Alaska Digest

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Man acquitted in distracted-driving trial

ANCHORAGE - A Kenai man accused of causing a fatal collision by watching a DVD movie while driving was acquitted Tuesday of two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of manslaughter.

Erwin "Jamie" Petterson Jr., 29, was charged in the Oct. 12, 2002, deaths of Robert Weiser, 60, and Donna Weiser, 56, of Anchorage.

The jury trial was believed to be the first of its kind involving a driver accused of being distracted by an in-dash DVD player. No law in Alaska prohibits operating a DVD player in view of a driver.

Installed as recommended, aftermarket DVD players will not work unless the emergency brake is on or the vehicle is in park. Prosecutors said Petterson overrode those safety measures when he installed the equivalent of a home entertainment system - a DVD player, speakers and a Sony PlayStation 2 - in his pickup truck.

Neither Petterson nor his lawyer could immediately be reached for comment. Lindsey Petterson said her brother was taking a long drive in his truck.

Prosecutor June Stein contended that Petterson and a passenger were watching a DVD movie when Petterson's northbound Ford F-150 crossed the centerline, hitting the Weisers' Jeep Grand Cherokee head-on on the Seward Highway.

During the trial, which began July 23, Petterson testified he was listening to music, not watching a movie. He said his truck strayed into the other lane when he looked over to get a soda.

David and Martin Weiser, sons of the Weisers, said they were not surprised by the verdict. Key evidence such as skid marks at the scene and Pettersons' driving record were not allowed in court, they said.

Petterson and his passenger, Jonathan Douglas, also of Kenai, were injured as their vehicle spiraled into the air, landing on the southbound lane.

The state contended that Douglas called his ex-wife from the hospital and told her the DVD player was on and they were "zoned out" when the accident occurred. Douglas testified he said nothing of the sort.

Voters may face three issues on Oct. ballot

JUNEAU - Voters might decide whether the city should redirect $18 million in unspent bond proceeds to fix up some schools. The Juneau Assembly on Monday introduced an ordinance to place that proposition on the Oct. 5 ballot.

In 1999, Juneau voters approved nearly $50 million in bonds to build a high school at Dimond Park. Voters rejected that school in a special election on May 25 this year, leaving about $18 million in bonds that were sold for the school but not spent.

Under the ordinance, the money would go toward major maintenance at four elementary schools, the Marie Drake building and the school district's central office, as well as for accessibility upgrades throughout the district.

In the October ballot, the voters also might decide whether the city should raise the liquor tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and issue $54 million in bonds to build a high school at Dimond Park.

The Assembly will hold public hearings on those ordinances at its next meeting, Aug. 23.

State bans Kachemak Bay oysters, mussels

HOMER - The state has issued its first-ever ban on harvesting oyster and mussels in the Kachemak Bay because of an outbreak of red tide.

The ban also applies to commercial clamming on area beaches.

The ban is expected to last at least several weeks, until the shellfish flush themselves out and test clean for 14 days.

Kachemak Bay provides close to half the state's oysters, a spokesman for the local growers said Monday.

The outbreak in paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, is unprecedented in size for the area. The PSP comes from algae, a food source for filter-feeding shellfish such as clams, oysters and mussels, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The toxin can be present even when there is no visible coloration in the water, which gives the poison its red-tide name. The PSP is stored in shellfish tissue.

Boy charged in Eagle River school blaze

ANCHORAGE - A 12-year-old boy has been charged with criminally negligent burning after a fire destroyed an estimated $200,000 worth of playground equipment at an Eagle River elementary school.

The boy was playing with matches, lighting a piece of rubber, when the fire got out of control Monday afternoon at Alpenglow Elementary School, Anchorage police said.

The boy has been released to the custody of his parents, according to police spokeswoman Anita Shell. The case is being referred to juvenile court.

Other children were on the school grounds at the time of the fire but no one was injured, Shell said.

The fire is at least the second deliberately set this summer on the playground of an Anchorage School District facility, school officials said.

Alpenglow was built in 1995. The playground was completed in 2002 with much of its cost paid through fund raising by the local PTA, said Roger Fiedler, a district spokesman.

The fire began about 1 p.m. in a corner of the playground and spread to where it had engulfed all but the swing set, said Michelle Egan, a district spokeswoman.

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