When John Pelletier was hit by a drunken driver in 1981, it took his life, not all at once, but inch by tragic inch.
Pelletier’s younger sister, Paula Pelletier, who lives in Arizona, said their childhood in Fort Kent in the 1950s was the picture of happiness, with long summer evenings during which kids would play basketball or kick the can while their parents drank beer and watched.
“It was the golden age of the families,” she said.
Pelletier was an active child and enjoyed soccer, skiing, fishing, hunting, camping and bringing home tadpoles from a nearby swamp.
His real passion, science, was fueled by his first microscope, which he got when he was 8 years old.
“We’d look at our boogers,” his sister said. “On the glass slide. The fluid would move around and we thought it was worms. That’s what stopped us picking our noses.”
At school, she said, he was a class clown, always looking for ways to make his classmates laugh.
At 15, in a school essay about his own life, he noted that he drove his teachers crazy and raised “all-around heck.”
“What fate has in store for me I haven’t the faintest idea,” he wrote. “I don’t know what I want to succeed at yet, but I know I will enjoy it.”
Pelletier earned a bachelor’s degree in veterinary sciences in 1974 from the University of Maine and took a job for Lipman Poultry. Within a few years he was overseeing disease control for farms throughout the state.
He married, had a daughter, and moved to Winthrop, where he owned a beautiful home on Upper Narrows pond.
His sister went on to attend college in Utah. As she prepared for her final exams in spring of 1981, her parents called.
“They said, ‘You need to come. Your brother’s been in an accident,’” she said.
It was the same way they had opened a previous phone conversation before breaking the news that her grandparents had died.
“I asked, has he passed away?”
Her father paused.
“He said ‘No. But it doesn’t look good. If you want to see him, you have to come,’” she said.
That day, Pelletier became one of drunken driving’s tragic statistics.
The number of people killed in drunken driving accidents nationally — 10,000 each year — is often cited by public health groups as the most compelling argument to step up efforts against it.
But those who are injured by drunken drivers — estimated at 315,000 nationally by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a national advocacy organization — can suffer long-term effects that experts say are difficult to quantify, but are another compelling reason to curb drunken drivers.
On average, an American is injured by a drunken driver once every two minutes, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The organization said that a change in state law that will go into effect in December will reduce the number of both fatalities and injuries in Maine.
An accident and death
Pelletier, then 30, was in a car accident a little before 8 p.m. April 17, 1981.
He was riding east on U.S. Route 202 in a 1974 Ford Mustang driven by a friend, David Michaud, 24, also of Winthrop.
A drunken driver in a 1966 Land Rover crossed the center line and the two cars collided head-on, according to newspaper accounts from the following day.
The cars were totaled, Michaud was killed, and Pelletier was rushed to the Kennebec Valley Medical Center in Augusta, where he remained in an induced coma, near death, for days.
A week later, he was transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland with injuries that included a kidney so damaged it had to be removed, his spleen destroyed, his chest wall and pancreas bruised.
He broke a finger, and the arteries that run along his spine were torn in multiple places.
And his brain was damaged, forever altering his personality. His sister said after he recovered, he frequently got frustrated and angry, although he was never violent.
Months after the accident, Pelletier still had double vision and difficulty moving his left side, a result of the brain damage. A medical chart note from June 28 that year noted that he was suffering from depression, fueled by Michaud’s death.
“Patient very upset to learn of friend’s death,” it reported. “Lies in bed whenever possible.”
Pelletier moved out of his Winthrop home and stayed with his parents to recuperate.
He and his ex-wife were trying to mend their relationship, but the reconciliation, already fragile, fell apart.
He tried to re-enter the workforce, but he had memory and emotional problems. His hands were no longer nimble enough to handle the delicate equipment needed to perform inspections.
“He wasn’t able to carry on with his work,” his sister said. “He had a very hard time admitting it. He was very proud.”
The next year, he was awarded disability benefits.
It was 1982. The life he once said he would enjoy had changed forever.
A larger problem
In Maine in 2011, there were 1,168 alcohol-related crashes, causing 853 injuries and 23 deaths, according to federal data cited by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which successfully lobbied for a new drunken driving law in Maine this year.
The data shows drunken driving fatalities cost the state $128 million a year, including items such as disability benefits.
