Victim in Plato Twp. DUI crash details painful recovery

Updated 10/7/2011 12:01 AM

In a moment last December, Heike Wehrle went from being able to run around a show ring with her champion purebred dogs to gasping for air and convinced she would burn to death in a crushed SUV.

Wehrle described her injuries and how they changed her life in a sentencing hearing Thursday in Kane County court for the young man accused of causing them.

Eric Barth, 21, formerly of South Elgin and most recently of Ohio, pleaded guilty in August to two counts of aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol causing great bodily harm.

He drove his Chevrolet pickup truck into oncoming traffic on Plank Road near Brier Hill Road in Plato Township the evening of Dec. 29, hitting a GMC Denali SUV driven by Heike's husband, Robert.

A Hyundai Sonata following them hit the Denali and the truck, injuring two 25-year-old women.

Barth could be sentenced from 30 months' probation up to 12 years in prison. If he is sentenced to prison, he will have to serve 85 percent of the time.

Defense witnesses will testify when the hearing resumes Oct. 14.

Heike Wehrle, 70, testified that she sustained the most, and the most severe, injuries of the six people in the crash. Her diaphragm was torn and several organs, including her kidneys, were pushed up. A lung collapsed, and she also had a broken collarbone and a crushed hand.

She has undergone three surgeries, including one last month to put her organs back in their proper place, and suffered complications after two that put her back in the hospital. Her doctors want to operate again on her hand, but she said she is leery of doing so.

Robert Wehrle, 64, testified he suffered a broken leg, two broken bones in his neck and a broken shoulder. He went back to work at his banquet hall several weeks after the accident, but wasn't able to work full-time until this summer.

The Wehrles testified that Heike used to spend 30 to 40 weekends a year attending dog show competitions, driving herself to them in a motorhome.

They've hired people to take care of her 11 show dogs, because Heike Wehrle isn't strong enough to control, feed or train the Belgian shepherds.

She described excruciating pain and feeling like the ventilator that helped her breathe was suffocating her. "Sometimes when I was awake I thought I was in hell and wondered what I had done to be there," she said.

"Every minute I am reminded I am no longer my own person," she said. " ... Some people suggested that imprisoning Eric Barth will not serve to lift the darkness."

Before the testimony, defense attorney Nils Von Keudell tried to bar the Wehrles from sitting in the courtroom while other witnesses testified. He also argued that their testimony would be biased because they had testified against their son during a sentencing hearing 19 years ago, when that son was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol. Judge David Akemann overruled the motions.

State laboratory tests showed Barth had a blood alcohol content 2 times the legal limit.

He remains in the Kane County jail. In December Judge James Hallock set his bail at $1 million, due in part to Barth's criminal history involving alcohol abuse.

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