I-Team: ‘I don’t know how they missed it,’ NHP troopers did not suspect impairment in truck driver high on meth who killed 5 cyclists

I-Team

Widow, prosecutor say failure to get warrant soiled investigation

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Nevada Highway Patrol troopers investigating one of the state’s deadliest crashes in decades did not suspect impairment in a truck driver who had just killed five cyclists — a blood test administered without a warrant would later find he had a level of methamphetamine in his system often seen in corpses.

The I-Team reviewed hours of body camera video, photos, internal documents and court records to find out why the investigation into the deadly crash resulted in a lesser plea deal.

Barson, 46, had faced separate counts of DUI and reckless driving for each of the five bicyclists killed and other charges — 14 counts in all. But the lead prosecutor on the case said those charges ultimately led to a deal due to NHP’s investigative failure.

In April, Barson pleaded guilty to two counts of DUI resulting in death. In June, a judge sentenced him to 16-40 years in prison.

The crash happened on Dec. 10, 2020, between Boulder City and Searchlight, about 60 miles outside of Las Vegas.

Barson struck the bicyclists and an escort vehicle as the group traveled south on U.S. 95 toward Arizona. The speed limit on that section of the rural highway is 75 mph.

Barson was working for a courier service based in Arizona. He had driven from Arizona to Las Vegas for a pickup that morning and was on his way back to Arizona. The cyclists were struck from behind as the truck crossed into the right lane.

A photo taken from an NHP drone as part of the department’s investigation into the crash that killed five bicyclists. (KLAS)

“I don’t have reason to believe he’s under the influence, but he’s obviously distraught,” a trooper said in body camera video during the beginning of the investigation. Sixteen body camera videos, obtained by the I-Team through a public records request, were pre-blurred and redacted upon delivery.

Over an hour, between about 9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. on Dec. 10, several troopers said they did not think Barson was impaired.

“I didn’t smell anything, I think he’s just distraught,” one trooper told another.

“He thinks he fell asleep. I tend to really believe that,” another trooper responded.

“Well, yea, it’s a long straight drive out here,” another said, commenting on the highway.

Troopers would not smell anything on Barson because it was not alcohol in his system. A toxicologist would later write the amount of methamphetamine in his blood is often seen in overdose patients.

Two hours after the crash, Barson submitted to a voluntary blood draw at an area hospital. Blood results showed he had 948 nanograms per milliliter of methamphetamine in his blood, documents said. The limit, 100 nanograms per milliliter, is the bar prosecutors must show to prove impairment.

Documents also indicated Barson fell asleep before the crash. He told troopers he had no memory of the incident.

Raw video: Troopers say they do not suspect Barson is impaired

“I don’t smell anything on him, but we need to check him for ’55’ and then we’ll need to see if he’ll do a voluntary blood draw,” one trooper tells another. “55” is code for an intoxicated driver.

In a sometimes-chaotic scene as a helicopter lands on the road to take away the injured, troopers document every piece of pavement. Among metal and pieces of bike strewn across the road, five white sheets mark the dead.

“His pure joy was just being out there on a beautiful day riding his bike,” said Donna Trauger, whose husband, Tom Trauger, 57, died in the crash. “One of the things I’m really grateful for is that I was awake that morning, that we talked and that I got to see him before he left for his ride.”

Tom Trauger racing in a triathlon in Hawaii in 2019. (KLAS)

Tom Trauger joined the planned 130-mile-long trek – called the Nipton Loop – to celebrate. One rider in the group was retiring from his job; a second had a birthday.

Not soon after the crash that Thursday morning, Donna Trauger answered a Facebook message. It was another rider asking her to call.

“He started crying and then I started crying and I said, ‘Please just say it, just tell me.’ And he said, ‘Tom was killed,’” Donna Trauger said.

But she would not know for sure for hours. Tom Trauger wore a GPS watch in the event of an emergency.

“I got a text message from Garmin with Tom’s GPS coordinates because I was his emergency contact,” Donna Trauger said.

Those coordinates said her husband was at the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

Donna Trauger and Tom Trauger with their grandson, Eli. (KLAS)

“And then they finally called at 6 o’clock at night, saying they had Tom,” Donna Trauger said.

Tom Trauger had his phone and identification with him, Donna Trauger said, but NHP’s policy says troopers shall “coordinate with the medical examiner” once a deceased person is identified.

