At approximately 3:00 p.m. on December 30, 2014, I was involved in a single vehicle accident while driving a loaded tanker truck, hauling fish for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. After leaving the McKenzie fish hatchery east of Eugene, Oregon, I was startled by deer emerging from trees on the side of the road, just at the beginning of a long sweeping curve. I was momentarily distracted and the vehicle drifted just far enough to place the outside tires onto the soft shoulder, and despite my efforts to regain control, I crashed after side-swiping trees and tipping over onto the driver’s side of the vehicle. I remained conscious, but had to be extricated from the vehicle, and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital.
Upon arrival at the emergency room of the hospital, I was put through triage and testing, which determined that I had a fractured rib, fractured arm, dislocated shoulder/rotator cuff injury, blown out orbital eye socket floor, multiple facial and head lacerations requiring stitches in five places, a concussion, and a “scalping” laceration that required stapling of part of the scalp back onto the top of my head/skull. As a matter of standard operating procedure, as I was getting IV fluids and IV medications, blood was also drawn for testing. This is done in any incident involving property damage and/or injury. The attending physician informed me shortly thereafter that the blood had been tested and registered a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.29. As I had consumed no alcohol prior to the accident, and had in fact been at work all day, this was understandably surprising to me. The doctor found the result to be incredulous as well, and insisted that it should be retested, if it were okay with me. I consented to a retest. The ensuing result then showed a BAC of 0.26. At that point, it was clear to me that something was wrong somewhere along the lines of the testing, resulting in these varying false positives. This all occurred while I was receiving treatment for the previously mentioned injuries, so my focus was largely upon that.
A trooper from the Oregon State Police arrived at the hospital to get a statement from me, and asked for permission to conduct a third blood draw, to be analyzed at a separate lab that was independent of the hospital. Realizing that this would be the way to clear up the false readings from the hospital, I naturally consented. I remained at the hospital for that evening and the next, and was discharged the morning of January 1st, 2016.
I spent the next few weeks recuperating at home, with ice packs and multiple medications, so I wasn’t in a frame of mind that most would consider “with it”. I had many appointments scheduled for surgery, and was awaiting the OSP lab test results. Those results came in, and I was informed that they showed a BAC of 0.17. It was it this point that the circus really began.
I received citations for Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (DUII) and Criminal Mischief, both misdemeanors. I had surgery to replace the floor of my blown out orbital socket in late January of 2015, resulting in more medications and recuperation. I was definitely in and out of what would be considered a medication-clouded state of mind until well into late February.
The court system in Lane County Oregon, I soon learned, did not operate in a speedy manner. Because I did not consume alcohol leading up to the accident, I chose to go to trial. That process was stretched out and the trial postponed repeatedly at the request of the Lane County District Attorney, presumably to prepare for court. By Spring of 2015, I was no longer on pain medications, and beginning physical therapy, but something was amiss with the way I felt. I had intermittent periods where I was extremely lethargic, irritable, and often times forgetful. I thought it to be lingering effect of head injury. My wife Sierra saw all of this first hand and thought that it was almost as if I were drunk or otherwise debilitated. A friend of hers remarked that she had heard of a syndrome in which the stomach could actually create its own ethanol, with specific yeasts as the causative start. Of course, I thought that this was absurd. I still had no answer for the false positives on the blood draws from the day of the accident, but I was certain that it wasn’t a true positive, from a veritable brewery in my own gut. Sierra wasn’t so sure. She obtained a Department of Transportation approved breathalyzer, and the next time she noticed that I appeared “off”, she brought it to me and I blew into it.
I registered a BAC of 0.12. To say that I was in shock would definitely be understating my mind frame in that moment. In order to keep this long story from growing too much longer, I will tell you that I had subsequent readings anywhere from 0.02 to 0.14 at various times over the next several weeks. This was not continuous, but would happen in “flares”. Most of the time, I was perfectly normal. At no time had I consumed alcohol. We decided to look into what Sierra’s friend had suggested earlier: Auto Brewery Syndrome (ABS), also known as gut-fermentation syndrome. (In an effort to condense this into something manageable for anyone who wishes to read this, there are links provided at the end here that explain ABS in total detail). I went to several doctors, each one scratching their heads, and referring me to another doctor. I got the full endoscopy and colonoscopy treatment. I was poked and prodded in myriad ways, and we did our own research to discover that quite a bit of research had been done on the subject, and that there were leading experts in the field, one in particular who specialized in gastro-intestinal diseases, with ABS at the forefront.
I eventually went to Columbus, Ohio to meet with Dr. Anup Kanodia, to see if anybody could figure out what exactly was (or wasn’t) going on with me. Again, for brevity, the gist is that I was tested in many different ways, over many weeks, with different labs. In September 2015, I was positively diagnosed as having Auto Brewery Syndrome, and by extrapolating data and previous test results, it was determined that I suffered from it since at least early 2014, and probably late 2013. All the while from Spring of 2015, I had been recording all flares, BAC readings, food intake, medication intake, etc. I began receiving treatment to combat the rare digestive system ailments that lead to ABS. All of this occurred while I was suspended from my position at ODFW, and the incredibly high expenses that all of this incurred were paid out of pocket by Sierra and I.
