07/10/2006

Back on duty, officer once in coma erases doubts

By Paul Hampel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ALTON, MO -- After acing every physical and mental test that therapists threw at him, injured Alton police Officer Sam Riney was cleared to return to duty.

But as Riney, 27, got dressed for his first day back at work last Monday morning, he knew he still faced another test, one that was more important than those he had already passed: Would his fellow officers accept him as fully fit for duty, especially in the wake of a brain injury?

It had been seven months since a drunken driver crossed the center line on Fosterburg Road and collided head-on with Riney's squad car. The impact caused the two halves of his brain to grate against each other, causing severe bleeding that left Riney in a coma.

Riney, 27, struggled to recuperate.

His last required police test came on the shooting range, where he scored 491 out of 500. Alton Police Chief Chris Sullivan was the only member of the force who scored higher.

"The injuries were a big shock to my confidence level," Riney said. "I felt 100 percent, mentally, but I was worried about what others would think of me."

His concerns quickly faded as his fellow officers gave him a round of applause at roll call on Monday morning.

"It was just a little applause, and then it was right back to business, which was fine because I don't like being the center of attention," Riney said last week as he lounged on a sofa in the living room of his ranch house in Alton.

Dressed in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt that read, "Girls Like Guys With Skills," Riney seemed relaxed and happy. The scars are still visible from the crash, which fractured Riney's legs, his left arm, his skull and one ankle.

Today, Riney walks without a limp, gives a strong handshake and answers questions quickly and clearly. He is back up to full speed on crossword and sudoku puzzles, his longtime hobbies.

Riney exudes a humble confidence that he credits to his years of martial arts training; he has a black belt in tae kwon do. He recently returned to training and teaching at Piasa Martial Arts Academy.

When his wife, Kate, delivered the couple's first child in May, Riney's recovery got a boost.

"I wanted to heal for my son. I didn't want to be a dad confined to a lounge chair," he said.

At the command center on Friday morning, Riney's commanding officer, Sgt. Carla Pruitt, joked that Riney was back to "his usual smart-aleck self."

Pruitt, 44, a 16-year veteran of the force, was on duty Dec. 19, the night Riney got hurt.

Riney was driving northbound on Fosterburg Road in rural eastern Alton, headed to a trailer park to do a follow-up report on the theft of a resident's Christmas display.

Near the intersection of Storey Lane, a southbound Chevy Tahoe driven by Orval Sherwood, of Brighton, tried to pass a pickup and collided with Riney's Ford Crown Victoria. Sherwood, 25, pleaded guilty in February of aggravated drunken driving and of driving with a suspended license. His injuries were minor, but he faces up to 12 years in prison.

Pruitt took one of the 911 calls that poured into the center in the moments after the collision.

"A frantic citizen said there was a wreck on Fosterburg Road and a guy was trapped in the car and was gasping for air. He said, 'It's one your cops,'" Pruitt said.

Pruitt delivered the bad news to Riney's wife that night.

"I wanted it to be me," she said. "I knew it would be better if it was a girl-to-girl thing."

For at least the next few months, Riney will be restricted to light duty. He is now working the front desk at police headquarters on East Broadway, filing reports and taking calls from the public.

"That's fine for now," Riney said. "I'm just happy to be getting up in the morning and reporting for roll call again."

Alton police Officer Sam Riney staffs the front desk at headquarters, in his first week back at work after a head-on collision seven months ago.

Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

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