Darlene King, known by some as Kootenai County’s “fourth commissioner,” left work early Wednesday to avoid traffic on the icy road to Rathdrum.
The commissioners’ administrative assistant died an hour later, three miles from home, when a southbound pickup truck struck her Subaru wagon on Highway 41.
The accident left county employees hurt and angry.
Pickup driver Michael R. Opland, 38, has a history of reckless driving.
Last year, he was convicted of drunken driving. Two years ago, he sent a woman to the hospital after ramming into the back of her car.
At the county courthouse, workers stared blankly at the floor, consoled one another and fought tears.
King, 39, was among a handful of workers known to nearly all 500 county employees.
“We thought about not coming to work, but she was part of a family,” said Sheryl Craig, an assistant who worked with King. “It’s like therapy.”
For 10 years, King served as the commissioners’ liaison to other county departments and trained all newly elected commissioners in the inner workings of the job.
“We were the ones who were supposed to work for awhile and then leave,” said Commissioner Dick Panabaker.
“It’s a stupid, stupid tragedy.”
Chairman Dick Compton said King “epitomized all the good qualities” of county employees. She was supportive, a good sounding-board and never said no to any assignment.
Others said King always defended commissioners - regardless of party or ideology.
Ray Mobberley, former chairman of the Emergency Medical Services committee, said she made a difficult job tolerable.
“Why is it the good ones always go early?” Mobberley asked.
Prosecutors will decide today whether to file criminal charges against Opland.
The Post Falls man said he was on his way home from work Wednesday at about 5:30 p.m. He had stopped to pick up his girlfriend’s daughter.
Witnesses said he was trying to pass a long line of southbound cars when he saw King’s station wagon approach.
He tried to pull his pickup truck back into his lane of traffic and lost control on the icy roads, according to the Idaho State Police.
Opland, reached by telephone Thursday, said he was only trying to pass one car.
“There were more cars than we thought,” he said, crying. “I slowed down and tried to get back in, but nobody would let me in.”
Opland said he saw lights in the distance on a building. He said he didn’t see King’s headlights until it was too late.
After the accident, Opland and his 14-year-old passenger, Alisha M. Blake, were treated for minor injuries and released.
“I wasn’t in a big hurry,” he said. “I was only going about 45. I was in 4-wheel-drive.”
“It was an accident,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.”
Deputy Prosecutor Scot Nass said there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that alcohol was involved.
Opland said he wasn’t drinking.
Records show he has been cited four times for speeding in Kootenai County. He has also been cited for driving with a suspended license, driving on the wrong side of the highway and operating an unsafe vehicle.
In September 1994, he was cited for following another vehicle too closely after smashing the back of Doris Rosendahl’s car.
“I stopped to make a left-hand turn and had my turn signal on, and he ran right into me,” the Rathdrum woman said Thursday.
Rosendahl was treated afterward for neck, back and hip injuries. She said she still lives with pain from those injuries.
“He shouldn’t be driving,” Rosendahl said, explaining that she had recognized Opland’s name when she heard about King’s death.
“I thought, ‘Well, he did it again.”’
A Montana State Patrol officer arrested Opland for drunken driving on July 3, 1995. Opland was going 84 mph in a 55 mph zone, said Tony Cox, the officer who made the stop.
“I could smell the alcohol coming out of the window,” Cox said.
Opland was sentenced to two days in jail and had his license suspended for six months, according to state patrol records.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo