D.A. argues Taplin car not fit for road

Defense questions whether witness could judge auto's condition

Posted: Monday, January 24, 2000

KETCHIKAN - The prosecution today alleged Joel Taplin knowingly drove an unsafe vehicle when he ran into an Auke Bay man in July, causing massive injuries that led to his death.

District Attorney Rick Svobodny presented testimony from two mechanics who said a damaged right front wheel may have made the 1990 Volkswagen Jetta hard to steer. Defense Attorney Louis Menendez questioned whether one of the mechanics knew enough to make such a judgment.

Taplin is on trial on a manslaughter charge stemming from the death of biologist Dick Carlson. Prosecutors allege the 27-year-old New England teacher was drunk when he ran his car into Carlson on Back Loop Road. Defense attorneys call the incident an unfortunate but unavoidable accident.

Taplin's trial resumed this morning in a Ketchikan courtroom.

Steve Oyloe, a mechanic with Fred's Auto Service, told the court Taplin brought his car to be checked out just a few hours before he drove it into Carlson.

``He said he had a problem with his vehicle. He wanted me to take a look at it,'' Oyloe said.

The mechanic said Taplin told him a steering problem developed after an incident a few days earlier.

``He said he was going down the road, turning the wheel back and forth, showing off to his girlfriend - and he hit a curb,'' Oyloe said.

The car was not put on a lift, because it was in use. But Oyloe said he looked at the car and determined a shimmy Taplin described was caused by a ``bent right front wheel.''

The mechanic said he recommended the wheel be replaced and the car's front end be aligned. Taplin made an appointment for an inspection a few days later.

Menendez questioned how closely Oyloe inspected Taplin's car.

``You never did drive my client's car, did you, so you don't know how it drove?'' the defense attorney asked. ``Did you watch him drive away?''

Oyloe said while the wheel needed replacement, ``I couldn't see he would have any problems with it.''

Svobodny also called David Wall, service manager at Evergreen Motors, who inspected Taplin's car at the request of police.

Wall said he found older damage to the right front wheel rim and hubcap, plus ``new, shiny abrasions.'' He also said the tire tread showed ``an uneven scalloping'' that indicated it had wobbled back and forth on the road for a long time.

Wall also said he tried driving the car.

``From zero to 30, the steering wheel shook violently so that it was almost impossible to hold onto it,'' Wall said. ``But the faster you went, it got easier - which is typical of a bent rim.''

Svobodny asked, ``Given the shimmy, is that car safe to drive?''

``No,'' Wall answered.

Svobodny said he expected to finish presenting his case today. The defense is expected to begin calling witnesses Tuesday.

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