Prominent Wyoming Couple Die in Accident

December 31, 2004
Coloradoan staff and news services

Husband-and-wife wildlife veterinarians nationally renowned for their research on chronic wasting disease and brucellosis were killed Wednesday night in a snowy-weather related crash on U.S. Highway 287 just south of the Colorado-Wyoming border.

Authorities on Thursday confirmed that Edwin "Tom" Thorne and his wife, Elizabeth Williams, both of Laramie, Wyo., were the driver and passenger of a 2002 Ford pickup truck that struck a jackknifed semitrailer around 10:15 p.m. Wednesday near Virginia Dale.

Returning from a Caribbean vacation, the couple was driving home from Denver International Airport when their pickup collided with and slid under the empty trailer of the semitrailer driven by Bruce Gustin, 45, of Divide.

A professor at the University of Wyoming since 1982, Williams, 53, was described by Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Al Langston as the "foremost chronic wasting disease expert in the country."

Thorne, 64, served as acting director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for nine months in 2002 and 2003. He worked in the department for 35 years before retiring in 2003 and was a prominent researcher of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, as well as brucellosis in bison and elk.

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Wayne Nichols said Gustin was driving southbound on U.S. 287 when he lost control of his semitrailer on an icy curve.

The empty flatbed trailer swung around counter clockwise, causing the entire vehicle to spin.

The jackknifed trailer was stretched across both northbound lanes of U.S. 287 when the Ford pickup driven by Thorne slammed into it.

"It went underneath that trailer, and the trailer pushed it all the way into the mountain wall on the East side (of the road)," Nichols said. "They had no time to even react."

Williams and Thorne were both dead at the scene, Nichols said. Gustin escaped uninjured from the crash.

Although both parties were reported to be travelling under the 65 mph speed limit, authorities charged Gustin with two counts of careless driving resulting in death for driving too fast for the conditions.

Nichols said road conditions for the northbound drivers had quickly turned from good to poor just before the site of the crash, but the southbound semitrailer had been driving in bad weather for some time.

Gustin, who estimated his speed at 60 mph, was issued a summons and ordered to appear in court on March 7.

Neither drugs nor alcohol is suspected in the crash.

The deaths of Thorne and Williams came as a tragic blow to members of the scientific community who knew them as friends and esteemed colleagues.

Mike Miller, veterinarian for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said Williams and Thorne were both known and respected by peers worldwide.

"Beth, literally, was the foundation of everything that we really have learned over the years about chronic wasting disease," Miller said.

Williams also extensively researched other wildlife diseases, including distemper in black footed ferrets. Miller said he believes she and Thorne were instrumental in saving the ferrets, thought to be extinct until 18 of them were discovered near Meeteetse, Wyo., in the early 1980s. Williams and Thorne recognized that distemper was killing the animals, which were saved and became the base population for blackfooted ferrets released in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and other states to rebuild their numbers.

Tom Buchanan, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Wyoming, said he was saddened to hear of the deaths. "She will be missed by her colleagues, her students and her friends who include everyone who cares about wildlife and ranching in the Rocky Mountain West," he said of Williams in a prepared statement.

Thorne was one of three finalists for Game and Fish director in 2003. Previously he was assistant chief and chief of the department's Services Division, and branch chief of the state's Wildlife Veterinary Research Services.

Over the years he also served as vice president of the Wildlife Disease Association, chairman of the Advisory Council for the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians, and chairman of the U.S. Health Association's Wildlife Diseases Committee.

Chronic wasting disease is similar to mad cow disease, causing brain wasting and eventually death. It emerged in Colorado and Wyoming more than 30 years ago and has been found in recent years as far away as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause cattle to abort their calves. It is common in elk and bison in northwest Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park.

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