I noticed in the last few hours that the (Romanian) media has been buzzing because one of the latest documents from Wikileaks mentions an incident from 2004:
US diplomats in Bucharest feared a “stormy downturn” in relations with Romania after fatal road accident involving a US marine stationed at the embassy.
The 2007 cable said many ordinary Romanians were deeply angered as the victim of the road crash was one of Romania’s more popular rock musicians, Teo Peter, 50, bass player with the group Compact.
The US embassy cable puts across the concerns of the staff based in Bucharest in no uncertain terms: “In short, we are bracing ourselves for a stormy downturn in the relationship, prompted by the continuing negative legacy of the death of this Romanian cultural icon. Some of the damage to our popular standing and to our interests in Romania may be lasting.”
It feared the things would get worse when Peter’s family went public with the news that the US had met their multimillion dollar settlement claim with an offer of $80,000:
The popular outcry over what will be seen by most Romanians as an insultingly small offer to Peter’s survivors will prompt renewed calls, with much more potential popular support, for the rapid withdrawal of Romanian troops from Iraq. Likewise, backing in the Romanian parliament and among members of the public for the new U.S. troop presence at joint U.S.-Romanian military facilities on the Black Sea will plummet, at least temporarily.
The victim of the car accident, Teo Peter, was travelling in a taxi which was hit by a vehicle being driven by Marine Staff Sargeant Christopher VanGoethem, who worked as an embassy guard. The soldier had diplomatic immunity from prosecution in Romania and he left the country immediately after the 2004 accident.
He was later acquitted of negligent homicide but convicted of making a false official statement to investigators and obstructing justice at a court martial in Virginia.
I was living in Romania back in 2004 and I remember this story vividly. Teo Peter was buried in Cluj and it was one of the first things that happened around here after I moved to this country.
There’s even a mention of it in my book (in the section about drinking and driving) precisely because it still angers me to this day.
The fact remains that a U.S. Marine, while off-duty and driving an enormous embassy SUV, was drunk and slammed into a taxi. It smashed the entire rear end of the car and killed poor Teo Peter, who was just riding home in a cab like I and millions of Romanians do every single day.
The Romanian police, doing their job exactly like they should, pulled over this drunken cowboy and proceeded to follow the law and give him a blood test to determine if his blood alcohol level was over the limit. Not only does this miserable coward refuse to take the test and comply with the law but calls the embassy and the American government literally whisked him out of the country overnight.
He then faced a court martial back in the United States and got a slap on the wrist, essentially suffering no penalty for such shameless behavior and conduct unbecoming a Marine.
The fact that Van Goethem was entirely at fault is undisputed. He made a left turn directly into oncoming traffic and murdered an innocent man. The taxi driver was in his correct lane and completely not at fault.
I am and continue to be damn ashamed of this kind of behavior. I’ve known lots of drunk drivers in America and if you break the law and crash your car (or god forbid, kill someone) you pay the penalty. It sucks because it’s usually entirely unintentional but we’re all adults so we’re responsible for our choices.
Unless of course you work for the American government. These kinds of incidents with the government protecting criminal soldiers is neither new nor restricted to Romania – I can think of some fairly egregious cases, especially in Japan and the Philippines at American military bases there.
Honestly I’m damn lucky Romanians are so forgiving because even though I have absolutely no connection with Van Goethem or the American government, I’m still a U.S. citizen and it’d be really easy to hate me for what my government did (and still does) on a daily basis. Frankly I’m ashamed to say I’m American sometimes because of shameful sh*t like this.
And despite my words here and Wikileaks and the rest, not to mention whatever “temporary” upset Romanians felt, the fact remains that there are Americans soldiers stationed in Romania as I speak and Teo Peter is still in the cold, hard ground.
Odihneste-te in pace, frate
Rest in peace, brother.