In wake of tragedy, Oxford family pushes for drugged-driver standards

OXFORD — What would cause a 1996 black Jeep to veer off the roadway and crash in flames on a warm, summer day last August, leaving an 8-year-old boy to die from his injuries.

Amber Waterman/Sun Journal

The Thurston and Thielbar families, clockwise, Jackie Thurston, Amanda Thurston, 17, Jillian Thielbar, 12, Shannan Thielbar, and Wyatt Thielbar, 8, are trying to get the laws changed about driving under the influence of narcotics, such as methadone, after their family member and close friend, Matthew Thurston, was killed in a car crash last August. He was 8 years old at the time of the accident.

Submitted photo

Matthew Thurston

Only 17 states with drugged driving prohibitions

Last year, Maine passed a bill making it a crime to drive a large commercial vehicle of 10,000 pounds or more while on methadone.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Anne Graham, D-North Yarmouth, after a man driving a UPS truck in Naples was killed in December of 2009 when his truck was hit by a utility truck driver who was taking methadone.

Only 17 states have passed laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle if there is a “detectable” level of a prohibited drug in the driver's body, according to a 2010 National Institute on Drug Abuse report.

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Family and friends of Matthew Thurston, the Crescent Elementary School third-grade student from Bethel who died from injuries sustained in the crash two months later, say the driver's longtime dependence on methadone caused the accident.

The driver was Matthew's mother, 28-year-old Jessica Thurston of Bethel.

She told Oxford police, a witness at the scene, and family members she fell asleep at the wheel.

Now family members and friends of the boy known as “Matty” say they believe the driver was impaired that day by drug use and they want to make sure no one who is impaired by methadone or other drugs can get behind the wheel of a car.

“Matty is my drive. There's no shutting us up until we have regulations in place,” said Jackie Thurston, a Rumford resident and the former sister-in-law of Jessica.

Jackie Thurston is now talking to law enforcement and legislators about enacting regulations to identify a driver who is a methadone patient and possibly keep that person from driving while using the drug.

Police say Jessica Thurston was driving down Route 26 near Welchville village around 11:30 a.m. Aug. 12, 2011, with Matty strapped in his seat belt in the back, when her jeep crashed into a utility pole.

Horrified neighbors watched from their windows as the car careened several hundred feet across their front yards, going airborne three times, before the car split a tree and burst into flames.

Jessica was taken to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston where she was treated for injuries and released two days later.

Matty was airlifted to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital in Portland where he died last October from his injuries.

“She was supposed to be going school shopping," Jackie Thurston said. "Jessica told me she was taking Matty school shopping.” 

Matty, a round-faced, blond-haired, smiling boy who loved to ride bicycles, play soccer and fish, underwent numerous surgeries in an attempt to repair his damaged brain.

“The day of the accident he became a vegetable. Matty was never going to talk again,” Jackie Thurston, a certified nursing assistant, said.

She said she took Matty and his older brother into her home on many occasions in 2006 when their parents were unable to care for them.

“The aunt aspect of me was praying he would wake up," Jackie Thurston said. "The nursing aspect of me said I knew he would never wake up.” 

Although Matty never quite regained consciousness, Jackie says she knows he was aware that family was surrounding his hospital bed.

“There were times I believe he knew we were there. There was a tear. I know he heard us but I knew our beautiful little boy wasn't coming back,” she said.

Finally a decision was made. “They took life support off to see if he could breathe on his own,” she said. He passed away shortly after.

The investigation

Oxford police investigated the accident for months and, in February, turned the information over to the District Attorney's Office in Paris.

Despite the lengthy investigation, the DA's office announced in early March that no charges would be brought against the boy's mother.

“There was insufficient evidence of criminal activity,” Assistant District Attorney Joseph M. O'Connor said.

Oxford Police Chief Jon Tibbetts said blood tests taken at the hospital showed Thurston had prescription drugs in her body while driving that day, but he could not specify what type of drugs.

And because the state of Maine has no set standard of intoxication for drugged driving, it is difficult to prosecute someone who is driving under the influence, he said.

Police were aware of Jessica's Thurston's previous similar accidents.

In May of 2005, the 21-year-old Woodstock resident was driving a car that went off the road, critically injuring a 20-year-old Greenwood woman who was a passenger in the car. At that time Oxford County Deputy Brian Landis said Thurston fell asleep while driving north on Route 26 between 9:30 and 10 p.m. with her sons Matthew, then 1, and Tyler, then 3, riding in the back seat.

Tibbetts said Jessica Thurston crashed her car three or four times over the years.

According to her driving record, she is a habitual offender with seven convictions since 2001 on charges ranging from failure to obey a stop sign to driving under the influence. Her driver's license is suspended indefinitely.

It is unknown whether the accidents happened because Jessica was impaired by drugs, but Tibbetts said typically when an accident involves a methadone patient, the driver will get very drowsy about an hour after they have had their dose.

“We've had a few accidents where someone falls asleep and goes off the road,” Tibbetts said.

Guy Cousins, director of the state's Office of Substance Abuse Services, said methadone has no effect on driver response for any person who is administered methadone at an opiate clinic, in its proper dosage and absent any abuse of other non-opiate medication. But that's the key.

