COUNCIL BLUFFS — Hundreds of mourners, including firefighters and paramedics from across the region, turned out for the funeral of a Shelby, Iowa, volunteer firefighter who was killed while directing traffic after an accident on Interstate 80.
But two years later, the driver whose car struck Michael Collins is suing the city, alleging that the Shelby volunteer firefighter was under the influence of drugs at the time and stepped into traffic.
David L. Thies of Boone, Iowa, is seeking $5,000, a fraction of what he says the accident has cost him. A hearing on his claim is scheduled for Oct. 21 in Pottawattamie County small claims court.
Documents filed as part of the suit, including the Iowa State Patrol's full investigative report, indicate that Collins had THC in his system, the active ingredient in marijuana, and oxymorphone, a narcotic pain reliever.
One of Collins' brothers, Al Fenderson of Omaha, is angry that Thies is suing the city.
“He chose to drive around everybody into an accident,” Fenderson said. “I think the guy has some nerve. The guy got away with killing my brother.”
Fenderson declined to comment on the drugs found in his brother's system.
Collins, 41, was directing traffic on eastbound I-80 near Shelby about 6:50 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2011. A Honda Accord driven by Thies swerved around stopped vehicles, entered the left lane and struck Collins, according to patrol reports.
Thies was later ticketed for driving without proper registration, but he faced no other charges. Tests after the accident indicated that he did not have alcohol or drugs in his system. Investigators were unable to determine how fast Thies was driving at the time.
After the 2011 crash, Collins' family questioned why authorities did not pursue a criminal case against Thies.
Pottawattamie County Attorney Matt Wilber said investigators could not find evidence that Thies acted in a reckless manner.
Wilber said the drugs in Collins' system were not a factor in the decision not to file charges.
“Our decision was made completely based on the conduct of the driver,” he said last week.
The accident report indicates that Collins got the oxymorphone from someone he knew who had a prescription for it.
Henry Nipper, a professor of pathology at Creighton University Medical School, said in an interview that the amount of oxymorphone in Collins' system was higher than what most toxicology laboratories consider therapeutic but was “not grossly elevated.”
Shelby Mayor Brad Blum said the city's firefighters are regularly tested for drugs.
He declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the city is awaiting legal advice on how to proceed.
Thies had been involved in a previous fatal crash. In 1988, he was riding a motorcycle near Axtell, Neb., when it crashed, killing his passenger, Gina Pearson, 20, of Kearney, Neb. Prosecutors said he had been drinking before the crash.
Thies served 17 months for motor vehicle homicide.
Thies' version of the 2011 accident, based on his lawsuit:
Thies was driving in the right lane when traffic in front of him slowed. There was no sign of an accident.
Two vehicles passed Thies, pulled in front of him, then suddenly halted. Thies hit the brakes and pulled into the passing lane.
He was still pressing on the brakes when Collins walked out of the median into the lane, stepping in front of Thies' car, apparently motioning another driver to slow down.
“I did not have time to react,” Thies says in the lawsuit.
He said his medical bills and other expenses have exceeded $30,000. He has received extensive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and his marriage ended, he said.
The crash plays like a video over and over in his head.
“It doesn't go away,” he said. “They gave me some techniques on how to deal with it. That's what I do. I deal with it.”