Police say a suburban ambulance driver was three times over the legal limit for alcohol when he ran a red light, his emergency lights and sirens on, and crashed into a pickup truck in the Sheridan Park neighborhood on the North Side.
John P. Lara, 31, has been charged with aggravated driving under the influence causing an accident resulting in bodily harm, disobeying red light, failing to reduce speed, negligent driving, and failing to carry or display a driver's license, according to authorities. He was ordered held on $300,000 bail.
Lara has arrests dating back to 2002 in Cook County for forgery, unlawful use of a weapon and impersonating a police officer. He also has a history of moving violations, and was stopped in Louisiana seven years ago on suspicion of drunk driving.
He has been a licensed emergency medical technician in the state of Illinois since February of 2011.
Around 10:45 a.m. Monday, Lara was traveling south on Clark Street in a Care 1 ambulance from Arlington Heights when he hit the pickup going west on Montrose, according to the police report. Responding officers approached the ambulance and found Lara still behind the wheel and the engine running, the report said.
One of the officers smelled a “very strong odor of alcoholic beverage,’’ and noticed that his eyes were glassy and his speech slurred, the report said.
When the officer asked what happened, Lara said he was on his way to Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center to pick up a patient, according to the report. When they asked him where his partner was, he told them he was alone in the ambulance and was going to pick up his partner at the hospital, the report said.
But when Chicago Fire Department paramedics were treating him, Lara was “unable to explain where he was going or why he was using his emergency equipment when there wasn’t a patient in the ambulance,’’ the report said. One paramedic told officers the driver “repeatedly covered his mouth in an apparent attempt to hide the strong odor of alcoholic beverage,’’ the report said.
The paramedic told police said the ambulance driver became “very uncooperative’’ and belligerent with her. Lara was taken into custody and treated at Illinois Masonic, where his blood alcohol level was found to be .271, more than three times the legal limit for driving, .08, the report said.
Evanston chiropractor Nick Mendez said he was headed to his Lakeview home to walk his dog while on a break from work when he saw the ambulance in front of him as they were both headed south on Clark Street approaching Montrose Avenue.
“He was full lights and sirens,’’ Mendez said. “He came up to the intersection with cars that were westbound and eastbound continuously on Montrose. I just watched and the ambulance didn’t slow down at all. It was as if he had a death wish.’’
Mendez said the ambulance hit the passenger side of the pickup truck. “I pulled around and I kind of aided the victim out of the pickup truck. He was kind of going in and out of consciousness. He was able to walk and I just helped him in my car, where we warmed up,’’ Mendez said.
The man, who was 43 and appeared to be a construction worker driving a company vehicle, told Mendez he felt as if he was going to pass out.
“He thanked me, oh absolutely,’’ Mendez said. “We sat in my car for a little bit and spoke. He asked me, ‘What happened? What happened?’ ’’
When Mendez told him an ambulance hit him, the man said, “It seems like it came out of nowhere,’’ Mendez said.
Mendez called 911 and the dispatcher told him help was already on the way. Paramedics arrived and began treating the truck driver and talking to the ambulance driver.
Joseph Baron, director of Care 1 Ambulance in Arlington Heights, said it was “too early” in the investigation to comment. “It’s premature...I haven’t seen the police report yet,’’ he said.
Baron declined to say if Lara was still employed with the company. Care 1 began operating in July, according to the state Department of Public Health.
This is not the first time Lara, of Lockport, has been stopped for allegedly driving drunk, according to records obtained by the Tribune.
In January of 2007, Lara was pulled over south of Baton Rouge, La. for traffic violations, according to an arrest report. The officer reported a "strong odor of alcoholic beverage, slurred speech, swaying."
Lara refused a Breathalyzer test and his Illinois driver's license was consequently suspended from May 8, 2007 until Nov. 8, 2007.
Records also show that Lara was stopped at least four times in Illinois for driving without a valid license: twice in October of 2001, then in February of 2002 and January of 2005, records show.
When he was arrested, Lara had a valid Class D driver's license.
His record also includes several criminal arrests, including in 2002 by Metra police on a felony forgery charge. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and received probation, according to court records.
In August of 2004, he was arrested by Chicago police on a charge of interfering with a police officer. In March of 2005, Park Ridge police arrested him for felony unlawful use of a weapon.
He later pleaded guilty to impersonating a police officer in both cases and was sentenced to 30 months probation. He was found to have violated his probation and ordered to serve 18 months in Illinois prison.
Melaney Arnold, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said background checks are not required of EMT license applicants. The state pushed lawmakers in Springfield to require background checks as a condition of issuing and renewing EMT licenses, but the proposal was not approved.