On Fatal Anniversary, a Drinking Culture Laid Bare

By Beacon Staff

At 2:10 in the morning on March 23 of last year, a group of revelers at Pick’s Bowling Center in Bigfork raised their glasses for a toast. For one of the men, a 29-year-old employee of the bowling alley named Travis Vandersloot, it was his 13th drink of the night, according to an investigative report recently made available to the Beacon. From the time his shift ended at 11 p.m. Vandersloot spent the next three hours drinking seven beers – six pints and one bottle – along with shots containing Jägermeister and Southern Comfort. Less than an hour later, the events of the night culminated in a crash that caused the deaths of two young men and sent shockwaves through the Flathead Valley.

TYPICAL NIGHT

Most of those in the small crowd at Pick’s had been drinking pretty hard. According to surveillance video from that evening, for the manager-on-duty, Diane Pickavance, the toast was her ninth drink of the night. For fellow employee Justin Meccia, the toast was his 11th drink. And though they noticed Vandersloot was impaired, it wasn’t unusual behavior for the Columbia Falls resident.

“He’s had plenty more to drink on previous nights and still made it to someone’s house or went to someone’s house or left his car and high-tailed it to someone’s house,” Justin Meccia, a fellow Pick’s employee, told Montana Highway Patrol officers in an interview for the report compiled by the state Department of Justice on the events of that night.

The bartender, Nathan Hale, offered to let Vandersloot spend the night on his couch in Bigfork, and by all accounts Vandersloot accepted. In his second interview with investigators, Hale recalled Vandersloot being “not intoxicated but impaired,” and said he thought Vandersloot could make it the relatively short distance to his co-worker’s house because he wasn’t “sh–faced, falling down.”

“I was confident and knowing that he could make it to Nathan’s house, but any considerable distance,” Meccia said, “I would have been very concerned.”

Most of the crew left Pick’s shortly after the toast, with Vandersloot pulling out of the parking lot around 2:27 a.m. But then something happened, the reason for which no one is sure. Instead of following Hale home to Bigfork, Vandersloot headed west on Montana Highway 82.

COLLISION

Nine minutes later, traveling north in the wrong lane on U.S. Highway 93 near Mile Post 107, Vandersloot smashed his Volkswagen head-on into a Montana Highway Patrol cruiser going south, killing himself instantly. Trooper Michael Haynes died four days later.

Investigators determined Vandersloot’s blood alcohol content had been 0.18, more than twice the legal limit, and found traces of the active ingredient in marijuana in his blood indicating he had smoked some time within four hours of the crash. They later found a glass pipe for smoking marijuana in the center console of his car. His co-workers indicated in interviews Vandersloot may have been on prescription medication for a sleep disorder.

The vehicles collided so hard investigators found pieces of the patrol car’s fender and its license plate still embedded in the front end of the Volkswagen. Investigators determined he was driving at least 80 miles per hour on impact. Haynes, a three-year veteran of the Highway Patrol who had served in the Gulf War, had been going 48 miles per hour. Though Haynes was unconscious but breathing following the accident, he succumbed to his injuries on March 27. He left behind his wife, Tawny, and two young children.

THE AFTERMATH

One year later, the aftermath of that accident casts a long shadow, particularly on the families of the young men killed and the people at Pick’s on that March night. Yet beyond those directly affected, what is perhaps most surprising about the case is how common fatalities stemming from drunken driving remain in Montana. And what made the March 23 crash remarkable was that it involved the death of a law enforcement officer whose career was focused on preventing accidents like the one that took his own life.

The crash that killed Haynes and Vandersloot shined a light on a drinking culture in Montana that is at once deeply engrained and stubbornly resistant to change – not only among most bar patrons and owners, but in the state’s justice system. Despite a broad reluctance by prosecutors in Montana to charge bartenders in relation to drunken-driving accidents, the report on the March 23 crash lays bare whether those assumptions are in need of revision.

The investigative report recommended Hale, who allegedly served Vandersloot 12 of his 13 drinks, and Pickavance, who served him one, be charged with two counts each of felony criminal endangerment for actions resulting in the deaths of Haynes and Vandersloot. But County Attorney Ed Corrigan, calling it a “difficult process,” said he could find no other example in Montana where a bartender received such a penalty for the consequences of a drunken-driving accident.

“I thought about it long and hard,” Corrigan said. “There is no precedent in Montana for these kinds of cases.”

He eventually charged Hale with three misdemeanors for negligent endangerment, selling alcohol after hours and selling alcohol to an intoxicated customer. Pickavance faces one misdemeanor charge of selling alcohol after hours. Both pleaded not guilty and have hearings scheduled in April.

