competitors in Atlantic City serve alcohol 24 hours a day.

Legal hours for bars to serve alcohol vary greatly across the United States, according to Steven Schmidt, vice president for public policy at the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.

In Massachusetts, for example, state law allows service until 11 p.m., but local governing bodies can extend the hours to 2 a.m. In states such as New Jersey and Nevada, Schmidt said, local authorities are allowed to set bar closing hours.

Charles H. Gartman, one of the students with Durante in the van that night, has difficulty understanding why anyone thought round-the-clock liquor at the casinos was a good idea.

"Twenty-four-hour bar service is a little bit ridiculous," Gartman said last week in a phone interview from his New York City home. "You can't trust everyone to drink and drive safely."

Gartman, 19 and a sophomore at Connecticut College, has not yet recovered from injuries he suffered in the crash.

The five other passengers also suffered injuries, some minor.

"Both my legs were pretty banged up, and at first I couldn't walk," he said. "I have pretty severe lacerations on my chin."

Nor has he recovered from the loss of Durante, of West Islip, N.Y. Gartman said it was Durante who got him interested in going to Uganda to aid orphaned children. "It was her enthusiasm for helping people," he recalled.

Stephanie Hinman, who was Durante's roommate and one of the students on the Uganda trip, finds it ironic that her friend would die at the hands of an accused drunk driver.

"Neither Liz nor I ever drank," Hinman said from her home in Norfolk, Conn.

"We lived together in the substance-free dorm."

In a 2007 interview with a college publication, Durante said she wanted to become a surgeon and work in Africa with Doctors Without Borders.

For Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Durante's death provided tragic evidence of why casino liquor hours should never be expanded.

She said the potential price to society of more fatal crashes is simply too high, no matter how much money might flow to the state. "This is exactly the reason why," Heggie Margolis said.

"You can never put on paper the cost of a life."

A sailor, Daniel E. Musser, 24, is charged with manslaughter and driving under the influence and faces up to 19 years in prison.

DRIVER CHARGED

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