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Driver says her accident deputy’s fault

FRIDAY, AUG. 5, 2005

OLYMPIA – Three years after getting drunk, blowing through a stop sign and triggering a wreck that left her passenger critically injured, a former Idaho resident has filed a $1.5 million claim against Washington’s Pend Oreille County for not detaining her before she caused the crash.

In her claim, Ashlen Lee says that on June 12, 2002, a county sheriff’s deputy stopped her truck around 3:30 a.m. and could see that she had been drinking. But after quizzing her, the deputy let the 17-year-old drive away.

“The officer said he’d give them a warning,” said Lee’s attorney, W. Russell Van Camp of Spokane. He said neither young woman was wearing a seat belt.

“Good Lord almighty,” the attorney said. “Some kids in a pickup, drinking, and he knew they were drinking? At that hour in the morning? That’s reckless endangerment of the public.”

Less than an hour after talking with the deputy, Lee blew through a stop sign on Fourth Street, in Oldtown, Idaho. As she crossed Idaho’s State Route 41, her Isuzu pickup was struck by a Ford pickup driven by 55-year-old Ronald Barton of Athol. The Isuzu crashed in a ditch.

Lee’s passenger, 18-year-old Shaleena Threlkeld, was rushed in critical condition to Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center. Lee was also taken to the hospital, where she was treated and released. According to the Idaho State Police report, her blood-alcohol content was .11, well over the .08 level that’s considered drunken driving.

Lee is now seeking $1.5 million from the county for “pain, suffering, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, medical expenses and wage loss,” according to the claim. Van Camp said that Lee has permanent scarring on her face, as well as neck and back injuries.

“Horrendous injuries,” Van Camp said.

While acknowledging that the deputy should have stopped Lee from driving, Pend Oreille County Sheriff Jerry Weeks called the suit, “part of the American blame game. People don’t want to accept responsibility for their actions, but hey, these guys (the county) have money, so let’s go after them and blame them.

“We didn’t give her the booze. Her parents gave her the car,” he said. “When does the blame stop?”

Van Camp said the deputy showed “egregious and unfortunate negligence.”

He acknowledged, though, that Lee had been drinking in the truck, and that she caused the accident.

“So she deserved what she got? No, no, no,” he said. “We have the police to protect all of us, even young children who are making stupid mistakes. If she was running down the middle of the street, he should have stopped her. The police officer has the duty to protect the public, even from themselves.”

Efforts to contact Lee, who now lives in Puyallup, Wash., were unsuccessful.

Weeks confirmed that a deputy had, in fact, stopped Lee’s vehicle, spoken with her, and let her drive off.

The case started with a complaint about a noisy party at a local house, he said. A dispatcher woke up the deputy at home and sent him to check on the disturbance.

Among the partiers, the deputy found a youth with an outstanding arrest warrant. He took the boy into custody, but when placed in the back of the police car, the boy started kicking out the windows.

Around the same time, the deputy talked to Lee and Threlkeld.

“It’s not disputed that they had been drinking. He was aware of it,” said Weeks, who would not name the deputy. “I’m not going to make any excuses for him. But there were some mitigating circumstances.”

The deputy – who still works for the department – should have detained Lee and Threlkeld as well, and called their parents, Weeks said. In fact, deputies had been trained on minor-in-possession situations just a few weeks before, he said.

The deputy was disciplined, he said, although he wouldn’t elaborate. Also, he said, “this deputy’s had to live with that personal consequence (the crash) ever since.”

Weeks said that the county has already paid a related claim made by Threlkeld, although he wouldn’t say how much was paid. Van Camp said the amount paid out was more than $1 million.

Threlkeld could not be reached for comment.


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