BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – A Boundary County man charged with vehicular manslaughter confessed that he was drinking and driving the day of the accident, after initially denying it, an Idaho State Police trooper testified Friday.
Luke Peterson, 26, is charged with three counts of vehicular manslaughter and one count of aggravated DUI in the deaths of 21-year-old Tabitha C. Saunders, her fiance, Bart Bartron, 24, and their 2-year-old daughter, Kjestine Saunders.
The only survivors of the July 29 collision were Peterson and Saunders and Bartron’s 2-month-old daughter, Lyssa Saunders.
During Peterson’s preliminary hearing Friday, the now 4-month-old Lyssa smiled and drooled a little as her grandparents bolstered each other for the court proceedings, which were attended by dozens of supporters of Peterson as well as the victims.
Deputy Prosecutor Tevis Hull successfully presented evidence and testimony that Peterson, of Naples, Idaho, was responsible for the deaths of Lyssa’s immediate family members and for causing grave bodily injury to Lyssa, who suffered skull fractures in the accident, spent a month in Spokane’s Sacred Hearth Medical Center and still is eating through a feeding tube attached to her stomach.
Magistrate Judge Justin Julian ordered that Peterson appear in district court and enter a plea on the charges. If he pleads not guilty, a trial probably won’t be scheduled until January.
Tabitha Saunders’ father, Duane Saunders, has custody of his granddaughter, Lyssa. While she brings him some comfort after the tragedy, “I’d rather have my other two back,” he said.
Peterson, a U.S. Forest Service employee, returned from a fire assignment in Montana the day before the accident and allegedly spent the evening of July 28 drinking at The Lantern, a tavern in Bonners Ferry.
Dave Ellerbee, a meter reader, testified Friday that he was in Bonners Ferry for work, couldn’t sleep and went to the Shell gas station to get some coffee about 3 a.m. the morning of the accident, when Peterson came in to buy hot dogs.
Ellerbee said he noticed Peterson’s “extremely red eyes” and recalled that when the clerk told Peterson that some of the hot dogs were still frozen, he replied, “I don’t care.”
Ellerbee was parked next to Peterson and said he noticed the smell of stale beer emanating from Peterson as he tried to get in his truck.
“I said, ‘Man, are you OK to drive?’ He straightened up real rigid and said, ‘I’m not going far,’ ” Ellerbee said.
Both pulled away from the station, and Ellerbee stopped next door to check the meter of a restaurant. While he was outside, he said he heard Peterson’s pickup accelerating as it headed south out of town. Then he heard a muffled thump and crunch, he said.
“I knew he hit something,” he said.
ISP Trooper Kevin Bennett testified that when he first came on the scene and talked to the defendant, who was sitting on the side of the road near his overturned pickup, Peterson said he hadn’t been driving and he didn’t know what happened.
An ISP accident reconstructionist later testified that the evidence showed that Peterson was driving south in the northbound lanes, but apparently trying to get in the correct lane – but not braking – when the collision occurred. Tabitha Saunders, however, appeared to have locked up her brakes in an attempt to stop before the two vehicles collided. The pickup may have rolled over Saunders’ Plymouth Neon, the officer said.
When Bennett saw Peterson later in the hospital, he interrogated him and accused him of lying about not driving, Bennett testified. At that point, Peterson – who was not yet under arrest – admitted that he was driving and had been drinking and playing pool earlier at The Lantern, Bennett testified.
Tests later showed that Peterson’s blood alcohol content was .14 percent, well over the legal limit of .08, Hull said.