PITTSBURGH — A man who was drunk while driving his employer's van has been charged with third-degree murder for causing a wrong-way crash that killed a western Pennsylvania police lieutenant, state police said Thursday.
Clair Fink III, 32, of Ligonier, was driving eastbound in the westbound lanes of U.S. Route 30 -- a divide highway about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh -- when he hit Lt. Eric Eslary's patrol SUV head-on at about 2 a.m. on May 5.
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The crash killed the 17-year-veteran officer instantly and seriously injured Eslary's K-9 companion, a German shepherd.
The dog, named Blek, has recovered from serious injuries but is not currently performing police work and still lives with Eslary's widow and their six children.
Channel 11's Joe Holden was the first to report on Thursday that Fink would be charged.
According to the criminal complaint obtained by Channel 11's Melanie Gillespie, Fink is charged with several counts including third-degree homicide, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence and reckless driving.
Fink's blood-alcohol content was 0.197 percent -- more than double the state's legal limit of 0.08 percent, according to the criminal complaint.
Fink's co-worker, Derek Gifford, 22, was also in the van.
He told police he and Fink clocked out of work at a pool and spa installation business near Irwin at about 7 p.m. on May 4 and then drank most of an 18-pack of 16-ounce beers and stopped at a strip club.
Fink and Gifford left the strip club at about 12:40 a.m., based on surveillance video and employees who told police it took Fink a couple of minutes to remove his ID from the wallet when he was carded at the door.
One employee said Fink was a "mess," and surveillance video also showed Fink staggering in the parking lot, police said.
Gifford estimated Fink drank seven to nine beers and that Fink's driving "started to get worse" after they left the strip club.
The club is more than 20 miles from the crash scene, which the men got to after stopping at a convenience store for a snack, police said.
Gifford told police Fink hit roughly 15 to 20 traffic cones along a road construction site on the way to store, and told Gifford he was drunk.
Police filed the third-degree murder charge -- rare even in drunken-driving fatalities -- because they believe Fink killed Eslary "recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life," the complaint said.
The charge, the most serious Fink faces, carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 to 40 years.
On Thursday, Fink told Channel 11 News that he was "so sorry" and he wished he could go back in time.
Shortly before the crash, Gifford said he told Fink that he was weaving out of his lane. But Gifford told police he was using his cellphone and wasn't familiar with the area, so he didn't realize that Fink had somehow moved from the eastbound lanes to the westbound side of the highway.
Blood drawn from Fink at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown also showed Fink had marijuana in his system, police said.
Fink was in custody awaiting arraignment on the murder charge and counts including vehicular homicide while driving drunk, drunken driving, and citations including reckless driving.
According to Holden's law enforcement sources, this took a long time because prosecutors wanted to gather as much video surveillance as possible of the ride the pair took.
Eslary’s boss, Ligonier Township Police Chief Mike Matrunics, told Channel 11’s Rick Earle that they’re appreciative of the investigative work done by state police.
“I got to see the reports, and I can’t say enough about what they’ve done,” Matrunics said. “They’re working pretty hard on our case for us.”
Matrunics said he worked with Eslary for nearly 20 years, and they grew up in the same community.
“There’ll never be closure because everything out there involved him as well,” Matrunics said.
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