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October 20, 2006
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Ohio patrol jumped to wrong conclusion, union says

Randy Ludlow
The Columbus Dispatch
Copyright 2006 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved

Four fellow officers detected no signs that Trooper Joshua Risner had been drinking alcohol before he and two other people died in a two-vehicle collision, the state troopers union says.

The State Highway Patrol announced Friday that tests fixed Risner's blood-alcohol content at 0.08 percent after the wreck near Gallipolis on Sept. 28.

Risner's blood-alcohol content matched the level at which motorists are presumed drunk in Ohio, launching a patrol investigation of when and where he drank alcohol.

Three troopers and a deputy sheriff have told the Ohio State Troopers Association that they do not believe Risner was intoxicated when they met with him during his last shift.

The troopers union also has obtained copies of receipts that it says show Risner purchased no alcohol during dinner with his wife before his shift or at a gas station while buying a sandwich.

Risner, 29, was driving more than 60 mph when he lost control and the cruiser spun across the center line, into the path of a pickup truck driven by Lori Smith, 32, of Vinton.

The two drivers and Sgt. Dale Holcomb, 45, a passenger in the patrol car, died when the cruiser's gas tank ruptured, feeding a fire that consumed both vehicles.

Herschel Sigall, lawyer for the troopers union, yesterday criticized patrol officials for failing to investigate whether Risner had been drinking before announcing autopsy results.

"There was a rush to judgment in the absence of acquiring facts," Sigall said.

The union is conducting its own investigation and will hire a toxicologist to review the autopsy and blood-alcohol results.

The patrol is continuing its probe into Risner's conduct and had no comment on the union's findings, said Sgt. Jon Payer, patrol spokesman.

Twenty-three dispatchers, troopers and sergeants at the Gallipolis post signed a statement expressing "substantial problems" with conclusions that Risner had been drinking.

Risner would not have volunteered to pick up Holcomb at his home and the sergeant would not have allowed Risner to drive if he detected the trooper was intoxicated, they say.

"We are confident his good name will be restored," they wrote. Risner apparently was speeding with the car's lights and siren activated to assist an off-duty trooper whose infant became ill.

The union says that Risner's blood-alcohol content may be largely attributable to alcohol created by his body decomposing in the nearly 60 hours before the autopsy.

Gallia County Coroner Daniel Whitely and C. Jeff Lee, chief forensic pathologist for Licking County, acknowledge that decomposition creates alcohol in the body.

However, both said that decomposition alone would not produce a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Lee said 0.05 percent is the highest he has seen created by decomposition.

The union investigation comes as troopers, sergeants and uniformed dispatchers vote on whether to retain the affiliate of the International Union of Police Associations of the AFL-CIO.

The Fraternal Order of Police of the Ohio Labor Council is seeking to represent the employees. The results of the vote are expected to be released today.

Related Article:
Patrol: Trooper in Ohio fatal crash was drunk
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