By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Just after midnight, a black Honda Element sped toward the Pentagon. The car blew past a stop sign, and when police pulled over the driver, they saw a familiar sight: He was unable to stand without swaying, slurred his speech and reeked of alcohol.
The driver, Michael Songer, 44, had taken a wrong turn at the sprawling Pentagon complex, a maze of roads that has become an unintended -- but highly effective -- snare for drunk drivers in Northern Virginia.
About every other night, someone who shouldn't be behind the wheel inevitably ends up lost among the bewildering streets and parking lots surrounding the country's military headquarters. Many drive from the District to Virginia, get off the highway too soon and find themselves in territory that's unfamiliar and heavily guarded. They're easy to spot, police say.
"Not many people come on the reservation at midnight," said Pentagon police spokesman Chris Layman. "It's pretty obvious when they do, and when they're going the wrong way on a one-way street."
Sometimes, he said, they drive around and around in circles. Or worse, crash into a barrier or curb. Navigating the web of major highways around the Pentagon can be a brainteaser when sober. One wrong turn and you're there. Add alcohol, and motorists barely have a chance.
Already this year, Pentagon police have charged 58 people with drunken driving. Last year, they charged 128 people.
Most arrests are between midnight and 4 a.m., when the complex is virtually empty, and often on Boundary Channel Drive, a straight stretch where lead-footers might be tempted to speed.
Typically, they are people going to and from night spots in such places as Georgetown, Pentagon City and Crystal City. Three of those arrested in the past 15 months work at the Pentagon.
Part of the confusion is that three major roadways -- Interstate 395, Route 110 and Route 27 -- intersect around the building in Arlington County.
When drivers are pulled over at the Pentagon for drunken driving, they're charged with a federal crime because they're on government property. Their cases go to U.S. District Court in Alexandria -- the same courthouse that handled the trials of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.
In fact, Moussaoui's attorney, Alan Yamamoto, represents many of those charged with drunken driving at the Pentagon. His clients usually have the same account of what happened: "They end up at the Pentagon, and they don't know how they got there," he said.
He can almost recite the story with them.
"You just sit there and nod your head," he said. "You know what they're going to say."
Like most drunken driving cases, the defendants generally plead guilty, Yamamoto said. The penalty is up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Songer, the man who sped through the stop sign at South Rotary Road and Eads Street on Dec. 5, was sentenced to six days in jail for drunken driving, according to prosecutors and court records. After police stopped him that night, he had a flat tire and "fresh damage" to his Honda, prosecutors said. Songer, of Vienna, told police that he had smacked into a parking garage in the District as he was pulling out.
About two months earlier, Gregory Mudd's Mini Cooper was not as lucky. About midnight Sept. 26, police found his car in the Pentagon's south parking lot -- abandoned, air bags deployed and with heavy front-end damage. Police saw a man trying to leave the area in a taxi and arrested him. Mudd, 30, of Prince George's County, told police that he had been driving the car, and he was found guilty of driving under the influence in January, according to prosecutors and court records.
Police at the Pentagon don't seek out impaired drivers, but if they notice them, they have to act, said Steven E. Calvery, director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, which has more than 1,000 officers protecting the complex.
Calvery said that when he started in the position in 2006, he had no idea that the vast majority of his officers' arrests -- between 75 and 80 percent -- would be for drunken driving.
"It's unsettling that that many people are driving drunk, if you think about it," Calvery said.
The confusing setup of the building might make a conspiracy-minded person ask whether it was purposely done that way when it was built in 1943 to deter visitors.
"Absolutely not," said Stuart Rochester, chief historian for the office of the secretary of Defense.
He said it's a byproduct of the huge undertaking, which houses 23,000 workers in a building that spans three times the floor space of the Empire State Building. The building has 16 parking lots.
More than 1,000 visitors come to the building each day, many by Metro.
The Pentagon's own Web site tells visitors to take public transportation and warns that driving through the District during rush hours is "asking for trouble" and that the options to get to the Pentagon are "tricky" and "trickier."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.