In the meantime, there was still an impending trial and legal charges to face. After yet more delays, I was able to finally go to court for trial in January of 2016. Again, to keep this as brief as possible: In a pre-trial ruling, the presiding judge stated that ABS could not be used for my defense against the charges. She cited previous case law that covered what is known as “strict liability” in the State of Oregon. The previous case cited involved a man who received a DUI after friends of his spiked what he believed was non-alcoholic beverages throughout the evening. The ruling was that it didn’t matter that the man had no idea that he was ingesting alcohol. The fact that he did ingest alcohol, and then drove a motor vehicle was enough for a verdict of guilty.
The presiding judge and even the prosecuting DA acknowledged the validity of ABS, my official diagnosis of having the syndrome, and the pre-trial testimony of Dr. Kanodia was accepted as valid and legal. But I could not breathe a word of the syndrome in my defense, as the case law that the judge cited had been determined previously through the court of appeals, and that I would have to go the same route. It would not be settled in the Circuit Court, which is where my trial was taking place. What this meant is that I now had no way of properly defending myself at my own trial. As the judge had ordered, ABS was not used, and all medical evidence of such--including Dr. Kanodia’s testimony--never saw the light of day during my trial. Naturally, I was found guilty. I do not blame the jurors, as they had no idea any medical condition existed.
The crux of the appeal is simple: I had a confirmed medical condition at the time of the accident, of which I was unaware. I had not consumed alcohol. When a diabetic discovers that they have that disease, it can happen anywhere. Sometimes it is diagnosed in a doctor’s office. Sometimes they discover it at home. Sometimes, it can even happen when they are behind the wheel of a vehicle, and have an episode for the first time. A previously diagnosed diabetic who gets behind the wheel after neglecting his or her own proper medical care can be charged with DUI, and many have. Driving under the influence is not limited to drugs and alcohol. An undiagnosed diabetic who gets behind the wheel and has an episode for the first time does not receive a DUI. It doesn’t happen, because they had an unknown medical condition. ABS falls into this scenario. Had I chosen to drive after being diagnosed with ABS, and then had a flare, I would be guilty of DUI. On December 30, 2014, that was not the case.
In the meantime, I have several misdemeanor convictions to deal with pending appeal. The whole thing may very likely be overturned, but until that happens, I have to follow the law like anybody else. What that means for me:
-One year suspension of drivers license.
-Two years probation.
-112 hours community service.
-Nearly $10,000 in fines and court fees.
-$375,000.00 in restitution for the fish tanker and clean up costs.
A very interesting part falls under the terms of the two years probation. I am not allowed in an establishment that has the primary purpose of selling alcohol. Not a problem. I haven’t had anything to drink since before the accident in 2014. I still have occasional ABS flares, but they are shorter and fewer. Treatment is getting me there.
I am also not allowed to consume any alcohol during the probation period, and must submit to breathalyzer tests if asked to do so by law enforcement at any time. This creates a unique problem for a person who suffers from ABS. I cannot control the timing of a flare. Over the last year, I have had several flares at home where my BAC crept in the range of 0.30 and higher. Sierra took me to the ER on several occasions because we were afraid that those flares would be life threatening. It is one thing if a person willingly ingests alcohol and achieves a high BAC, because the simple cessation of drinking at that time will prevent that person’s BAC from skyrocketing to even higher, possibly deadly levels. An ABS sufferer does not have that option. I was monitored until the level evened out and/or began to subside. That was before the conviction was handed down. Now, if I go into the ER and it is documented that I have ANY level of BAC, I am in violation of the terms of my probation. In essence, Lane County Circuit Court has potentially given me a death sentence, and not a misdemeanor.
There is much, much more to this than I could possibly cover here. This is simply a rough outline of the last year for Sierra and I. Due to the pending legal case at the time, we could not discuss this. Only a few people have known about this as the events unfolded. My own family has been unaware, as investigators for the prosecution would have hounded them otherwise. In the meantime, I’ve had to remain mum, knowing that most everyone believed that I actually chose to go to work, drink, drive and crash. Even if the appeal is successful, my reputation is ruined.
I have certainly learned the true character of people around me. Many co-workers and acquaintances simply disappeared from my life (though certainly not all of them). I very much appreciate those who stuck by Sierra and I, even though they have known nothing about this until now. You are truly good people.
Anyway, Sierra and I are slogging through to the next steps, even though we are likely headed for financial ruin. The easy thing for me to have done was simply plead guilty after I had received my citations back in January 2015. I would already have my drivers license back, and would have completed all community service and counseling. But I simply could not stomach pleading to something that I did not do. And while ABS is rare, it does exist, and there are other people fighting through their own hell as they try to navigate this mess. Pleading guilty in order to take the easy route would have been a disservice to everyone else who ever has the misfortune to experience the stigma of ABS. I will be whatever advocate I can be, regardless the outcome of all this.
To that end, please feel free to share this with others. Everything I have put here today is public record now that the circuit court trial is over. There are many, many details not included here because it would be prudent to wait until the appeal process has been completed. But I would like this to be known, because I know that there are others out there who have gone undiagnosed. I want them to know that they are not crazy, as I thought I was earlier last year.
Below, some links with much more information. Feel free to ask me anything. E-mail, PM, whatever. I will answer the best I can.
Thank you for listening.