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OUR VIEW: Sad stories must be told

We took criticism, and praise, from some readers during the past two months for our coverage of a highway crash that killed two people.

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The critics said we were too harsh in our treatment of the story, and specifically our treatment of one of the people involved.

The story began at 4:16 p.m. Sept. 25 when somebody called 911 to report a white van driving erratically just south of Mitchell.

The erratic driver was Sara Ann Claggett, 23, of Tripp. In the van with her was her 2-year-old daughter. Claggett’s blood contained evidence of marijuana and hydrocodone use, and investigators found no evidence of a prescription for the hydrocodone.

About five miles south of Mitchell on state Highway 37, and about three minutes after the 911 call was received, Donald Julius Geidel, 82, of Dimock, was driving north in the proper lane with no controlled substances in his blood.

Claggett swerved into the northbound lane and collided with Geidel’s vehicle. Some heroic motorists who were behind Claggett’s van rescued Claggett’s daughter from the wreckage, but the two vehicles quickly caught fire. Claggett and Geidel died.

In the aftermath, we at The Daily Republic faced some journalistic responsibilities. We owed it to our readers to report the news of what happened. We owed it to taxpayers to find out how their taxpayer-funded emergency responders handled the crash and the investigation. And we owed it to the friends and family of those involved, and to society at large, to see that anyone responsible for the crash was held accountable.

As part of our coverage in the days immediately following the crash, we reported on the 911 call about Claggett’s erratic driving, and we wondered what would cause a young woman with a toddler to be driving erratically at 4:16 on a Wednesday afternoon.

Because so many fatal crashes are caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, we checked Claggett’s criminal history. We found and reported, among other things, that she had been convicted of using methamphetamine earlier this year and had faced a drunken driving charge in 2005 that was later dismissed.

Why was that information relevant? To us, it was painfully obvious. Given her history, it seemed possible Claggett may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash. And if that proved to be true, justice demanded that the public know about it, both so the blame could be placed where it belonged and so an example could be made of Claggett that might discourage others from engaging in similar behavior.

Confirmation of our suspicions about Claggett finally came Monday when the Highway Patrol released the results of tests on Claggett’s blood, two months to the day after the crash. How much the drugs affected her driving that day may never be precisely known.

What we do know is this: Two people are dead — one through no fault of his own — and Claggett was driving erratically and with illegal drugs in her system at the time of the crash. That is exactly what we have reported.

It’s a sad ending to a sad story, and it was a story we did not enjoy telling.

But it was our responsibility to tell it. We did not shirk it, and we do not apologize for it.