- Associated Press - Sunday, October 15, 2017

BEND, Ore. (AP) - It’s a story Karie Odell has shared more than a hundred times.

She was a fifth-grader in 1993 in Orange County, California, on the way home from a softball game she won by hitting a triple with the bases loaded. Riding in a minivan with her parents and two friends, Odell remembers her mom reminding everyone to put on their seat belts.

Minutes later, the minivan was struck head-on by a drunken driver. Odell’s mother and father died from the crash and her friends were injured. She was left in a coma for 2 1/2 months. Bones were shattered in her legs, arms and pelvis. Doctors had to reconstruct her face.

It’s a story she’s told hundreds of times, and every time - such as on a Wednesday last month in Bend - it brings back painful memories. Odell has been through more than 82 surgeries and still deals with severe headaches.

“Going through my story triggers a lot of emotions,” Odell said.

Her talk in Bend was for the monthly DUII Victim Impact Panel, hosted by the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office. Attending the panel is required for those convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants and is part of diversion programs and probation. It gives participants a reality check to see firsthand how tragic their decisions to drive impaired could have been. Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, a law enforcement officer and Odell speak at the monthly panel.

Odell, 35, of Bend, has spoken at each panel in Deschutes County since 2011, and has started traveling around the state to tell her story at other DUII victim impact panels.

“I was an 11-year-old playing softball. It wasn’t my fault,” she told the 64 attendees in Bend last month. “But because of a driver who was intoxicated with drugs and alcohol, I’m paying a life sentence for it forever and I’ll never get away from it.”

A GREAT EQUALIZER

Inside a room at the Deschutes County services building, the attendees sat quietly with stoic looks on their faces. They were trying not to be noticed by others whom they might recognize - friends or neighbors. One woman was falling asleep in the back row. But when Odell started talking and showing photos of her hospital stays, everyone in the room took notice.

A man sitting toward the front listened intently to Odell as she described her recovery after the crash. He broke the silence in the room, exclaiming, “Wow.”

“If I could change one person’s perspective and save a life, then it’s worth it,” Odell said to the attendees. “That’s why I do this so faithfully.”

Kaeli Snyder, victim advocate with Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office who oversees the panel, said drunken driving is a great equalizer. Each panel brings a cross section of the community - young and old, rich and poor.

More than 60 people attend each panel. The highest turnout last year was 73. Already this year, more than 80 people attended the panels in February, March and May.

Attendees are court-ordered to appear at one of the panels. They pay $40, which goes into the victim advocate budget, and fill out a comment sheet to prove they sat through the two-hour program.

“Most people are not thrilled to be there, but it’s overwhelmingly a very positive outcome at the end,” Snyder said. “People stop and look me in the eye and say, ‘Thank you.’”

At some of the panels, people get defensive and blame the police, lack of public transportation or the brewery industry in Bend. During the panel last month, one woman asked if the city of Bend should take more responsibility for all the alcohol that is sold at breweries, bars and festivals.

People are always looking for a scapegoat, Snyder said.

“A lot of people blame the beer industry,” she said. “I enjoy having beers, but I choose not to operate a vehicle. We all have choices.”

Hummel spoke first at the panel last month, and emphasized the goal is to better educate the public about the dangers of drunken driving, and not to judge those in attendance.

The district attorney shared statistics from his office that showed one-fifth of the cases charged each year are for driving under the influence.

According to Hummel, 10,265 people in the United States died in 2015 from impaired driving, including 357 in Oregon. And about 290,000 people were injured in drunken driving crashes across the country.

“It’s really sobering to see those numbers,” he said.

Hummel answered questions from the attendees, including if it is legal to ride a horse while impaired. The answer is yes, but it’s illegal to ride a bicycle impaired, Hummel said.

In addition, Hummel explained how people can still get arrested if their blood alcohol content is below 0.08 percent, the legal threshold for drunken driving. What matters is the impairment, he said, whether it’s people using other drugs or who have a low tolerance to alcohol.

Hummel also clarified how the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles has its own rules and regulations regarding driver’s license suspensions from drunken driving. DMV’s decision to suspend a license is separate from a judge’s decision in circuit court, he said.

Before wrapping up his talk, Hummel told a story about a couple driving on U.S. Highway 97 to Bend from the Redmond Airport to meet their grandchild for the first time, when they were struck from behind by a drunken driver. The couple fortunately survived the crash.

To accompany his story, Hummel showed photos of the couple’s destroyed car.

“This is the moment when we have to remember what this is really about,” Hummel said. “People are hurt and people’s lives are lost.”

‘CHANGE YOUR STORY’

Before Odell started publicly sharing her story, the crash she survived on July 11, 1993, was high-profile news in Southern California. The intoxicated driver was Ronald Joseph Allen, a prominent 31-year-old doctor who specialized in AIDS treatments. He had been drinking and took five prescription drugs before the crash that killed Odell’s parents, Mark Minzey, 38, and Noreen Minzey, 33, according to media reports at the time.

Prosecutors proved Allen acted purposely - six weeks earlier he took prescription pills and rammed three parked cars, telling police he wanted to kill himself.

He was charged with second-degree murder and sentenced to 18 years to life in prison. Two years ago, he was released from prison.

At the sentencing hearing in 1995, Allen spoke kindly about Odell, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times.

“For that girl to sit in the courtroom and look at me . and say I don’t hate this man . to me, that’s Jesus,” he said. “She’s a beautiful child.”

The time since then has not dulled the experience for Odell or the lesson of what happened. Her life changed, but so did Allen’s - and it all could have been prevented.

“I would not want you guys to have this over your head, like it is over Dr. Allen’s, causing such trauma to a young girl,” Odell told the attendees last month. “And making her live her whole life going through surgeries and pain.”

Odell spent the rest of her childhood with her aunt and uncle in Georgia. She graduated from high school in Georgia with a 3.8 GPA, despite dealing with lingering medical issues.

She went on to attend Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, and met her husband, Ben, the week before classes started.

The couple married in 2002 and moved to Alaska, where Ben grew up. They later moved to Klamath Falls, and Odell earned a psychology degree from the Oregon Institute of Technology.

They are now raising their 9-year-old daughter, Mikayla, in Bend. Mikayla’s name is especially meaningful because it includes Odell’s grandmother’s name, Kay, who was killed by a drunken driver four years after the crash that killed Odell’s parents.

Odell has lost three significant people in her life because of drunken drivers. That heartache is what motivates her to keep telling her story. And maybe someone listening won’t have to experience that same loss, she said.

“I don’t share my story to brag about what I’ve gone through and where I am now,” Odell said at the last panel. “I share it so y’all can change your story.”

___

Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com


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