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Troopers: Driver killed in wrong-way crash was drunk

Driver had just left memorial service for her employer

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Published: March 13, 2010, 12:00am

A 29-year-old woman who was killed in collisions with three other vehicles while she drove the wrong way on state Highway 14 in January was heavily intoxicated, police say.

Toxicology results made public Thursday show that Sheila M. Walls’ blood-alcohol level was 0.20, said Trooper Steve Schatzel with the Washington State Patrol. That is 2 1/2 times the basic legal threshold of 0.08 that constitutes drunken driving, Schatzel said.

The series of collisions occurred about 4:35 p.m. on Jan. 9 — on the freeway near Grand Boulevard — as Walls drove a 1991 Honda Accord east in the westbound lanes, according to the WSP report. Visibility was good that afternoon, troopers said.

Walls, of Estacada, Ore., died of multiple blunt-force injuries in the accident, according to the Clark County Medical Examiner.

Two other people were injured, one seriously, in the crashes, and four other vehicle occupants escaped injury.

Memorial service

Shortly before the crashes, Walls had left a memorial service for Wes Lematta, the founder of Columbia Helicopters, conducted at Esther Short Park and the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

About 800 people attended the memorial for Lematta, a Vancouver philanthropist who died on Christmas Eve at age 82, according to The Columbian’s files.

Walls worked as a records control clerk in the company’s quality department, an official said.

Schatzel said he was unaware of any investigation of any alleged overserving of alcohol during the memorial.

After the crashes, troopers worked to determine exactly where Walls entered Highway 14.

“We’ll probably never know that for sure,” Schatzel said Thursday.

Troopers initially said a truck driver observed her entering the C Street ramp that’s used by westbound drivers coming off Highway 14 into downtown Vancouver. Another witness saw her car, and managed to avoid colliding with it, before it reached Columbia House Boulevard.

The investigation, led by Trooper Dave Bourland, found no indication that Walls had been texting or talking on her cell phone, or was otherwise distracted, Schatzel said.

“It is a tragedy in all respects,” Schatzel said. “Both the loss of her life and the injuries to other people.”

Most seriously injured was Elizabeth M. Gonsalves, then 32, of Camas, who suffered a fractured neck, spine, left wrist and abdominal injuries, according to a WSP bulletin.

She initially was listed in serious condition in intensive care at Southwest Washington Medical Center, but her condition soon was upgraded to satisfactory.

She no longer is a patient at the medical center, a hospital employee said.

Brian J. Gonsalves, then 33, who was driving a 2004 Acura that crashed head-on with Walls’ Honda, suffered a broken ankle, the bulletin said. He was treated and released soon after the crash.

The Gonsalves family did not return a call from The Columbian seeking an update of their medical conditions.

The safest way to avoid a crash with a wrong-way driver on a freeway is to stay in your right lane, the outside lane, troopers said.

That’s because wrong-way drivers generally will be coming toward you in your left lane, thinking they are in their right lane.

Another tip, troopers said, is to look farther ahead than many drivers do. Troopers are trained in the WSP Academy to look far ahead, and they say it gives you more time to react and avoid a crash.

Columbia Helicopters, based at the Aurora, Ore., Airport, provides heavy-lifting services such as helicopter logging worldwide. It has about 800 employees and owns more than 30 aircraft including the Boeing 234 Chinook, the largest commercial helicopter available in the U.S., according to company officials and its Web site, www.colheli.com.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.

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