Injured woman's plight outrages U.S. senators Mikulski demands Saudis return accused soldier

February 22, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

Maryland's U.S. senators expressed outrage yesterday over the handling of a Saudi Arabian soldier's alleged drunken driving that left an Edgewood woman in a coma with permanent brain damage.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes called for an investigation of how the departments of state and defense monitor foreign soldiers training in the United States, while Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski demanded that Saudi Arabia return the soldier, who has disappeared, to stand trial.

Donna Champ, 46, was on her way to visit grandchildren on Oct. 18 when, police said, Abdullah Al-Zaharani drove across a double yellow line and struck her vehicle head-on near the intersection of Route 24 and Edgewood Road.

Mr. Al-Zaharani, who was being trained in tank maintenance at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was charged with driving while intoxicated, driving an uninsured and unregistered vehicle, and other traffic offenses.

He was released on $20,000 bond pending trial March 21, but authorities have expressed doubt that he will appear. The soldier's whereabouts are unknown, and he may have left the country, according to the Harford County state's attorney's office.

Mrs. Champ is likely to need nursing care for the rest of her life, and her husband, James Champ, 46, a former Baltimore County police officer, says he will have to forfeit much of their assets to qualify his wife for Medicaid.

Despite a 1989 federal "spousal anti-impoverishment" law, Mr. Champ said he would have to lose all but $75,000 worth of possessions -- which might leave him with a house and car, but little else.

"This is a moral and legal outrage," Ms. Mikulski said yesterday.

She said she was calling for creation of a task force to include representatives of the State Department, Department of Defense, and Health and Human Services "to make sure justice is done not only in terms of deciding guilt but in compensating this family and creating a safety net for them."

Mr. Champ, while grateful for her response, worried that the task force won't help.

"I have been brushed off by so many government agencies -- everyone said it wasn't their responsibility," said Mr. Champ, now a security officer for the Johns Hopkins University.

The senators, both Democrats, said they were angered that agencies did not respond to Mr. Champ's request for aid and finding out who else might be financially responsible.

And Mr. Sarbanes, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the State Department and Department of Defense for failing to prevent Mr. Al-Zaharani from leaving the country, according to letters he sent to Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

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