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Published: Wednesday, 11/8/2006

Rush to judgment

THE tragedy in southeastern Ohio that took the lives of two State Highway Patrol troopers and another driver in September has been compounded by the investigation that followed. Apparently, the blood-alcohol level of the trooper who was driving the patrol car that crashed into a pickup was misinterpreted to read that Josh Risner was legally drunk at the time of the accident.

In a stunning refutation of an autopsy report that concluded Trooper Risner had been drinking, the patrol announced that new tests showed he did not drink alcohol at least 16 hours before his death. The finding was released in hopes of restoring the tarnished reputation of the 29-year-old trooper.

But unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the crash that killed him, his passenger, Sgt. Dale Holcomb, and another driver, Lori Smith, may always be viewed with suspicion. Some argue the patrol itself is to blame for prematurely jumping to conclusions based on an autopsy that was unsupported by other evidence.

Patrol interviews with people who had contact with Trooper Risner before the crash near Gallipolis revealed no indication that he had been drinking. According to the patrol, no one reported seeing any signs of impairment, nor did they smell any alcohol on the trooper, witness him consume any, or take any medication.

The Montgomery County coroner's office originally said that Trooper Risner's blood-alcohol level was 0.08 percent - the level at which a person is considered drunk under Ohio law.

At the patrol's request, additional testing was conducted by a division of the Federal Aviation Administration; the test is typically done on deceased pilots. It concluded that the alcohol in the trooper's body was created by decomposition in the 60-hour gap before the autopsy was performed.

The findings, declared Col. Paul McClellan, head of the patrol, "effectively eliminated the possibility he could have ingested alcohol." Gallia County coroner Dr. Daniel Whitely says he now thinks the trooper probably wasn't drinking before the crash but he's not completely convinced. He called the science behind the FAA test hazy.

The family of crash victim Lori White doesn't know what to think. There are still unanswered questions about why the patrol cruiser was racing along with emergency lights and siren activated. The patrol has previously said the troopers hadn't been dispatched to any emergency calls.

The OHP now believes that the cruiser hydroplaned on standing water and spun out of control, striking the Smith pickup. Her mother said whether Trooper Risner may or may not have been drinking on duty "doesn't really change anything."

But it changes everything for the Risner family, which is devoted to restoring the trooper's good name and reputation. His death was tragic enough without lingering doubts about drinking fed by a poorly handled investigation.



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