“If an individual is not dosed properly and/or is abusing other non-opiate medications, there is a high likelihood that impairment is occurring due to that abuse and not the methadone treatment,” he said.

Methadone has been available for treatment of opioid addiction in Maine since 1995, according to information from the Office of Substance Abuse Services. By 1996, there were 200 people receiving this medication. Today there are approximately 1,500 opiate-addicted individuals receiving methadone.

“It's a sad story,” Tibbetts said of the Thurston case.

The problem, said Tibbetts, was the lack of a measurable standard of intoxication for methadone.

“I hope something can be done about it,” he said of the need for Maine to set a specific or presumptive level of intoxication for driving under the influence of drugs.

Aftermath

“It would be wonderful if we could have a set standard of intoxication like we have in alcohol for drugs,” said Norman Croteau, district attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. Croteau has met with Jackie Thurston to discuss the case.

Croteau said the longstanding problem for prosecutors has been the lack of a specific level of impairment, or presumption of impairment.  

Maine's OUI law sets a blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent but there is no restriction or measure for prescription drugs such as methadone.

“(Establishing a standard) is much more difficult to do with various drugs for a number of reasons that have to do with tolerance of the individuals taking those drugs and the nature of drugs themselves,”Croteau said.

“That has been the most difficult thing to confront whenever we're dealing with OUI cases that don't involve alcohol but involve the use of medication, even though that medication is prescribed. We still have to prove impairment, not just the fact that there is a level of medication or drugs in a person's body, but we have to prove there is impairment,” he said.

“It's very difficult in any given case to determine and to prove beyond a reasonable doubt whether someone is actually impaired by virtue of the use of those drugs,” he said.

Although Maine has drug recognition experts, he or she must have probable cause to believe that a person is under the influence of a specific category of drug, a combination of specific categories of drugs or a combination of alcohol and one or more specific categories of drugs, to require a driver submit to a blood or urine test.

The test confirms that person's category of drug use and determines the presence of the drug and is admissible in court as evidence of operating under the influence of intoxicants.

In the case of Jessica Thurston, the drug recognition expert was not called in because Thurston was immediately taken to the hospital after the crash.

Four attempts over a period of several weeks to reach Jessica Thurston for comment on this report were unsuccessful. 

Jackie Thurston and her friend Shannon Thielbar, whose son Wyatt was a close friend of Matty, have met with or contacted numerous officials including Croteau, Tibbetts and a representative from Gov. Paul LePage's office, in an effort to promote legislation that would mandate identification of all methadone patients behind a driver's wheel.

They believe licenses should identify drivers as methadone users, or ban these people from driving.

Further, they are hoping to see legislation that will allow law enforcement to have a measurement by which they can determine intoxication by methadone.

“He didn't have a choice when his mom said get in the car,” said Jackie Thurston.

“We as parents have children. We're going to protect them. She should have been there to protect Matty. I have lost a nephew. I'm bound and determined to save another child.”

ldixon@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Sandra Coulombe's picture

I fail to see what difference

I fail to see what difference it makes why someone fell asleep at the wheel. Bottom line is whether it is from lack of sleep, medication, alcohol, or illegal drugs you knew you were a danger on the road and should be held fully and completely accountable for any injuries or personal property damage you cause up to and including being charged with vehicular manslaughter if someone dies due to your failure to be responsible regardless of if there are drugs or alcohol involved.

 's picture

Two Questions

Where is her other son?
Is she still driving while reeving treatments?

 's picture

Correction Receiving

Correction

Receiving medications.

Edward S Phillips 's picture

Drugged drivers and the System leaches

This is just an example of the system supporting its self. By keeping them on the drug the system insures its survival and the picking of the tax payers pocket. Time to set a limit on the time to recover not fore ever dependent.
Also never be allowed to drive period as the effect of the drug lasts a very long time.
The effect is not totaly worn off before the next dose.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Mr. Phillips

Your comment Is wrong from two aspects.
One: the Government ,nor the drug makers are purposely keeping any one on medication unnecessarily. The fact is its very difficult
to obtain certain medications
Two: You can't put a time limit on the use of any medication. This may be hard to swallow, but some medical conditions have no
cure.They never go away. I know this first hand.
One other thing, I would be willing to challenge you or anyone else to a driving safety and skills test. I will drive proverbial circles around you. We could use two wheelers, four wheelers, or eighteen wheelers, your choice.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

Maine has a special liscense restriction

When I received my handicapped license plates I was asked if I take medications. I said I did and was promptly handed a form which was to be filled out by my doctor and returned. About two weeks after returning the form I was told I needed a new license. Even though the one I had I had just renewed within the past month.
I take fourteen pills a day, some may make me drowsy I don't take opiates any more. I am however very careful about driving while medicated I have for years. I never got so much as a parking ticket.
Now I have a license which promanatly proclaims to any officer looking at my license. I take medications. Maybe that should be expanded to anyone who drives while prescribed to medications. It makes you pay very close attention to when you took the meds, and when you drive. A lot of people don't see medications as impairing.

Jeff Johnson's picture

I can just hear the ACLU

I can just hear the ACLU screaming now... that's an unnecessary invasion of privacy! Even though it affects the safety of others.

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