by Brian A. Wilkins
Branstad’s son, Eric, killed two people following a car “accident” in 1991.
This article must be prefaced with the fact that, as an Iowan born and raised, and in my 30s now, I grew up only knowing one governor, and that is Republican Terry Branstad. He served as the state’s chief executive from 1983-1999. It seemed Iowa was doing pretty well in his years. But I was just a kid and really didn’t care much about politics. Voters are heading to the polls tomorrow in the Republican primary, and Branstad’s possible preferential treatment for his family when it comes to crime will always tarnish his legacy.
It was Sunday afternoon, August 18, 1991, when Eric Branstad, Terry’s then-16-year-old son, was driving to a friend’s house he was staying with near Granger, IA. The governor and the rest of the family were in Seattle for a National Governors Association meeting. While driving up Highway 141, a two-lane highway, Eric pulled into the other lane to pass a car when the coast was obviously not clear. One car avoided a head-on collision by quickly swerving onto the shoulder. A second car was sideswiped when it tried to drive between Branstad’s van and the car he was trying to pass. The third car, and its passengers, would not be as lucky.
A van driven by Mr. Charles E. McCullough, 65, and his wife, Jean M. McCullough, 60, collided head-on with Branstad’s van, which Iowa State trooper Mario Feck later confirmed was traveling at least 10 miles above the speed limit. Mrs. McCullough died at the scene, while her husband, a retired truck driver, died a short time later at the hospital. Branstad suffered only minor injuries.
The people of Iowa were subsequently made to believe that alcohol was not involved and that Branstad was sober. But this is just hard to believe when the 16-year-old who only had his license for a little over a month, almost hit three cars before killing the Des Moines couple. The news media continually referred to the deceased husband and wife as “the elderly couple” and/or “the older couple” while solely reporting on the condition of Branstad.
Eric was ultimately charged with a misdemeanor traffic violation and ordered to pay a $15 fine. The McCullough family was obviously shocked and outraged by the case’s disposition. Then-Dallas County Attorney, David Welu, said of his decision to only press a traffic charge, “filing only traffic charges in fatal accidents is common, provided drunken, drugged, or reckless driving was not involved.” The McCullough family, as many other Iowans did, felt that since Branstad was driving at least 10 miles over the speed limit and almost struck another car, and sideswiped another before killing Charles and Jean McCullough, is more than enough evidence of recklessness.
It was also the response by Iowa authorities that got the family even more upset. Officials at Iowa Methodist Medical Center and Mercy Hospital first told the public that both Branstad and Mr. McCullough were air-lifted to Methodist via a Mercy Air Life helicopter. But it was later learned that only Branstad was air lifted while McCullough was transported by ground ambulance despite being far more seriously injured. When Mercy spokeswoman Linda Montet was asked about the decision to air lift Branstad and not Mr. McCullough, she said she could not respond to that because it would “violate patient confidentiality.” And though a Methodist “Life Flight” helicopter was also at the scene of the accident, it also failed to air lift Mr. McCullough.
A firestorm would ensue for the next few months. Governor Branstad was asked by a young boy at a Governor’s Youth Conference luncheon in November of 1991, “what do you think about your son getting let off the hook so easily when somebody else would be charged with manslaughter?” Branstad responded by saying the question was unfair and that it simply was not true that his son was “let off.” That same year, ironically, Governor Branstad pushed for a limited death penalty in Iowa for minors who commit “certain crimes.”
A columnist for the Des Moines Register wrote a piece that month entitled, “Did Eric Branstad Get A Break?” The article compared what Branstad did to another car accident in Clinton County, when 18-year-old Jason Van Scoyoc ran off the road and struck a family of four while they were sleeping in a tent, killing all of them. He was charged with four counts of vehicular homicide.
The Branstad’s ultimately paid the McCullough’s $200,000 on January 22, 1992, to avoid being sued in court. This settlement would also open a can of worms Branstad did not want open. It was learned that the van Eric was driving that struck and killed Mr. and Mrs. McCullough was actually purchased by Governor Branstad’s campaign committee and thus owned by the campaign.
Anybody who still believes Eric Branstad was not drunk the night he killed the McCullough’s are either suffering from tunnel-vision, or are simply Branstad apologists. A little over a year after the fatal car crash, on September 21, 1992, Eric Branstad was arrested in the West Des Moines Dowling High School parking lot on charges of public intoxication. While those charges were pending, Eric was charged on January 20, 1993, with using a fake i.d. to buy beer. On June 7 that same year, Eric was charged with illegal possession of alcohol after yet another car accident which, the Branstad’s say, Eric’s friend was driving when it crashed into a utility poll. The Jeep Cherokee that the friend crashed, however, was in Governor Branstad’s name.
Eric pleaded guilty to mere alcohol possession with all the aforementioned charges pending, and was given a year of probation by a Polk County judge. He was sent to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, MO, by his parents. Eric Branstad never spent one day in jail through all of his criminal shenanigans, even though he turned 18 and was no longer a “minor” on July 18, 1993. But this reality did not stop the young Branstad, as he always knew somehow his father would get him off (sounds kind of like George H.W. and George W.).
We can only hope Eric doesn’t somehow try and follow in his father’s footsteps anytime in the future.
In 2001, Eric Branstad was convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OWI), according to court records. He was sentenced to probation again, and Terry Branstad was not even governor at the time. He had also been charged with possession of a controlled substance, but that charge was dismissed. Eric was cited for driving while suspended in 2005 in Scott County.
Terry Branstad campaigned in the 1990s on enacting the death penalty for minors for certain crimes. Though his agenda never made it into law, what this says is that your children can be killed by the State of Iowa for screwing up, but his kid is given pass after pass.
It would be an upset if Branstad is not “re-elected” as governor, simply because of his name recognition in Iowa. But if Branstad will let his son skate after killing two people, what other political malfeasance has he been a part of, or will he be a part of if re-elected?
Sarah Palin recently endorsed Branstad for governor of Iowa, which will also help his plight among the “right” and “tea party” voters (though Palin followers on Facebook don’t seem pleased with the endorsement). Terry Branstad is not a bad human being; just another bad politician who will bend the rules of law for his own agenda and people.
Branstad comfortably leads his GOP opponents in the polls. Sioux City business consultant Bob Vander Plaats and state Rep. Rod Roberts of Iowa’s 51st District are both well behind.