February 17, 1996 in Idaho

Man Convicted Of Driving Drunk Woman Faces Tough Recovery From Accident A Year Ago

Winda Benedetti Staff Writer
 
Tags:verdict

Victoria Van Horn moves through life in a wheelchair.

Her hands are curled into stiff question marks. When she speaks, it is with a struggling, halting voice. Her mother hovers as if the 35-year-old woman is a child.

It is a starkly different image than the one captured in a photograph taken two years ago. In it, Van Horn is a lean, tanned, healthy woman, smiling in the summer sun.

On Friday, the man responsible for altering her life so profoundly was found guilty of two counts of aggravated drunken driving.

Robert A. Thomas, 30, of Coeur d’Alene, faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced April 15.

Van Horn and her brother Rick Van Horn met Thomas in early January 1995, at The Atrium bar. Thomas had been to three bars that night and had three to four drinks, Kootenai County Deputy Prosecutor Scot Nass told a jury Friday.

Thomas offered to give the two siblings a ride home in his Corvette about 1 a.m.

Victoria Van Horn had to sit on her brother’s lap, crammed in the passenger seat. As Thomas drove down Harrison, he gunned the engine. Idaho State Police believe he was traveling between 70 mph and 115 mph by the time he came to the hill near Ninth Street.

The Corvette launched into the air. When it hit the ground, Thomas lost control, Nass said. The car hit a pole, smacked into a guide wire, flipped and landed in a mangled heap upside down. Car parts were scattered over two city blocks. One piece came to rest on top of a home.

The collision broke Rick Van Horn’s back and nearly ripped off his ear. His sister was left in a coma.

“They did not expect her to make it that first month, but she did,” her mother, Sharon Van Horn, told the jury.

After seven months, Victoria Van Horn slowly came out of her coma. “It’s totally remarkable,” Dr. Bret Dirks, a neurosurgeon who testified during the trial. “I told her mother that I didn’t know if she would regain consciousness. But her mother was adamant she would.”

During the trial, the jury got a glimpse of the accident’s aftermath as Victoria Van Horn testified.

Sitting in her wheelchair she told them in a gravelly voice how she didn’t remember anything.

She said therapists help her try to rehabilitate her legs, arms and voice.

But Sharon Van Horn told the jury that the road to recovery has not been easy.

She stretches her daughter’s feet and hands, trying to bring back the movement that was robbed by months in a coma. Sharon Van Horn has grown strong from having to lift her daughter in and out of the wheelchair.

“At this point she’s not able to do anything by herself,” Sharon Van Horn said.

Still, the family is hopeful that Victoria Van Horn will walk again.

Although Thomas’ blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.11 percent - just above the level considered legally drunk for driving - his attorney argued Friday that the measurements could have been wrong.

During closing arguments Friday, Joel Ryan also argued that Victoria Van Horn helped cause the accident by fiddling with the car’s console and propping her legs across Thomas’ lap.

“He wants to shift the fault of this to her,” Nass responded.

It took the jury only a little more than an hour to find Thomas guilty of aggravated drunken driving.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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