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Suit Implicates Washington DOC In Near-Fatal Collision, Drug Use Suspected

A woman critically injured in a collision caused by an employee of the Washington prison system--reassigned to his home because of suspected drug use--has sued the state Department of Corrections (DOC) for endangering the public.

Barbara Starkel was returning home from work on November 21, 2003, when an oncoming car crossed the centerline, sideswiped another car, and slammed head-on into her Chevy pickup. As firefighters pried her from the crumpled cab, Starkel, 55, was still alive--but barely. Her neck had a torn artery and was broken in 2 places, her right heel was shattered, and a severe head injury left her in a coma for 10 days. At the hospital, Starkel suffered multiple strokes.

Mark Aldrich, a Washington DOC community corrections officer (what parole officers are called in Washington) assigned to oversee state prisoners released to community supervision, was driving the car that hit Starkel. According to the police report, Aldrich, 50, had been driving 63 mph in a 50-mph zone. Aldrich also admitted he'd had two 16-ounce beers, though his blood alcohol level tested about half the legal limit of .08. He refused to be evaluated by a drug-recognition expert or to provide a blood sample.
At the time of the accident, Aldrich had been assigned to home duty for suspected drug use. Documents obtained from the DOC by Starkel's Seattle attorney, Tony Shapiro, reveal that two unnamed sources reported in September 2003 that Aldrich was using drugs and that he got them from someone he had supervised.

Others also reported Aldrich's erratic behavior. One supervisor noted that Aldrich had been observed carrying a small black satchel out to his car or to the restroom, where he'd stay for an hour at a time. Another expressed concern after learning that Aldrich had called one offender 93 times in a single month, including 18 times on a Saturday. A co-worker reported seeing Aldrich slumped at his desk with a syringe cap in his mouth.

On September 29, 2003, Aldrich was notified in a letter that he had been reassigned. You are reassigned to your home, pending an investigation, with full pay and entitlements until further notice," the letter stated. He was told to consider himself on duty" and to stay at home and reachable weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (The accident occurred on a Friday 4:42 p.m.)

In March 2005, Starkel sued the DOC and Aldrich in Kitsap County Superior Court. DOC officials knew--or at least strongly suspected--that Aldrich had abused drugs on the job, especially after a drug dog suggested narcotics had once been present at his desk, said Shapiro. The reason they removed him from the workplace is they believed he was a potential hazard. If his conduct is a risk in the workplace, it's certainly a risk to the unsuspecting public."

Aldrich has been charged with vehicular assault for the November accident. Prosecutors also plan to charge him with driving under the influence of drugs for an unrelated incident in April 2004. During that traffic stop, a state trooper noted massive intravenous track marks" on Aldrich's arms and said he nodded off as a paramedic searched for a suitable vein to draw blood. A blood test revealed the tranquilizer diazepam and a trace of morphine.

Aldrich was fired in June 2004, but that's little consolation to Starkel, who has been unable to work since the accident and still suffers from the aftereffects, including loss of balance, stabbing pains in her head, and speech and memory problems. She even had to relearn how to multiply and spell. The accident took a lot away from her--and us," said her husband, Rick Starkel. When an event like this happens, it changes everything."

Source: Seattle Post-Intel1igencer

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