“It is the responsibility of this office to locate and notify the legal next of kin of the deceased individual, as soon as possible,” the county’s policy reads.

“I don’t know how they missed it.”

DONNA TRAUGER, WIFE OF TOM TRAUGER

As troopers worked to identify the dead, they also worked on the living.

“Have you had anything to drink?” one trooper asks Barson, sitting in the backseat of a trooper’s SUV. “Have you taken any prescription meds or anything?”

“No,” he replied.

“Did you take anything today?” a trooper asks.

“No,” Barson replied.

Without suspecting alcohol impairment, troopers are trying to convince Barson to submit to a voluntary blood draw.

“One of the things that happen, you’ll probably get your driver’s license suspended,” one trooper tells Barson about the blood draw and if he declines. “It’s just one of the things to think about. I know it’s a lot to process.”

Nevada law requires law enforcement to establish probable cause to take a driver’s blood.

In one exchange, a trooper asks the on-duty sergeant what happens if they do not suspect impairment.

“Can’t do it,” the sergeant said.

Raw video: Troopers ask Barson to submit to a voluntary blood draw

If Barson did not agree to the voluntary blood draw, troopers would have to call a judge for a telephonic warrant, a process that those inside the courthouse said happens dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day.

“It’s not a matter of us suspecting impairment,” one trooper tells Barson. “Do you understand where I’m coming from?”

Minutes earlier, a trooper put Barson through a field sobriety test next to the truck he had just crashed into the group of cyclists. Just yards down the highway, their bodies lie in the road.

During the test, the trooper writes in his report that Barson “raised his arms, performed an improper turn” and “used his arms to balance.”

The trooper who conducted the test would later file a report, deeming the results “unsatisfactory.” The trooper wrote Barson was “shaking uncontrollably” and was “an emotional wreck given the severity of the incident.”

As one trooper goes through the motions with Barson, another trooper is recorded on video saying, “He’s having a hard time standing up, period.”

Two weeks after Barson’s blood results came back showing he had 948 nanograms of methamphetamine in his system. (KLAS)

In all, troopers ask Barson to submit to the voluntary blood draw five times:

“Will you volunteer and cooperate with that?”

“Will you volunteer for the blood draw?”

“Think about what I was talking to you about — giving us a voluntary. Alright?”

“At this point, we just need a yes or a no.”

Over the course of the conversations, the troopers tell Barson he will have his license suspended — which is standard procedure — if they call a judge for a warrant. They also tell him he may no longer be able to work if he cannot drive. On the fifth try, Barson nods yes.

In his report on the incident, the trooper does not note asking five times: “After a while I asked him if he would submit to a blood draw as is common procedure during a fatal traffic accident investigation,” the report said. “He said that he would provide a blood sample.”

Former Deputy District Attorney Thomas Moskal was the lead prosecutor on the case. He has since left the Clark County District Attorney’s Office.

“Nevada Highway Patrol, they didn’t get a search warrant in the case and that had to do with they didn’t suspect DUI,” Moskal said. “Ultimately, that had negative consequences down the road, because this became a huge DUI case.”

“I don’t have reason to believe he’s under the influence, but he’s obviously distraught.”

NHP trooper

Because the blood draw was voluntary and would have likely been suppressed had the case gone to trial, prosecutors agreed to a plea deal, Moskal said. Barson is serving two counts of DUI resulting in death. Five people died.

Moskal said NHP did not do its job. He accused the troopers of victim-blaming. In body camera video, troopers are seen reacting to the fact that the bicyclists were riding in the right lane – or the No. 2 as they call it.

“They were riding in the No. 2,” one trooper tells another.

“They can’t do that,” another replies.

“No,” a trooper responded.

The Nevada Department of Transportation allows cyclists to ride on rural sections of highway, including this section of U.S. 95. There is no law barring them from the right lane.

“They were allowed to be there in the road,” Moskal said. “But even if they weren’t, I don’t see how when five cyclists get killed and two are seriously injured that an investigator at the scene says, ‘Oh they were in the road at 10 a.m. on a brightly lit day and somehow this is not a criminal act anymore.’”

Moskal is ultimately critical of how troopers handled their investigation. He points to this one statement from a trooper to Barson: “It’s not a matter of us suspecting impairment. Do you understand where I’m coming from?”

