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Trooper widow calls for tougher drunk driving laws


January 2, 2010

At 2:10 in the morning on March 23 last year, a group of revelers at Pick's Bowling Center in Bigfork raised their glasses for a toast. For one of the men, a 29-year-old employee of the bowling alley named Travis Vandersloot, it was his 13th drink of the night, according to an investigative report recently made available to the Flathead Beacon. Most of those in the small crowd at Pick's had been drinking pretty hard. According to surveillance video from that evening, for the manager-on-duty, Diane Pickavance, the toast was her ninth drink of the night. For fellow employee Justin Meccia, the toast was his 11th drink. And though they noticed Vandersloot was impaired, it wasn't unusual behavior for the Columbia Falls resident. The bartender, Nathan Hale, offered to let Vandersloot spend the night on his couch in Bigfork, and by all accounts Vandersloot accepted. Most of the crew left Pick's shortly after the toast, with Vandersloot pulling out of the parking lot around 2:27 a.m. But then something happened, the reason for which no one is sure. Instead of following Hale home to Bigfork, Vandersloot headed west on Montana Highway 82. Nine minutes later, traveling north in the wrong lane on U.S. Highway 93 near Mile Post 107, Vandersloot smashed his Volkswagen head-on into a Montana Highway Patrol cruiser going south, killing himself instantly. Trooper Michael Haynes died four days later. Investigators determined Vandersloot's blood alcohol content had been 0.18, more than twice the legal limit, and found traces of the active ingredient in marijuana in his blood indicating he had smoked some time within four hours of the crash. They later found a glass pipe for smoking marijuana in the center console of his car. His co-workers i n d i c a t e d i n i n t e r v i ews Vandersloot may have been on prescription medication for a sleep disorder. The vehicles collided so hard investigators found pieces of the patrol car's fender and its license plate still embedded in the front end of the Volkswagen. Investigators determined he was driving at least 80 miles per hour on impact. Haynes, a three-year veteran of the Highway Patrol who had served in the Gulf War, had been going 48 miles per hour. Though Haynes was unconscious but breathing following the accident, he succumbed to his injuries on March 27. He left behind his wife, Tawny, and two young children. One year later, the aftermath of that accident casts a long shadow, particularly on the families of the young men killed and the people at Pick's on that March night. Yet beyond those directly affected, what is perhaps most surprising about the case is how common fatalities stemming from drunken driving remain in Montana. And what made the March 23 crash remarkable was that it involved the death of a law enforcement officer whose career was focused on preventing accidents like the one that took his own life.


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