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Man claims sleep aid Ambien made him drink, drive, cause crash

Thomas A. Gatz

A Rosemont paramedic wants a Will County judge to clear him of a drunken driving charge because he said he became “involuntarily intoxicated” after taking a prescription dose of the sleep aid Ambien last year.

Thomas A. Gatz, 43, of Shorewood was found wearing only his underwear July 27, 2010, after he drove his car eastbound in the westbound lanes of West Jefferson Street in Joliet and caused a crash that shattered an 18-year-old woman’s arm, court records said.

His attorney is pointing to a doctor’s expert testimony that Ambien can cause sleep-walking, eating and driving.

That doctor, Haidari Shikari, also testified Gatz could have involuntarily consumed alcohol and gotten behind the wheel of his car after taking his Ambien that night.

But prosecutors said “involuntary intoxication” simply isn’t a defense for aggravated DUI. They want Will County Judge Amy Bertani-Tomczak to find Gatz guilty after a bench trial last month. The judge might render her verdict Nov. 16.

“Mr. Gatz knew what he was doing when he took that drug,” Assistant State’s Attorney Anna Rossi said.

Peter Petrakis, Gatz’s attorney, said in court records his client is a paramedic with the Rosemont Fire Department, and he’s previously worked as a paramedic and firefighter for River Forest.

Petrakis said Gatz had been using Ambien under a doctor’s prescription for about a year when he took two pills the night of the crash. He didn’t drink alcohol, Petrakis said, and went to bed. The next thing Gatz remembered was waking up in a hospital.

That’s where Gatz learned he drove his 2010 gray Honda Civic into a Pontiac driven by Gail Darm and a Toyota driven by Lauren Eklund in the 3000 block of West Jefferson, prosecutors said.

Eklund’s passenger, Valerie DeCamp, suffered multiple fractures in her arm and needed surgery, according to court records.

Gatz also discovered he was found wearing only his underwear and that alcohol was found in his blood. His blood alcohol content was between 0.103 and 0.107, according to court records. He also had broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a concussion.

Gatz has had trouble with Ambien before. Shorewood police ticketed him for driving under its influence in April 2010. That time, Petrakis said, Gatz intentionally got into his car fully dressed and drove into two light poles once the Ambien kicked in. That case was dismissed at trial.

Rossi said Gatz should have known the dangers of Ambien because of that first experience. But Petrakis said Gatz had no idea the drug could cause him to drink alcohol in his sleep, get into his car in his underwear and drive.

And though he said Gatz didn’t drink before going to bed the night of the second crash, Petrakis said Gatz kept a bottle of Vodka in a refrigerator door about five feet from the cabinet where he stored his car keys.

Gatz is no longer using Ambien, Petrakis said, and vows never to take it again.