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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Trooper says driver admitted drinking

BONNERS FERRY, Idaho – A Boundary County man charged with vehicular manslaughter confessed that he was drinking the day of the accident, 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 the 2-month-old baby of Saunders and Bartron, Lyssa Saunders.

The now-4-month-old Lyssa smiled and drooled a little Friday during Peterson’s preliminary hearing, which was attended by dozens of supporters of Peterson as well as the victims.

Deputy Prosecutor Tevis Hull presented evidence that Peterson was responsible for the deaths of Lyssa’s immediate family members and for causing injury to Lyssa, who suffered skull fractures and still eats through a feeding tube.

Magistrate Judge Justin Julian ordered that Peterson appear in district court and enter a plea on the charges.

Peterson, a U.S. Forest Service employee, returned from a Montana fire assignment and allegedly spent the evening of July 28 drinking at a tavern in Bonners Ferry.

Dave Ellerbee testified Friday that he went to the Shell station to get coffee about 3 a.m. the morning of the accident, when Peterson came in.

Ellerbee said he noticed Peterson’s “extremely red eyes” and the smell of stale beer.

“I said, ‘Man, are you OK to drive?’ He straightened up real rigid and said, ‘I’m not going far,’ ” Ellerbee said.

Ellerbee said he heard Peterson’s pickup accelerating as it headed south out of town. Then he heard a muffled thump and crunch, he said.

ISP Trooper Kevin Bennett testified that when he first came on the scene, Peterson said he hadn’t been driving.

An ISP accident reconstructionist 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 appeared to have locked up her brakes.

Later in the hospital, Peterson – who was not yet under arrest – admitted that he was driving and had been drinking, Bennett testified.

Tests later showed that Peterson’s blood alcohol content was .14 percent, well over the legal limit of .08, Hull said.

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