The financial cost can be measured, but the human cost can never be fully accounted for, said Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for MADD, who testified on behalf of the law.
“It’s really hard to quantify,” he said. “When you see the victims of drunk driving, you can definitely see the emotional toll it leaves for families of people who are killed and survivors.”
In July, Gov. Paul LePage signed the legislation into law.
Currently, those found to be driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or greater lose their license for six months for a first offense. After the change in the law takes effect, the person will have an option to lease an ignition interlock system after 30 days. Using the system, the driver must blow into a tube and the car won’t start if alcohol is detected.
Harris said the law will reduce the number of repeat offenders by teaching offenders how to drive legally.
While the number of fatalities from drunk driving crashes has dropped by about 60 percent since 1981, there is still widespread noncompliance with drunken driving laws.
In 2010, an estimated 112 million people drove after drinking, but only 1.4 million drivers were arrested, suggesting about 1 percent of drunken drivers are caught by law enforcement, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In Maine, there were more than 7,000 drunken driving arrests reported in 2011, resulting in about 4,100 convictions.
‘I’ll die alone’
Twenty-five years after the accident disabled him, Pelletier bore little resemblance to the upbeat young man from Fort Kent.
His sister said the brain injury left him with impaired eyesight, a left hand that functioned like a claw and an unusual gait.
By the time Peter Winslow, 51, owner of Winslow’s Repairs in New Sharon, got to know him in 2006, Pelletier was lonely, eccentric and had streaks of white in his shaggy beard.
Pelletier, then 55, lived on his disability benefits in a rundown trailer he owned on a rented lot three miles up the road.
Winslow said Pelletier was smart, but personality quirks prevented him from developing relationships.
Pelletier liked to debate the issues of the day, but he was restless and easily distracted — for instance, a radio playing in the background could disrupt his thoughts.
When Winslow worked on Pelletier’s pickup truck, Pelletier would pace, sometimes grabbing a broom to sweep the garage floor.
Winslow would gently suggest he take Pelletier home.
“You’ll be more comfortable there,” he would say.
Pelletier didn’t have much money, and his truck, his only means of transportation, was beginning to rust away.
Over the years, as he worked on Pelletier’s truck, Winslow became the closest thing to a friend that Pelletier had.
Winslow welded repairs at a discounted rate, taking a loss on each job. If Pelletier couldn’t pay right away, Winslow let him run a tab.
“I would try to do the Christian thing with him because he was alone,” Winslow said. “I know what that’s like.”
When Pelletier locked his keys in his house, as he often did, Winslow boosted his son through the window to open the door.
They talked about the weather and current events and, sometimes, the past.
Winslow said that Pelletier didn’t have visitors and neglected his personal appearance and housekeeping.
Pelletier’s three cats, Lucy, Boots and Pearl, were another story.
“They were well-kept. They were flea-combed,” Winslow said. “They were eating good. They were top-shelf animals.”
He also took pride in his yard.
“He was the kind of guy that loved to really take care of his garden,” Winslow said. “He really liked the landscaping thing. He kept a nice lawn. He had a garden. He’d saw up his own firewood. He would shovel his own dooryard.”
Pelletier’s sister said his own wasted potential was a source of sadness for him.
“I know,” she remembered him saying on multiple occasions. “I know what I’m like. I know. And that’s why I’ll die alone.”
Final crushing result
In May, Pelletier, 62, driving his truck, pulled out of his driveway onto U.S. Route 2 and was struck by a tractor-trailer. The pickup was knocked off the road and into a ditch, and Pelletier died the next day at Lewiston’s Central Maine Medical Center.
His family said the accident was just the final crushing result of the original accident from 1981.
His inability to judge distance and the weakness in his left hand played a significant role, said his sister, and prevented him from being able to enter traffic safely.
She said police told her they were surprised to enter Pelletier’s broken-down trailer and find among his personal belongings the evidence of his achievements — his college diploma, pictures of his family, documents detailing his employment with Lipman and sketches of his inventions.
The cats were placed, one in a home and two in a no-kill shelter.
Soon after his death, at Allagash Falls near his boyhood home of Fort Kent, a river guide scattered the ashes of the cheerful boy who liked to hike, fish and bring home tadpoles.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287