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Public safety concern absent following casino bus trip

Records released detailing an investigation into a single-vehicle crash on Highway 30 between Rainier and St. Helens following a casino bus trip fundraiser do more than raise questions about the integrity of former Sheriff’s Office deputy David Fuller, who as of our press time Tuesday was in the running for sheriff of Columbia County.

Indeed, the investigative report is damning for several of Columbia County’s public agencies tasked with responding to emergencies and upholding public safety.

The records raise basic questions about whether the police officials in Columbia County employ a double standard when it comes to one of their own. The message is that it’s OK for our buddies and friends to drive while intoxicated, but if we catch someone not in our social club we will throw the proverbial book at him or her.

More than anything else, the officials — including police officers with the Sheriff’s Office and dispatchers who work with Columbia 911 — who are detailed in the records as having had serious concerns about Fuller, his apparent intoxication and the fact it was unclear how he planned to make it home after the fundraiser, have failed the community at that task. No one took final responsibility for ensuring someone who was uniformly perceived to have been intoxicated did not get behind the wheel and drive.

There appears to have been some effort to contact Fuller’s wife or daughter, according to the records. The records also indicate Fuller said he intended to sleep in his vehicle. In both cases, however, there is no follow-through from the group of friends and colleagues who attended the fundraiser with Fuller. And there should have been.

Oregon State Police Trooper Tyler Bechtel interviewed many of those who attended the fundraiser for the Clatskanie Volunteer Fire Department. In each instance in which the person Bechtel interviewed had been familiar with Fuller and his behavior during the trip, the concern for Fuller’s ability to drive after the fundraiser is clear. Some believed he was intoxicated, though there was some question whether he was beyond the legal limit to drive after departing the bus. Others had no such concerns, and recounted how they awoke the next morning genuinely upset for having not taken a firmer hand with Fuller as he departed the bus in Longview, Wash.

In retrospect, even before learning of the crash, many wished they had intervened.

Sgt. Russ George, Fuller’s then-supervisor at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, told Bechtel he wished he had done more only in light of the fact Fuller’s crash and his refusal to report it, as is required per Oregon Department of Motor Vehicle law, prompted the more in-depth investigation. In fact, some of the bus passengers said they had concerns, but when George did not take action to halt Fuller from driving, they concluded Fuller was OK. George is the official, after all, and when he didn’t act there was just cause for further inaction.

Indeed, George — who, along with Fuller, was one of three people who boarded and departed the bus in Longview, and who had the greatest opportunity to make sure an intoxicated person did not get behind the wheel and drive — leaves no mistake in his interview with Bechtal that he believed Fuller was very intoxicated. Yet, instead of exercising his authority as a colleague and a public safety officer, George told Bechtel he made a “beeline” for his truck because he was sick and tired of some of the drunken behavior of the bus passengers. We should also mention there is no indication that George was intoxicated.

Ultimately, it was Fuller’s responsibility to make his own driving arrangements and to safeguard against the possibility of driving while intoxicated early in the morning on April 1. Would he have failed a field sobriety test, or have blown above the legal limit of .08 blood alcohol content in Oregon to qualify for DUII? We will never know. His actions in the aftermath, however, have solidified our concern for his potential position as sheriff in Columbia County, a potentiality we will very much be watching.

We understand there was a worthy cause behind the casino bus trip: to raise money, estimated at $800 and $1,000 per trip by one of the organizers, for the volunteer fire department. Likewise, it’s not inherently bad to drink alcohol, to enjoy camaraderie with one’s friends and colleagues. Such events can build teamwork and friendships.

But when those events involve professionals charged with overseeing public safety, who then compromise that safety through irresponsible decision-making, the events become a detriment to the community.

We also realize these were adults at the event, and that it can be difficult to convince or even force a person who has been drinking to listen to reason. That is why we afford others in our society with a badge, so that reason and safety can be enforced. In this case, there were plenty of badges to go around at the Clatskanie Volunteer Fire Department casino bus trip.

Unfortunately, reason and concern for public safety was sorely absent.