The Washington Department of Licensing says it’s powerless to revoke Clifford Helm’s drivers license even though he claims to suffer from a medical condition that causes him to faint.
The condition, known as “cough syncope,” figured prominently in Helm’s acquittal last week on vehicular homicide charges stemming from a 2005 crash that killed five children north of Spokane.
But state officials say Helm, who doctors testified can faint while behind the wheel of a car during serious coughing fits, still has a valid license and can keep driving legally unless they are notified by a police officer or medical professional that he’s a danger to others.
“He has a clear right to operate a vehicle,” said department spokesman Brad Benfield.
Meanwhile, a former business associate of Helm’s claims Helm misled a Spokane County Superior Court jury when he said on the witness stand last week that he didn’t drive for 10 or 11 months after the head-on crash that killed the children of Jeffrey and Carolyn Schrock.
John Ryker, of Lake Stevens, said he was “appalled” when he went online to hear Helm’s testimony last Wednesday in Spokane County Superior Court.
Ryker, 55, said he was on a business trip in Western Washington with Helm and his wife, Sandy, a few months after the Nov. 1, 2005, accident involving the Schrock children. Ryker said Helm drove the 20 miles from Everett to Arlington on a stretch of road known for head-on accidents, with Ryker in the back seat.
“It was way less than 10 months after the accident. I wasn’t thinking about the crash at the time. But afterwards, I thought it odd that Helm’s wife would allow him to drive,” Ryker said.
Spokane County prosecutors talked to Ryker last week but said his complaint won’t trigger a perjury charge.
The Helms confirmed this week through their lawyer, Carl Oreskovich, that they went on the business trip from Everett to Arlington with Ryker – but they say Sandy Helm did all the driving.
Ryker said he met the Helms to inspect some equipment for a proposed business, but the business deal fell through. During their trip, Helm said nothing about having a cough, although he did say he’d passed out just before the crash that killed the Schrock children, Ryker added.
Helm’s lawyers hired New York neurologist Dr. Horacio Kaufmann to testify that Helm had experienced “cough syncope,” a cough that triggers a fainting spell, just before the fatal crash and again Nov. 18, 2005, at his Deer Park home while he was recovering from injuries sustained in the accident.
In the months leading up to Helm’s trial, Ryker said, he got several e-mails from Sandy Helm asking friends and associates – many from the Helms’ Mormon church in Spokane – to contact Oreskovich to offer testimony about Helm’s good qualities.
Ryker said he didn’t get involved – until he heard Helm testify that he didn’t drive for nearly a year after the accident.
“I was following the trial online. I thought, I have to do something. I believe he perjured himself,” Ryker said.
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Clint Francis, the lead prosecutor in the recent trial, also got a call from Ryker last week. “He was really angry,” Francis said.
But Helm won’t face a perjury charge because his testimony about when he resumed driving after the accident is not a “material fact” in the case, Francis said.
“It has to be a really important element. This doesn’t rise to that,” Francis said.
Prosecutors pursued Helm’s driver’s license history for the trial, determining he renewed his license Oct. 25, 2006. He also had three speeding tickets since 2003, but the jury wasn’t told about his driving history. The jury was told that a blood test taken at the hospital after the accident showed Helm had no alcohol or drugs in his system.
According to the Department of Licensing, people who’ve lost consciousness are required to get a medical certificate saying the problem is under control, such as when an epileptic controls seizures by taking proper medicine.
A license review is generally triggered by a doctor’s notification or police officer’s report, said Benfield, the department spokesman.
When a driver renews a license every five years, licensing officials ask whether the driver has suffered a loss of consciousness within the last six months.
“If the answer is yes, it triggers a medical review,” Benfield said.
When Helm renewed his license in October 2006, more than six months had elapsed since the accident that killed the Schrock children. That license is good until 2011.
Benfield would not disclose whether a medical review of Helm has been requested, saying that information is private under federal law.
He did say it’s not enough for a doctor to testify in court that a driver has a fainting problem – the problem must be reported directly to the Licensing Department. “We can’t monitor courtrooms all over the state,” he added.
Oreskovich said he didn’t know if the Licensing Department had been notified. He said Helm is driving but has been advised by his doctors to watch for coughing symptoms.
“When he gets a cough, he shouldn’t drive,” Oreskovich said.
The fact Helm can still drive doesn’t sit well with his former business associate.
“We were all stunned he’s still driving if he has this problem,” Ryker said.