Alcohol Link Eyed in Arrest of Bishop

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post
June 18, 2003

PHOENIX -- Law enforcement officials said yesterday that they are investigating whether Bishop Thomas O'Brien was impaired by alcohol Saturday night when he allegedly struck and killed a jaywalker while driving home from church services and then failed to report the accident to police.

O'Brien, 67, who has led the Roman Catholic diocese here for two decades, was arrested at his residence Monday after a witness to the accident gave police the partial license plate number of his Buick Park Avenue.

O'Brien has been charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, a felony that could put him behind bars for more than three years. The pedestrian, Jim Reed, 43, died shortly after the accident, which occurred on a busy avenue near downtown.

At a news conference yesterday, Maricopa County District Attorney Richard Romley said that the emerging case against O'Brien's alleged negligence appears strong and that the leader of more than 400,000 Catholics in Arizona will be prosecuted vigorously.

"Somebody died, somebody that a family loved," Romley said. "There has to be accountability."

Investigators said in interviews that O'Brien, who earlier this month was spared from criminal charges in a controversial agreement with prosecutors concerning his handling of pedophile priests, has given vague and conflicting accounts of the accident since his arrest.

They said that he did not contact police even after a fellow priest told him Sunday that officers wanted to talk to him, and that before police confronted him Monday he had asked a secretary to get his car's dented and partially shattered windshield replaced.

In court documents, police say O'Brien has told them that he thought he had hit a dog or cat in the accident, or that a rock had struck his vehicle. But investigators said yesterday that that account appears dubious because Reed, known to friends as "Heavy Highway," was 6 feet tall and weighed 235 pounds and that the witness to the accident reported seeing him flip over the Buick after he was struck. Investigators say they found drops of blood on the top of O'Brien's car.

Investigators also said O'Brien told them that he had had a "sip" of wine in the hours before the accident.

But, they stressed that while alcohol has become a focus of the investigation, they have gathered no firm evidence to suggest that the bishop had been driving while intoxicated.

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 6/18/2003.


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