Troopers blame 'wanton disregard' for New Year's Eve crash that killed 2 near Bellingham

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 17, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Troopers concluded the driver of a Chevy Tahoe had been going close to 100 mph on New Year's Eve when he crashed head-on into a Honda Civic, killing himself and the other driver.

Twenty-seven pages of state patrol reports released this week aren't the final word on the cause of the collision. But they give a meticulous account of the damage to both cars ("so extreme it's difficult to describe"); road conditions ("wet with an occasional light sprinkle"); and speed estimates for the Chevy and the Honda.

That morning troopers blamed drunken driving as the likely cause. Blood tests, however, proved Travis Lee Holst, 23, of Ferndale, had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he crossed into oncoming traffic at 12:15 a.m. Dec. 31, on Guide Meridian north of Smith Road. Holst's family believes Travis had been having a medical problem that night and might have passed out. He'd spent a week in the hospital with blood clots earlier that month.

However, investigators still suspect reckless driving - a "willfully and wanton disregard for the safety of persons (and/or) property," as one trooper put it - caused the crash.

According to the reports, eyewitnesses said the Tahoe driver had been speeding and using the center turn lane and shoulder to pass cars for about two miles, since they first caught sight of the SUV near Walmart. Holst crossed into oncoming traffic and traveled in the wrong direction for about 1/4-mile before hitting the southbound Honda.

A crash scene detective later calculated the speed of the Tahoe must have been at least 82 mph to push the car that far from the point of impact. That's assuming the Honda had been going 10 mph. If the Honda had been going the speed limit of 50 mph, the Tahoe would have been speeding at 106 mph.

The Honda driver, Brox Mitchell Browning, 20, of Lynden, died at the scene. On impact, his car had a sudden reverse of direction. It went airborne before coming to rest 240 feet to the northwest, in the driveway of a flower shop.

Two troopers, Ronald Rogers and Scott Brown, claimed to smell "the odor of intoxicants on (Holst's) person" as he was loaded into an ambulance. Rogers was so certain of Holst's impairment he tried to tell him, at the hospital before a CT scan, that he'd been placed under arrest. But Holst never regained consciousness. He died at 1:42 a.m., about 90 minutes after the crash.

In Brown's case summary four weeks later he described the odor as "faint." At that point an initial autopsy had already found no evidence of alcohol, and a series of blood tests confirmed those findings in March.

Regardless, these reports place the blame squarely on Holst's driving.

"Conclusion," Brown wrote. "On December 31, 2013 Travis Holst was observed driving erratically at a high rate of speed. He was northbound SR 539 traveling in the southbound lanes. Holst collided head-on with Brox Browning's vehicle, which killed himself and Brox Browning."

Update on Friday, April 18. Statement by Shari Holst, Travis' stepmother, in response to the reports: "If there is one thing I have learned from this tragic event (it's) that our WSP (Washington State Patrol) needs training in many areas including how to communicate, especially with traumatized families, and what alcohol and intoxicants smell like. Based on their inability and 'wanton disregard' to accurately perform those job functions and their keen ability to cover their (butt,) I do not put any weight in their accident report. I have lost all respect for WSP. (...) We will never fully know what happened that night. Our questions will never be answered because the only one who really knows died."

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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