Senator Had .17 Alcohol Level in Wrong-Way Chase

Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop reeked of alcohol, struggled to speak or walk, and threatened the Kansas Highway Patrol officer who stopped him in the early hours of March 16 for driving the wrong way on Interstate 70 in Topeka.

The details of the arrest were made available Thursday following the release of his charging affidavit in Shawnee County District Court. Kansas Reflector and other news media filed motions with the court seeking the document’s release.

Suellentrop, who left the Capitol as the affidavit was ordered released by a judge, faces a felony charge for fleeing a police officer, misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence and reckless driving, and traffic infractions for driving the wrong way on a divided highway and speeding.

KHP Officer Austin Shepley’s report says Suellentrop’s alcohol level was 0.17 grams per 100 milliliters of blood. The legal limit in Kansas is 0.08.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, and Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, issued a joint statement after reviewing the document that affirmed their belief the incident involving Suellentrop was “very serious.” Both Senate Republican leaders expressed relief no one was injured.

While we continue to respect due process,” their statement said, “there are many aspects of the alleged behavior that are deeply disappointing and severe consequences will be unavoidable. Any decisions regarding the future will be made in due course.”

Masterson, who declined to comment about the case during a brief interview at the Capitol, said Suellentrop didn’t plan to return to the statehouse before lawmakers wrapped up their work this week. In the interim, Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, would continue to perform Suellentrop’s duties as majority leader.

In an interview, Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, said the unwillingness of Suellentrop to step aside was a problem.

“Senate leadership needs to recognize the necessity of the need for his resignation,” Pyle said.

Shepley responded to a call at 12:48 a.m. March 16 of a white SUV driving westbound in the eastbound lanes from Interstate 470 and S.W. Burlingame Road. I-470 loops around the southwest corner of the city before joining I-70, which runs east-west along the Kansas River. A TPD officer spotted Suellentrop a few minutes after the initial call near I-70 and S.W. Gage.

Shepley began his pursuit near S.W. Gage after seeing a vehicle swerve to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with Suellentrop. During the pursuit, Suellentrop again narrowly missed multiple vehicles while fleeing police at 90 mph.

Suellentrop slowed to 70 mph while approaching the viaduct and its tight curve in downtown Topeka. On the curve, he narrowly missed an oncoming box truck. The officer performed a tactical maneuver at the S.E. 4th Street bridge to force Suellentrop to stop, about 12 miles from where he was first spotted.

“As I approached the driver, he had his left hand out the window and looked back at me with a confused, frightened, blank stare,” Shepley said. “He was not registering my commands or responding to them.”

With the help of a Topeka police officer, Shepley removed Suellentrop from the vehicle and placed him under arrest. They didn’t perform a field sobriety test because of safety concerns.

“Sitting inside the vehicle with Suellentrop, I could smell a strong odor of alcoholic beverage coming from his person,” Shepley said. “I also noticed his eyes were watery, droopy, and he had bloodshot eyes. While speaking with him, I was not able to understand what he was saying as he was mumbling words with slurred speech.”

Shepley initially took Suellentrop to the Docking State Office Building for a breath test. Suellentrop “had trouble with his motor skills” while exiting the officer’s vehicle, lost his balance and almost fell. Inside, Suellentrop refused to take a breath sample, saying, “I don’t feel the need to do so.”

Suellentrop called the officer “donut boy” and complained this was “all for going the wrong way.”

After getting a warrant from a judge, Shepley took Suellentrop to Stormont Vail Hospital for a blood draw.

“While the phlebotomist was administering the blood kit, Gene Suellentop demeanor becoming slightly aggressive in his tone, he made reference to physically going up against me,” Shepley said. “He looked me up and down, stating he played state sports competitively in high school. He stated he could ‘take me.’ ”

The blood test was taken at 3:32 a.m., several hours after the traffic stop.

Suellentrop transferred his duties as the majority leader but retained the title while working to resolve his legal matters. A docket hearing was scheduled for June 3.

District Judge Penny Moylan ordered the release of the affidavit over objections filed under seal by Suellentrop’s attorney.

Suellentrop argued the affidavit should be kept secret because its release would jeopardize Suellentrop’s physical, mental or emotional safety and “endanger the life or physical safety of the defendant.” He also argued the release would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy if he were found not guilty.

Moylan said state law allows affidavits to be kept secret when their release would jeopardize the wellbeing of a victim, witness, confidential source or undercover agent, but not for defendants.

“All defendants are innocent unless and until proven guilty,” Moylan wrote in her order. “Disclosure of affidavits which contain specific allegations regarding the crime charged always poses the risk of unwanted publicity and damage to the defendant. However, (state law) does not address this factor or list it as a justification for sealing the affidavits.”

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said she was “deeply troubled” by the new details surrounding Suellentrop’s arrest.

“I thank God that no one was hurt by his extremely reckless and dangerous actions,” Sykes said. “While Senator Suellentrop deserves due process and appropriate consequences for his irresponsible behavior, he also deserves to be held to the same level of accountability as the Kansans he has been elected to represent. I am disappointed that he has not come to this conclusion himself.”

_ _ _

Story from Sherman Smith – Tim Carpenter / Kansas Reflector