Coroner: State Patrol erred in labeling driver drunk in fatal crash near Bellingham

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 20, 2014 

State troopers wrongly labeled a Ferndale man as a drunk driver in a deadly crash on New Year's Eve north of Bellingham, the county medical examiner announced Thursday, March 20.

On the morning of the crash, troopers told media around the state they believed Travis Lee Holst, 23, of Ferndale, had been drunk and speeding when his dark green Chevy Tahoe crossed into southbound traffic on Guide Meridian at 12:17 a.m. Dec. 31.

The Tahoe hit a Honda Civic head-on and killed the other driver, Brox Mitchell Browning, 20, on impact; Holst died two hours later at St. Joseph hospital.

Basic questions from Holst's family - did the Tahoe's airbags deploy, was Travis conscious in the moments before the collision, where had he been that night and where was he going - still haven't been answered.

State troopers seemed sure of one thing, though: Travis Holst smelled like alcohol, and that would explain the Tahoe swerving at breakneck speeds before it crossed into the southbound lanes north of Smith Road. One 911 caller said Holst's SUV had been going about 90 mph, in the center turn lane, just before it slammed into the Civic.

In a press memo troopers listed the cause as "speed and or drug and alcohol."

Early on, however, blood tests for alcohol turned up negative, said Dr. Gary Goldfogel, the county medical examiner. As a matter of routine, Goldfogel sent samples of Holst's blood to a state crime lab to confirm those findings and to test for other substances. Again, nothing.

So Goldfogel mailed the evidence to NMS, a Pennsylvania lab capable of detecting traces of designer drugs that often elude other labs. Those tests came back clean, too. It took 79 days before Goldfogel had the paperwork in hand to make it official.

"The blame from the beginning has been on impairment," Goldfogel said. "So we did as thorough of an autopsy as could be done in the country."

Now the medical examiner wants the Washington State Patrol to take another look at the evidence, with "non-jaded eyes," knowing Holst had been sober.

Blood tests on Browning, on the other hand, came up positive for morphine and THC, the active chemical in cannabis. He'd been taking a prescribed painkiller for a broken hand, according to his family. THC can linger in the bloodstream for days and even weeks after consumption. Browning would have been impaired by marijuana under state law.

But to date nothing has come out to suggest Browning drove too fast or outside of his lane. Investigators still believe Holst, sober or not, crossed the center lane and crashed into Browning's car.

"The dynamics of the crash have not changed," WSP Trooper Mark Francis said. "It wouldn't be the first time we've seen a sober driver hit the impaired driver."

Since losing their son, Mark and Shari Holst have needed answers. It's a small consolation to know Travis at least had been sober.

"The guilt was unimaginable, it was just crushing," said Shari Holst, Travis' stepmother. "The media crucified him. They made him out to be this terrible person."

Travis, who lived with his father and stepmother in the Ferndale area, had a job at K&K Industries, a metal-cutting business on the outskirts of Bellingham. He had to be at work by 5 a.m. Dec. 31. His parents have come up with countless scenarios to explain why Travis would be on the road at that hour. In the theory that makes most sense to them, Holst had been in town - bowling, or with a girl, maybe? - and started feeling sick. Earlier that month he'd spent a week in the hospital for blood clots.

That was so strange, his parents said, for such an active young man, who loved fishing, hunting, baseball and softball, to get several pulmonary embolisms. It's a condition that most often affects older, more sedentary people. His doctor prescribed Coumadin, a blood thinner. Maybe Travis thought the clots were causing problems on Dec. 31, and he wanted to go home so his stepmom, a nurse, could check on him.

Goldfogel's autopsy couldn't confirm or deny if a medical problem led to the crash. It can't be ruled out, though, he said.

A full investigation of the crash should be approved by state patrol officials sometime in the next month, Francis said. In the meantime few specifics will be released to the public. It's unclear what smell the troopers mistook for alcohol.

Brox's mother, Marie Storms, declined an interview but released a brief statement.

"Travis' negative toxicology result does not explain nor lessen that fact he was driving erratically at high speed (per state patrol account) before crossing into oncoming traffic hitting Brox's (Honda) head on killing him, and later himself," she wrote. "(Brox) was in his lane and did not cause the accident. It's devastating for everyone involved."

Browning moved from Lynden to Bellingham a few months earlier, so he would have known the road well. He went to Whatcom Community College, and after school he hoped to take up a trade. That morning he had been driving home from his girlfriend's house.

In his obituary, Browning's family asked for donations to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in lieu of flowers.

Holst had one pending DUI case in Ferndale from July. He swore to his parents he hadn't been drunk, and blood tests came back negative for the most common intoxicants: alcohol, marijuana, painkillers, cocaine, opiates, etc. The municipal court prosecutor, David Nelson, declined to comment on the case.

A separate charge of reckless driving had been dismissed when the judge got the full story, Mark Holst said - Travis had been a designated driver and his intoxicated friend threw something out the window at a pedestrian.

Shortly before he died, Travis had considered going into the Army or back to school.

"He wanted to make something of himself," Shari Holst said. "He felt like he was at a dead end."

The Holsts feel the case should make law enforcement think twice, in the first hours after a crash, about calling someone a suspected drunk driver.

"We don't want anyone else to go through that. It's already enough," Mark Holst said. "There couldn't be a worse thing than not knowing what happened, and that's probably where we're going to be."

Shari Holst is Travis Holst's stepmother. Her relationship to Travis was corrected March 24, 2014.

Reach Caleb Hutton at 360-715-2276 or caleb.hutton@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Dispatcher Blog at bellinghamherald.com/dispatcher-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamcrime.

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