By AMANDA KIMBLE
ERATH COUNTY (May 20, 2016) – Deputy Dustin Paulsen, 40, is lucky to be alive.
A month after escaping death at the hands of a drunk driver, the veteran law enforcement official is facing a long road to recovery. He is also facing the possibility that after almost 20 years, his career as a patrol officer could be over.
Just after midnight on Friday, April 22, Paulsen’s patrol unit was decimated in a head-on collision while he was on duty for the Erath County Sheriff’s Office. The wreck occurred south of Stephenville on U.S. Highway 281 – a stretch of road that has been the scene of several accidents.
The driver of the vehicle who struck Paulsen’s patrol unit, Luis Alberto Garcia, 30, of Stephenville was pronounced dead at the scene after being ejected from the vehicle. This week, officials confirmed Garcia was intoxicated at the time of the collision, and his autopsy pointed to other substance abuse issues.
“I spoke with the (Texas Highway Patrol) trooper who worked the wreck and he said Mr. Garcia had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .26,” Chief Deputy Jason Upshaw said, adding the state of Texas has legal limit of .08 percent. “I was also informed his autopsy revealed he had recently used methamphetamine.”
Learning of the test results, Paulsen said he “had no words.”
He may have no words for Garcia or his actions, but Paulsen has words for other people to consider.
“I would like for people to think about what my wife went through,” Paulsen said. ‘Being woken up at 1 (a.m.) with other officers knocking on our door.”
Speaking with The Flash via telephone from his Stephenville home Friday, Paulsen recalled the incident, the uncertainties ahead and the outpouring support his family has received.
He never lost consciousness. He has full recollection of the incident.
“Myself and Sgt. James Robinson were headed to the south end of the county to back up another deputy on a disturbance,” Paulsen said, adding he was driving his patrol vehicle a few miles ahead of the sergeant. “We were about three or four miles south of Stephenville.”
At that location an incline in the highway restricts drivers’ line of sight. But Paulsen saw something as soon as he crested the hill.
“I saw a (Ford) Mustang in my lane and had no time to brake or swerve,” he said. “I had no time to do anything.”
Due to the locking of the speedometers on both automobiles, officials determined the deputy was traveling at a speed of about 70 mph and Garcia was traveling at an excessive 92.
Paulsen remembers the headlights of the Mustang glaring. He recalls the head-on impact. His patrol unit spinning. The door flying off of the vehicle. The airbags deploying. The roof of his patrol unit caving in over his head.
He was aware of what was happening, but Paulsen was suddenly uncertain of his location.
“After my unit came to a stop and the initial shock wore off, I was in a lot of pain,” he said.
But Paulsen was on duty. His job was to safeguard others. It was pitch black outside. He needed to ensure other motorists were aware of the hazard. There was debris from both cars scattered across the road. He didn’t want anyone else to strike the wreckage. He attempted to activate his vehicle’s emergency lights.
“When I hit the switch for the lights, all of the electronic equipment in the my unit popped and snapped – blew up,” Paulsen said. “There was a big, bright flash. I had no lights, no camera, no radio, nothing.”
Meanwhile, Sgt. Robinson saw something ahead. He radioed to the deputy, “120 is that you? 120 are you okay?”
“I learned that later,” Paulsen said. “My radio was inoperative. I couldn’t hear it.”
It took the senior officer some time to get through the debris to the deputy’s mangled, unrecognizable patrol vehicle.
Erath County first responders were on the scene in less than five minutes. His femur was protruding through his pants. The process of attempting to free his broken body from the wreckage quickly began.
Paulsen was surrounded by the people he worked with every day. His chief deputy, lieutenant and sergeant were on scene.
“I was one of the first ones there,” Upshaw said. “I didn’t believe there was anyway (anyone would survive).”
It took rescuers about 45 minutes to extract Paulsen from the remains of his patrol vehicle.
“He remained cool and calm the whole time,” Upshaw said.
The deputy was transported by air ambulance to a Fort Worth hospital, where it was determined that, in addition to the compound fracture to his femur, he suffered a broken pelvis, multiple fractures to his hip, torn ACL, PCL and MCL ligaments in his knee, separated ribs, bruised lungs, a lacerated spleen and more.
“My foot was crushed in the wreckage,” Paulsen said. “Virtually every bone is broken, 25 percent of them were crushed to powder.”
He is not currently able to stand or walk. Steel rods have been implanted to support his femur and hip. He will soon visit a specialist to address his foot.
“We’ve discussed fusing the bones,” Paulsen said. “I would be able to walk but not run or get back out on patrol. We’ve also discussed the possibilities of amputation.”
For now, Paulsen is living his daily life in recovery. His wife, Leia, is at his side.
“It’s hard not going to work, sitting here in this chair,” Paulsen said. “But Leia is doing a great job. I got out of the house yesterday and went to the office to see the guys, and I’ve been to the store a couple of times.”
Paulsen admits his daily life includes a lot of pain, but said that’s part of living.
When it comes to recovery and rehabilitation, there is no time table. The severity of Paulsen’s injuries leaves a lot of questions – about time and the future. His patrol career may be over, but something more important wasn’t taken from him – time with his wife and children, ages 2, 4, 12 and 14.
“I have been doing this (working a patrol officer) for 17 years,” he said. “If I have to lose my foot to play with my kids, there are other things I can do. I have telecommunicator license and jailer’s license.”
Outpouring of Support
Paulsen understands what it’s like to belong to a band of brothers. He served in the United States Navy until the age of 22. He served as deputy in Wise, Comanche and Hamilton counties before signing on with Erath County.
“The agency has been super supportive,” he said. “I have had guys stop by the house at 7 a.m. to help me get loaded into the truck to get to an appointment. My partner, Lewis Herrington, has been supportive, as have my chief, lieutenant and sergeant – everyone I work with. Even people I have arrested have stopped by to check on me. People I don’t know, people from other states. The support has been overwhelming.”
Since his injury occurred while on duty, Paulsen’s medical care is covered by the county’s workman’s compensation insurance. Still, financial concerns swirl around recovery, missed work and his family.
But he has an extended family ready to lend a hand.
Paulsen is one of two deputies Erath County deputies currently on medical leave, and the department is assisting with a fundraising event to be held in early August.
“We are small enough agency that we are all family,” Upshaw said. “We spend more time with each other than we do with our own families, and when one of us is hurt, we do what we can to help.”
The department is also selling t-shirts, that say ‘Standing Behind Those Who Stand Behind Us’ and depict and American Flag with a blue line representing one of the stripes. The t-shirts can be purchased at the sheriff’s office, located at 1043 Glen Rose Road in Stephenville, or email orders can be sent to email@example.com. Individuals who order their shirts by email are asked to include their name, email address, size and quantity of shirts ordering and shipping address. There is an additional charge for shipping, and payments will be collected through PayPal.
A Dustin Paulsen benefit account has been established at First Financial Bank and an online fundraiser can be found at www.gofundme.com/2kwtmvhs .
“The most terrifying words that a police officer can hear are ‘Officer Down’,” the organizer of the online fundraiser posted. “And friends, right now Deputy Paulson is indeed down. He needs our help. And he needs your help, too.”