Thursday, September 2, 2004

Crash left him changed

By Cliff Radel
Enquirer staff writer

Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy P.J. Reinert and his wife Deana, pictured in their Harrison home.
(Meggan Booker/The Enquirer)
HARRISON TOWNSHIP - Two years ago this week, a semi crushed the cruiser driven by Paul "P.J." Reinert.

The Hamilton County sheriff's deputy had lost control of his car during a chase that topped 90 mph. He crossed the median of east-bound Interstate 275 and spun. His driver's door was the first thing the tractor-trailer hit.

Reinert survived, but the accident changed his personality. Before the wreck, he was gentle, focused and energetic. Since then, he has been prone to periods of anger, confusion and lethargy.


Two years later, the file on P.J. Reinert's accident remains open. But the trail of the speeding driver the Hamilton County sheriff's deputy was pursuing has grown cold.

"Someone out there knows something," said Sheriff Simon Leis. "But we sure don't know it. We need a break on this case."

The case file occupies two accordion folders. Amid the folders' 12 pounds of paper are 250 tips phoned in to the Sheriff's Office (825-1500) and Crime Stoppers (352-3040).

The tips produced 13 suspects. None panned out.

So the sheriff's office continues to look for the driver of a red Firebird, 1988 or 1989 vintage. Some witnesses saw Ohio plates on the car on Sept. 3, 2002.

The accordion folders detailing Reinert's accident have no clasps or seals.

"They'll remain open," said Sgt. Tom Butler, "until we catch the guy who was driving."

Cliff Radel

The pain from that accident haunts Reinert, 31, his family - wife Deana and children, Adam 10, and 8-year-old twins Alexandra and Austin - and his co-workers.

"I lost my husband and my children lost their father that day. I wish he could still be the P.J. I fell in love with," said his wife of 11 years.

"He was a vibrant, bright guy, part of the Sheriff Department's family, on a routine speeder chase. Suddenly, he's fighting for his life," said Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis. "It's a damned shame."

Reinert's eyes reflect the far-away look of someone whose brain has been damaged. His memory fogs over. Forgetting frustrates him. Anger overrides his once gentle nature.

"I need a drywall man," he confided sheepishly as he sat on the couch in his Harrison Township home. "I did some redecorating to the hall."

The hallway bears his handiwork: Two fist-sized holes.

Just before 3 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2002, Reinert was pursing a red Firebird going faster than 90 mph.

As the crash unfolded, the driver sped away.

Reinert remains at home, forced by his accident-related disabilities into early retirement. After only two years on the street, his career in law enforcement - his dream job - is over.

Besides damaging his brain, the wreck crushed the bones in his right ankle and foot, and fractured his pelvis. To treat these injuries, Reinert has been hospitalized on four occasions. He has spent 13 of the past 24 months in a hospital.

He completed another hospitalization in October.

He spends his days sitting at home, watching TV mostly and struggling to heal.

Reinert has trouble staying on schedule with his physical and psychological therapy sessions. His wife is looking for help outside the home.

"We are very fortunate for him to have him home and to have him come as far as he has," Deana Reinert said as she shared the couch with her husband. "But his behavioral issues are ongoing. The doctors want me to look into a 24-hour structured care facility.

"All of those facilities that work with people with brain injuries are out of state. And he could be there indefinitely."

Grim prognosis

Leis recalled going to the hospital the day of the accident.

"All of these different doctors indicated to me that he probably won't make it."

Leis received a second dire opinion from Col. Ray Hoffbauer, the sheriff's patrol division commander. "I've been in this business 45 years," Hoffbauer said. "I spent 16 years investigating fatal accidents. I would have bet everything I own he wasn't going to make it."

Deputy Sheriff Tory Smith, Reinert's co-worker in the traffic patrol division, drove to the scene shortly after the accident.

"P.J.'s face was as gray as our uniforms," he said.

Deputy Pete Prybal joined the force with Reinert in 2000.

"We see the face of death every day as we investigate accidents," Prybal said. "P.J. had that face of death."

Defying all of the odds, Reinert first came home from the hospital on Dec. 24, 2002.

Leis knows what made Reinert's Christmas homecoming possible. He attributes it to Reinert's will to live.

"When I went to see him at Drake Hospital, he was in a bed," Leis said.

His voice clouding with emotion, he continued: "We stress military courtesy in this department."

Deputies address the sheriff with "Yes sir!" "No sir!" They salute him. He returns the gesture.

"When I came in, that kid would try to get up, get out of bed and give me a salute."

Reinert misses work.

"If my boss, Sheriff Leis, told me to come back to work - bam! - I would go back in a second," he said.

He fidgeted with the watch he wears "only for good occasions." The timepiece's face sports a sheriff's badge.

Reinert has made a few visits to the sheriff's downtown office and to the Colerain Township patrol headquarters.

Last Friday, the sheriff traveled to headquarters for lunch and a presentation. He gave Reinert a scale model of a deputy's cruiser. Atop the car's roof was "224." That was Reinert's badge number.

Walking with a limp, Reinert approached the sheriff when Leis asked him to step forward. Reinert received a plaque usually given to grizzled veterans for their "outstanding service and dedication."

The ceremony attracted 53 members of the sheriff's department. Many struggled to hold back tears. Others gave up.

The outpouring of emotion got to Leis. He choked up before clearing his throat and regaining his composure.

"I wish I was as popular as you are, P.J.," Leis said. "When I go to places, I get about 10 people."

"And they boo," Reinert cracked. At least his sense of his humor remains intact.

Such trips are rare for the man everyone calls P.J. He suffers panic attacks when he knows he's going to leave his house.

"Going outside makes me feel uncomfortable," he said. "I like it inside. I have my bathroom. I go constantly. I go once every 10 minutes."

Deana Reinert described P.J.'s need to relieve himself as "one of the forms of obsessive-compulsive behavior he's developed since his accident."

Reinert takes medicine to control his behavior and his pain. He needs five different pills to get him going in the morning and seven more to help him make it through the night.

Since the accident, he feels "little by little it's getting better for me."

Needs constant care

Still, he needs constant attention. His children are in school. His wife is pursuing a career in nursing. So, on weekdays, he has an in-house caregiver.

"Everything has to be laid out for him," Deana Reinert said.

"When he takes a shower, he'll get all soapy and then come out of the shower. I'll have to tell him to rinse."

All of these orders bother Reinert.

"I'm being told what to do all of the time," he said in a weary voice.

"Sometimes, I just want to grab them and say: 'Relax! Let me be.'

"But they can't do that to me. I have to be told what to do."

Sometimes, when no one's giving him orders, Reinert remembers his days as a sheriff's deputy.

"When I put on that uniform, I felt like a new person," he said. "It made me feel big and powerful that I could help people."

He fell silent. He does that after revisiting his long-term memory.

Reinert looked across the living room. His gaze fell on his 8-year-old son.

Austin sat by himself and played with a Lego man. The toy man wore a uniform with a badge, the kind P.J. Reinert wishes he could wear again.


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