“At that point, a person feels like they don’t have a choice and the whole point of consent being free and voluntary is a person has to understand that they are making a choice,” Moskal said. “The blood with the methamphetamine would never make it to the jury.”

A page from Nevada Highway Patrol’s digital investigation into Jordan Barson’s iPhone. Investigators say Barson looked at several images of people using drugs and suspected narcotics on his phone the night before the crash, records show. (KLAS)

A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires police to obtain a warrant before obtaining a blood draw from a suspected DUI driver, even if impairment is suspected.

Without probable cause, troopers released Barson after the crash. He returned to his home in Kingman, Arizona.

Four days after the crash, during an in-person interview at his home, Barson admitted to consuming methamphetamine around 4 p.m. on Dec. 9, one day before the crash. He told troopers he did not sleep well but continued his driving route from Arizona to Las Vegas. Troopers described him in their arresting documents as a “recovering methamphetamine user.”

“Chronic meth users can exhibit violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and psychotic features including paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions — such as the sensation of insects creeping on or under the skin,” the Drug Enforcement Administration said about the methamphetamine’s effects.

The Nevada Attorney General’s Office writes those who misuse methamphetamine will appear to have rapid eye movement, dental issues, skin sores and a pale or sweaty facial appearance.

“Methamphetamine users will also be paranoid, jittery, and anxiety-ridden,” the office writes on a website page dedicated to drug misuse. “They may communicate with senseless and irrational babble and their speech may be impaired. They are prone to moodiness and violent outbursts.”

Two weeks after Barson’s blood results came back showing he had 948 nanograms of methamphetamine in his system, an NHP drug recognition expert filed her report based on what she saw in the videos.

Investigators also learned that Barson looked at several images of people using drugs and suspected narcotics on his phone the night before the crash, records showed.

Raw video: Jordan Barson’s field sobriety test

“His performance on the standardized field sobriety tests showed numerous clues of impairment,” she wrote. “I observed no signs or indication of a person who was tired.”

She adds that it was clear to her Barson was under the influence of a stimulant. No trooper with current drug recognition expert training responded to the crash scene.

“It’s obvious to me and I’m not even trained,” Donna Trauger said.

Nearly a year after Barson killed her husband, Donna Trauger said NHP did not reach out to her until recently. Barson’s two counts of DUI resulting in death were spread out among five victims: Three names attached to the first count; two names to the second, Donna Trauger said.

“He is certainly serving time for the crime that he committed, but he is not serving the correct sentence for the crimes that he committed and that’s because the troopers didn’t do their jobs that day,” she said.

“He would say, ‘Let it go,’” Donna Trauger said. “If I had a dollar for every time he said, ‘Let it go’ to me I’d be very rich, but I can’t let this one go.”

The five cyclists killed were all from Las Vegas. In addition to Tom Trauger, the four other cyclists are Aksoy Ahmet, 48; Michael Murray, 57; Gerrard Nieva, 41; and Erin Ray, 39.

NHP and the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the agency, declined several on-camera interview requests.

The safety of the public and the life of each person is a priority for the Department and for every trooper who has taken an oath to keep our roadways and our communities safe. 

The decision to drive impaired is one of the top causes of traffic fatalities, and our heartfelt condolences are with the families affected by these incredibly tragic events. These crashes can be avoided if drivers make smart decisions.  

The Department has reviewed this investigation thoroughly and continues to be committed to improving investigative techniques, providing necessary resources and ongoing training for troopers. 

Nevada Dept. of Public Safety

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak also declined an on-camera interview.

“The governor continues to hold the affected families and loved ones close in his thoughts as they continue to deal with this horrendous loss of life,” a spokeswoman for the governor said in a statement. “The governor remains committed to work with state and local partners, including the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Nevada Department of Public Safety, on efforts to make Nevada’s roadways safer for all those who use the streets, including drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.”

The spokeswoman noted the governor’s support of two new laws, which aim to better address traffic and bicycle safety.

The Clark County Commission is exploring the hiring of a special traffic prosecutor to work DUI cases in court. A similar position already exists in northern Nevada.

In addition to refusing on-camera interview requests, NHP did not explain what, if anything, has changed since the crash.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

8 news now breaking and daily news sign up

CONTESTS

Pro Football Challenge

Don't Miss

Trending Stories