Suffering and seething Crash aftermath: Donna Champ suffered brain damage in a crash in which a Saudi soldier being trained at Aberdeen Proving Ground was charged -- and has disappeared.

February 20, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

James Champ says he no longer can bear to sleep in the bed he shared with his wife, Donna. Daughter Darlene has put her wedding on hold, hoping for a miracle that would allow her mother to see her walk down the aisle.

One evening in October, the Champs' lives were turned upside down -- every ritual of the couple's 30-year romance, raising three children and indulging five grandchildren -- by a head-on crash blamed on a Saudi soldier who has been charged with driving drunk in an uninsured car.

"My wife is lying in a bed. She can't speak to me. I don't think she even knows who I am," said a weeping Mr. Champ, a retired Baltimore County police officer. "And no one will take responsibility."

The Oct. 18 accident has left Mrs. Champ, 46, with permanent brain damage and her husband facing huge medical bills.

The Saudi solder, Abdullah Al-Zaharani, 26, who was being trained in tank maintenance at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was freed on $20,000 bail and is believed to have returned to his homeland. Authorities say his whereabouts are unknown.

He is scheduled for trial March 21 in Harford County District Court on charges of driving while intoxicated, operating an unregistered vehicle, negligent driving and passing in a no-passing zone by crossing the double yellow line on Route 24 near Edgewood.

Mr. Champ, 46, a security guard at Johns Hopkins Hospital, believes that the federal government should be responsible for his wife's bills because the State Department sponsored Mr. Al-Zaharani's training at APG and did nothing to stop him from leaving the country.

The State Department referred a reporter's inquiry to the Defense Department, where an official suggested it was a problem for the Justice Department. The calls led back to Aberdeen, where Ordnance School spokesman Ed Starnes said the base was not responsible because it has no jurisdiction over foreign soldiers.

"He is responsible for his behavior. He has no connections to us. He's a private Saudi citizen as far as the U.S. Army is concerned," he said.

An official in the Saudi Embassy press office in Washington, who would not give his name, said that his government was unaware of the case and that it was a matter between Mr. Al-Zaharani and the Champs.

The Champs' lawyer, Michael Foreman, said officials at various government agencies have expressed sympathy, but no agency has been willing to help the family.

A soldier such as Mr. Al-Zaharani has no diplomatic immunity, he said, but he expressed doubt that Mr. Al-Zaharani would show up for the trial. A court notice sent to his old Aberdeen address was returned to the court as undeliverable.

Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Michaels said he plans to begin extradition proceedings if Mr. Al-Zaharani fails to appear, but he acknowledged that it would be difficult because there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Such intricacies were not among Mr. Champ's concerns as he sat Thursday at his wife's bedside at Montebello Rehabilitation Hospital in Baltimore.

"What do people like me care about extradition treaties and foreign governments? I want my wife back," said Mr. Champ, who noted that for the first time in 30 years he had been unable to exchange Valentine cards with her.

He and his wife grew up in the Edgewood area about five miles apart. They met as ninth-graders at Edgewood High. He was a policeman for 20 years, and she held various part-time jobs, most recently as a Price Club clerk in White Marsh and as a receptionist for an Edgewood dentist.

The couple raised three daughters -- Laura Champ, 25, Kimberly Gullion, 22, and Darlene Champ, 20 -- and have five grandchildren, all preschoolers.

Darlene Champ said she hears her mother's footsteps and smells her perfume. Her wedding plans are on hold while she prays for her mother's recovery. "I don't think Mommy's ever coming home," she said.

Mr. Champ said he and his wife had talked about taking a cruise before the accident. Now, he realizes that it is unlikely they will ever again go dancing, or play together with their grandchildren.

Beyond the emotional pain, Mr. Foreman said, "There is the very real possibility the Champs could lose their home."

The Champs' medical insurance coverage eventually will run out, but Mrs. Champ is expected to need medical care for the rest of her life. To qualify for government assistance that would pay the bills, Mr. Foreman said, Mr. Champ must become destitute -- signing over his home and exhausting his savings.

"I shouldn't have to do that. My wife and I worked hard for years, and now I'm being asked to just throw everything away," Mr. Champ said.

Meanwhile, his wife has improved slightly -- from an unresponsive coma to what is called a "light coma," according to Montebello. She can sometimes answer "yes" or "no" to simple questions by raising one or two fingers.

Mrs. Champ's throat must be suctioned to keep her from suffocating. She is fed through a stomach tube and intravenous lines, Mr. Champ said.

"I don't think she's going to get better, and she's not coming home," Mr. Champ said, adding that he, too, prays for a miracle.

A trust fund to help pay for Mrs. Champ's care has been set up at the First National Bank of Maryland branch at 705 Edgewood (( Road, Edgewood 21040.

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