“Based on the evidence and my experience, I felt that the charge of negligent endangerment was more appropriate,” Corrigan added. “It’s pretty much a judgment call.”

Attorney Tammi Fisher, who represented the Haynes family in a civil case against Pick’s Bowling Center that was resolved in October, acknowledged that no precedent exists in this state for charging bartenders with felonies following drunken driving accidents, but believes the events detailed in the investigative report illustrate the responsibility borne by bartenders.

“By and large, I think there’s a culture in Montana that it’s the person who has been drinking’s sole responsibility and it’s not the bartender’s responsibility,” Fisher said. “I just think that bartenders have no idea of their grave responsibility.”

Pick’s Bowling Center is currently in active litigation to keep its liquor license from being revoked by the state. But in the year following the accident the owner has instituted several changes aimed at reducing drunken driving, including: mandatory training for bartenders on avoiding over-serving and identifying minors; prize drawings for designated drivers to encourage the practice; free rides for big events and bracelets for those over 21 on busy nights.

Pickavance’s attorney did not return calls for comment. Hale also declined to comment for this story, saying only, “It’s a really tragic situation all around.”

In an interview with Hale conducted by investigators following the crash, however, he acknowledges the gravity of his role in the accident.

“Two people just got killed. It’s all my fault pretty much because I used bad judgment,” Hale said. “I didn’t know, you know, that my decision was going to affect other people’s lives. I didn’t know that I probably just killed somebody’s daddy.”

AT HOME

Two-year-old Elias Haynes is adjusting to his father not being here, but was so young when the accident occurred it was difficult for him to understand.

“He walked around the house looking for (Michael),” Tawny Haynes recalled of those weeks immediately following the crash. “Now he just knows that daddy’s a picture on the wall.”

Taryn Haynes, 4, is also doing fine, but she worries about her mother or brother getting hit by a car.

“They accept it at this age,” Tawny said. “She’ll say, ‘Daddy’s in heaven’ – that’s just kind of the way life is for her now.”

During an interview at their home in Kalispell last week, Taryn and Elias ran around the house, playing with balloons and rubber lizards beneath walls adorned with photographs of their father, whom they resemble. Tawny’s children help her cope with losing her husband, but she is often reminded of him. Their sixth anniversary would have been March 15. When she drives at night, she imagines him driving down that stretch of U.S. 93, thinking to himself about his shift ending and how he would be home in a matter of minutes.

Sometimes the memories take her by surprise.

“I’ll be watching a movie and I’ll realize the last time I watched this, it was with him,” she said. “I’ll see somebody in the store with a coat like his or a shirt like his – you do a double-take.”

But Tawny, 32, feels Michael’s absence most deeply at the end of the day, when the kids are asleep and the house is quiet.

“You realize, I’m all alone,” she said. “That’s the hardest part, because he was my best friend.”

Over the last year, Tawny has become an outspoken advocate of stricter drunken-driving enforcement measures, testifying in Helena and working with an interim legislative committee examining the effectiveness of Montana’s laws in this area to see how they can be improved.

“I want to do the right thing,” she said. “I want his death to mean something; I want some good to come out of this.”

In his three years on the Highway Patrol, Michael Haynes received high marks from his supervisors, and was an aggressive enforcer of DUI laws. The brutal irony in how he was killed is not lost on Tawny.

“He was so successful at trying to keep drunks off the road,” she said. “It was so important to him, and then to have him taken this way…”

Her voice trails off. She pauses. Then looks up, resolute: “I feel like I owe it to him and my kids to pursue this.”

Tawny had hoped for tougher charges against the bartenders at Pick’s, particularly after reading in the investigative report how many drinks Hale had served Vandersloot before he got behind the wheel.

“I certainly believe he did have a hand in what happened, after reading the events of that night,” she said. “It’s not anything malicious, it’s not about revenge, I just think that people need to start being held accountable for their choices.”

Vandersloot’s family reached out to Tawny through Facebook, and she acknowledged their deep pain in the wake of the crash as well.

“We’re not the only family that’s grieving and suffering,” she said. “It’s certainly not their fault what happened, so they’re just as much victims as I am or my kids are.”

As the one-year anniversary of Michael’s death approaches, Tawny is thinking about how she will observe it. A big gathering sounds unappealing, so she’ll probably take Taryn and Elias to the park, where they will remember their father and husband in their own quiet way.

“We’ll have the kids write some notes to him and we’ll probably send them up in a balloon,” she said. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel that day, so I haven’t planned too much.”

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