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

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 9:04 p.m. MDT

Eric Peterson (Facebook, ) Eric Peterson (Facebook, )

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.

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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.

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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.

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"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.

"Nothing against the nursing care facility, but I do believe there's more out there for Eric. And with his insurance, they only pay so much," Naujokaitis said. "I feel Eric needs more therapy. The more therapy that he has, the more stimulation. I feel that's going to bring Eric around. With the brain stem damage and the brain damage, it's a waiting process. But I also feel, what I've seen with Eric, the more therapy that Eric receives the more he comes around, the more responsive he is."

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Dack is more direct with her comments. "This is not the place that Eric should be. I'm afraid he is there to die," she said.

The family also believes South Salt Lake should help pay part of Peterson's medical expenses so he can receive better treatment.

"As a family, we feel like South Salt Lake should be stepping up. We feel there is a lot of negligence on the police side," Naujokaitis said.

The negligence, the family claims, came from police not taking enough steps to prevent an allegedly intoxicated man from getting into a police vehicle and driving off. Police referred questions Thursday to the city attorney's office, which did not return calls.

The family said a civil lawsuit over the incident was pending.

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The police vehicle was stolen from the Flying J at 2025 S. 900 West about 3 a.m. that day. Investigators said the officer exited the cafe and unlocked the vehicle using a key fob authentication device.

The vehicle's key was already in the ignition when Cooke allegedly hopped in and sped off. Police crews pursued him when the vehicle crashed into Peterson's vehicle about 3:12 a.m.

Because of finances, Naujokaitis is also struggling just to see her son. She lives in California but is staying in Utah to be close to him. She does not have a car and can barely afford bus tokens and the low-rent living facilities provided by the hospital.

Eric Peterson at Intermountain Medical Center. (Belinda Dack) Eric Peterson at Intermountain Medical Center. (Belinda Dack)

"It's been really difficult for me, just financially, mentally. There's a lot that goes on inside my head that gets scrambled and just trying to figure it out. Sometimes I have a difficult time with that," Naujokaitis said. "I'll be walking down the road and see somebody jogging or see someone that looks like Eric's stature, and it's very difficult because there was so much he wanted to give to life and to people."

Peterson, born in California, has two sisters and a brother. He was working at a mine in Elko, Nev., at the time of the accident.

"He loved his job, and people just loved him at work. He'd walk in and he'd make everyone smile," his mother said. "He just loved people. He loved his family."

Before his accident, Peterson and King had planned to take a trip to California to see his new niece. Peterson worked five days on at the mine and then had five days off, which he typically used to drive to Salt Lake City to see his girlfriend.

Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Tina Naujokaitis talks about her son Eric Peterson, who was hit by a stolen police vehicle during a high-speed chase and is in a vegetative state in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Peterson's mother said King is a "strong woman" who has continued to visit her son at the care facility while still being able to collect herself enough to take final exams at school.

A fund has been set up for Peterson at all Wells Fargo locations under the full name Eric Michael Peterson.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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