Jeff Jardine

Injured Oakdale man coming home at last from Utah

With dad Michael Peterson, left, at his side, Eric Peterson recovers from his injuries in Salt Lake City in October 2012, a few years after his car was rammed by a drunk driver. His father’s longtime wish to bring him back to California has finally been answered.
With dad Michael Peterson, left, at his side, Eric Peterson recovers from his injuries in Salt Lake City in October 2012, a few years after his car was rammed by a drunk driver. His father’s longtime wish to bring him back to California has finally been answered. Michael Peterson

Most stories contain other compelling elements within, and Eric Peterson’s is no exception.

Front and center, the key to this one is that Peterson will be home for Christmas. To those who know the 26-year-old former and soon-to-be-again Oakdale resident and what he’s endured over the past four-plus years, that in itself is nothing short of a miracle. An Arizona-based nonprofit called Angel Flight is scheduled to fly him Dec. 20 from Salt Lake City to Modesto, where he’ll be transported to his new residence in Valley Home.

I’ve written a couple of times about Eric’s plight. After an October 2012 crash, he became a ward of the state of Utah – in essence a prisoner, his father claims. A drunk stole a cop car and led police on a high-speed chase through south Salt Lake City. The cop car rammed Peterson’s sedan while it was stopped at an intersection. Peterson, 6-foot-8, suffered major head trauma, numerous broken bones and other injuries.

His dad, Michael Peterson, left California for Utah to advocate for his son, trying to get him back home. Initially, the court granted the dad guardianship of his son. But because Michael was unemployed and homeless when he arrived in Salt Lake City, and because someone wrote letters to the court depicting Michael in less than glowing terms, a judge appointed an outside guardian to oversee Eric’s care and finances. It didn’t matter that Michael Peterson spent his days working with Eric at the rehabilitation hospital, staying in shelters or with friends he made in Salt Lake City.

The state controlled virtually every aspect of Eric’s life, including the $680,000 settlement he eventually received – an amount capped by state law for claims against state agencies. Because Michael Peterson has no legal standing, he said he’s never been able to get an accounting of how much of it the state has spent on Eric’s care, or how much of the settlement amount remains. He’s talked to attorneys, care facilities, court and other state officials, but got into arguments that caused authorities to restrict the amount of time he could spend with Eric at the care center.

“He’ll need millions for care for the rest of his life,” Michael said, including for additional operations they hope will get Eric walking under his own power again. His speech remains slurred but is improving. Eric’s care will be paid for by California, not Utah, Michael said.

But there are sidebars to Eric’s story, beginning with the impact it’s made on his father. Before Eric’s crash, Michael Peterson drove trucks and worked for a landscaper in Modesto. He had no arrest record, but admits to drug use.

“I was pretty screwed up. I’d been a bad boy,” he said. “I was a working addict.”

Eric’s accident compelled Michael Peterson to look at his own life and direction.

“This changed my life. I’m good now, four years (clean),” Michael said.

He will become certified as an in-home caregiver, getting paid to care for Eric.

And Salt Lake City resident D’Arcy Casady calls Eric “my hero.” Why? Because had Eric not been idling at the intersection that night four years ago, she would be dead.

“He was hit and went airborne,” Casady said. The stolen police car then careened into hers. “(The collision with Eric’s car) slowed the police car from 93 to 45 miles an hour,” she said.

Forty-five mph was bad enough. Casady also received multiple injuries, including broken ribs, a punctured lung, a cracked tooth and a total knee blowout.

“When my car stopped spinning, I was facing the opposite direction,” Casady said. “All of the support people were there; they got there so fast.”

Some no doubt arrived immediately because they had chased the stolen cop car to the intersection.

“They told me there had been a fatal, and that I’d need to wait for treatment,” she said.

Eric, she said, they’d presumed to be the fatality. He survived, though, and as she herself healed, she wondered what happened to him.

“I found stories in the newspaper and things people posted,” she said. “I tracked them (Eric and Michael) down on the one-year anniversary of our (injuries).”

Casady let Michael Peterson stay at her place on occasion and offered him workspace there as he continually tried to challenge the system in an attempt to get Eric returned to California. She became perhaps their staunchest support in Salt Lake City.

“I’d be dead if Eric hadn’t been there first,” she said.

And, finally, because nurse Tammy Smith of Modesto worked diligently as an advocate for Eric back here, Utah officials finally agreed to allow him to come home. She is the one making certain Eric’s needs can be met at Valley Home.

“She’s put everything together,” Michael Peterson said. “He won’t be in a facility. He will be home.”

Home at last – and perhaps the best part of his story in progress.