Charges reduced after evidence is mishandled

January 22, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

Because of a procedural error, a Martinsburg man charged with causing a W.Va. 9 wreck that killed three people will face misdemeanor, not felony, charges, Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said in court Wednesday.

Brian W. Strobridge, 39, of Thatcher Road, initially was charged with three felony counts of driving under the influence causing death after a urine sample that he provided immediately after the July 2002 wreck tested positive for cocaine.

But cocaine can remain in a person's urinary tract for three to four days after one uses the drug, Games-Neely said. To continue forward with the charges, it would have been necessary for a blood sample to test positive for the drug, she said. Cocaine remains in the bloodstream for one to eight hours, she said.


Therein lies the problem, Games-Neely said. A Public Service Commission officer who handled the case made sure the urine sample was sent to a Virginia lab, but failed to wait around long enough to also ensure the blood sample was sent, Games-Neely said.

Public Service Commission officers respond to all wrecks that involve commercial vehicles. Strobridge was driving a dump truck.

Rather than being sent to the laboratory, the blood sample remained at City Hospital and eventually, per procedure, was destroyed, Games-Neely said.

Before Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes Wednesday afternoon, Strobridge said he would plead guilty to three counts of negligent homicide, which are misdemeanor charges.

Rather than accepting the plea immediately, Wilkes asked a probation officer to conduct a pre-plea investigation. For the pre-plea report, the probation officer will research Strobridge's past and will speak to family members of the three people killed in the wreck.

Wilkes scheduled a follow-up hearing for April 16, at which time he will either accept or reject the plea.

Fatal crash

The wreck happened on July 10, 2002, at around 4:45 p.m. after Strobridge's empty dump truck went into the opposite traffic lane and hit several cars, police said. Killed in the wreck were Marion Rao, 51, of Martinsburg; Terry Lee Walker Jr., 17, of Leetown, W.Va.; and Carleton Wilcox, 20, of Charles Town, W.Va. Rao, a nurse, was driving a Toyota passenger car, while Walker and Wilcox were in a Jeep Wrangler.

Two others were hurt and a third person involved in the wreck suffered from emotional distress, Games-Neely said.

Family members of Walker and Rao declined to comment after the court hearing. Family members of Wilcox did not attend.

Games-Neely told Wilkes that the family members are not pleased with the expected resolution of the case, but that they understand the reasons behind the plea bargain.

She said the families plan to go before the state Legislature in hopes that a bill will be passed requiring that all people involved in fatal accidents be tested for drug and alcohol use. Currently, only those who show visible signs of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol are tested.

Strobridge would not have been tested had he not possessed a commercial driver's license. All such drivers must submit to blood and urine tests.

Games-Neely said that Strobridge showed only two of 12 symptoms commonly associated with drugged drivers - fatigue and erratic driving.

On the same day as the fatal wreck, a West Virginia State Police trooper cited Strobridge for driving left of center, Games-Neely said.

"We believe in our soul that there was probably influence there," Games-Neely said. "I have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. And I can't."

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