On Oct. 21, 2012, former Oakdale resident Eric Peterson sat at an intersection in South Salt Lake City, Utah, waiting for a stoplight to change to green.
His life changed forever a split second later when a drunk driver in a stolen police car slammed into Peterson’s Mitsubishi Eclipse. The impact drove Peterson’s car into a tree, critically injuring him. His passenger suffered lesser injuries. The stolen police vehicle hit another car as well, injuring its 52-year-old driver.
Peterson survived despite suffering severe head trauma, a broken femur and shoulder blade, and other injuries. He cannot walk because both feet curl inward. His communication skills are limited. He struggles to lift his left arm. He recently had surgery to repair tissue damaged by the trachea tube doctors installed during a surgery.
His physical problems, his father and grandmother claim, are compounded by the fact that the court appointed a guardian to manage his life. He now stays in a convalescent home in Salt Lake City, where, family said, the only physical therapy he receives is administered by dad Mike Peterson, who isn’t a licensed physical therapist.
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In essence, they claim Eric is being kept there by local authorities. Mike Peterson went to Utah shortly after Eric was hurt and has been there ever since. He’s visited with Eric virtually every day and at first was granted guardianship. But some letters written to the court were derogatory toward him, claiming among other things that he hadn’t been a part of Eric’s life at times. Several favorable letters about him weren’t taken into consideration, he claims. The judge appointed a guardian to oversee Eric’s finances and care, taking the decision-making out of Mike’s hands.
“They say it’s because I don’t have a job and a place to live,” he said. “I have a home in California. Me and my brother and my mom live together. I have no arrest record. Families pull together.”
Gayle Bjorge, Mike’s mother and Eric’s grandmother, added that Mike drove trucks, worked as a carpenter and was employed by a landscaper in the Modesto area until he went to Utah to be with Eric in 2012.
Eric’s mother, Tina Naujokaitis, also has been to Utah. Both parents have spent extensive time with their son.
“If she hadn’t been there, (Eric) would have died,” Bjorge said. “Tina resuscitated him” at some point after the accident.
Eric, now 24, attended school in Oakdale until encountering trouble as a teenager. He spent some time in a juvenile detention facility in Stockton. A huge young man – he’s about 6-foot-8 – Eric began to make huge personal strides when he was placed in foster care with a family in north Modesto, his grandmother said. He graduated from Beyer High in 2008 and eventually moved to Elko, Nev., where he began working at a gold mine. Bjorge credits the foster mom, Diane Nichols, with pushing him to graduate and to take school seriously.
“He was working in the lab at the mine because of her,” Bjorge said.
It’s been a struggle to find legal representation in his attempt to regain guardianship, Mike Peterson said. The attorney hired to represent Eric’s interests switched to representing Naujokaitis in her unsuccessful attempt to become Eric’s guardian. Mike was left to find another attorney who is no longer involved, either. He has no attorney now.
The court-appointed guardian, attorney Joyce Maughan, told me she no longer is on the case and cannot comment under any circumstances. Her successor didn’t respond to my interview request.
Mike Peterson is frustrated because he believes Eric will make better progress back home in California than in Salt Lake City. He suspects officials in Utah are keeping control of Eric to limit their financial liability. Eric will need costly specialized care for the remainder of his life, his dad said.
“They are going to owe him millions,” Mike said. “But they’re saying he can only sue for $600,000.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Troy Cooke, the 20-year-old drunk driver who caused the injuries Eric and the two others suffered, eventually pleaded guilty to three felony DUI counts (one per victim) and to failing to stop in response to officers’ commands. The car theft charge was dropped, even though he totaled the police cruiser he stole when an officer pushed the remote button to unlock the cruiser too soon, giving Cooke the opening to jump in and take off, according to the newspaper Deseret News.
Cooke received one to 15 years on each count, served the sentences concurrently, and is already out of jail. In January, he began paying down the $18,924 in restitution ordered by the judge, the paper’s reporter covering courts said.
Mike Peterson is scheduled to return to court in Salt Lake City in October, hoping to convince the judge he should be granted guardianship of his son.
The hearing will fall a week shy of two years since that morning when Eric sat at an intersection waiting for a green light. He’s still waiting, this time for the one that will let him go home.