Family of brain-damaged man hit by stolen police vehicle calls for city to help

Published: Thursday, Jan. 3 2013 6:10 p.m. MST

Eric Peterson


SALT LAKE CITY — For the past two months, Tina Naujokaitis has spent most of each day by her son's side.

"I play music for him. I sing to him. I talk to him, I hug him, I kiss him, I stretch him, I rub his feet, comb his hair … do the mommy thing," she said.

Naujokaitis' son, Eric Michael Peterson, 22, is a 6-foot 6-inch tall man with an athletic build. One of his favorite hobbies used to be working out.

But that was before Oct. 21, 2012. Peterson and his girlfriend, 18-year-old Baylee King, were just a few blocks away from King's residence, coming back from a date at a haunted house. They were stopped at a red light at 3300 South and 500 East when police say a drunk man driving a stolen South Salt Lake police vehicle smashed into the back of their car at a high rate of speed. The impact propelled Peterson's vehicle into a nearby tree.

Peterson suffered brain and brain stem damage, three fractures in his neck and a fractured left leg. King suffered minor injuries and was released from the hospital the next day, as was the driver of a third vehicle that was hit.

Ryan Cooke, 21, was arrested and charged in 3rd District Court with failure to stop at the command of an officer, a second-degree felony; theft of a police vehicle, a second-degree felony; and three counts of driving under the influence, a third-degree felony.

His trial, scheduled to begin next week, was canceled Wednesday after defense attorneys said Cooke decided to waive his right to a speedy trial, and "wishes to continue negotiations and work with the state toward a final resolution of this case."

Today, more than two months after the accident, Peterson remains in a vegetative state. He is hooked up to a breathing tube and a trachea tube. In November, he opened his eyes for the first time since the accident. But he can only do that "once in awhile," his mother said. Peterson has not spoken since the accident.

Naujokaitis said he responds to touch and sound but not on a regular basis. He can open his right hand, raise his right arm and recently began moving his right leg. The left side of his body has had no movement. He also can yawn.

Peterson goes through "storms," his mother explained, where he sweats and has hypertension from brain injury "because his body doesn't know how to control it."

"At this point, there's (no long-term prognosis). It's all about time and if the brain is going to heal," Naujokaitis said.

To give her son the best possible chance at recovery, Naujokaitis wants him to be in a facility where he will receive the therapy he needs. But the family is struggling with finances and insurance policies for his long-term needs.

From the time of the accident until Nov. 16, he was in the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center, his mother said. "They needed to move Eric. They did as much as they could there at the ICU unit."

From the hospital, Peterson was moved to Promise Hospital of Salt Lake at 8th Avenue and C Street.

"His care was great. Therapy was going well, he was progressing well — two hours of therapy daily," said his aunt, Belinda Dack. "Eric is no longer in a coma, he is in what is called present vegetative state. He is awake but unable to respond, and that is where the therapy and consistent stimulation is very crucial to his recovery."

But on Dec. 19, because of a lack of insurance money, Peterson was moved to St. Joseph Villa, 451 Bishop Federal Lane, which provides long-term nursing care.

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