GREENFIELD — A sleep aid is to blame for the fact that Hancock County Coroner Tamara Vangundy was impaired when she came to the scene of a death investigation on May 3, her attorney said Tuesday.
Vangundy was arrested at the scene and charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated and official misconduct.
Court documents state Vangundy was staggering and slurring her words when she arrived at the home of a New Palestine resident who had committed suicide.
But she would have stayed home had she realized the adverse effects of combining alcohol with Ambien, a powerful sleep aid she was prescribed by her doctor, said her attorney, Carl Brizzi of Indianapolis.
Vangundy tested over the legal limit for alcohol use, but her decision-making that night is the direct result of a drug that affects users’ cognitive abilities and memory, Brizzi said.
That argument is expected to figure in Vangundy’s defense against calls for her to be removed from office.
Ambien is used to treat insomnia and has a variety of well-documented side effects, including sleepwalking followed by memory loss. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, patients have reported having prepared and eaten food, driven cars and participated in other activities while not fully awake – and with no memory of the activity the next day.
Vangundy told police she was drinking wine the night she was arrested but did not realize she was impaired.
Ambien is not to be taken with alcohol, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Brizzi said Vangundy should be given the benefit of the doubt for not realizing how the drug would affect her.
“She was at home, and she did have a couple glasses of wine – no one’s disputing that – but … her judgment was impaired because of the combination of those two,” he said. “The chances of it happening again, I think, are zero.”
Brizzi said he could not confirm whether Vangundy was still taking the medication.
Vangundy has no criminal history, and there have been no other complaints against her, which Brizzi argues should prove to the public she made a one-time mistake and can be trusted to go forward successfully in her job as coroner.
The criminal case against Vangundy is being handled by Special Prosecutor John McKay of Madison County.
Late last week, Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin, who said he planned to petition for Vangundy’s removal from office, handed McKay jurisdiction over the civil side of the case as well.
That means McKay now has the authority to ask for Vangundy to be kicked out of office.
Calls to McKay’s office have not been returned.
Even if McKay files for Vangundy to be removed from office, she will remain on the November ballot as the Republican Party’s nominee for coroner. She was unopposed in the May primary, held five days after her arrest.
Since Vangundy’s arrest, several prominent Republican Party members, among them Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, have called for her resignation.
Many of those same party members are now supporting Dan Devoy, who recently announced his plans to file as an Independent candidate for coroner.
Devoy, who lost to Vangundy four years ago in the GOP primary, is a former deputy coroner.
To run as an Independent, Devoy must obtain roughly 500 signatures from members of the community by noon July 2, County Clerk Marcia Moore said.
Devoy said Tuesday he is close to reaching that minimum and is confident he will have surpassed the required number of signatures by next week.
Crystel Myers, a Democrat, has also been slated to the ballot.
Vangundy returns to Hancock Superior Court 2 on June 21 for a pre-trial hearing on her criminal charges.
If she is convicted of a felony before the November election, she will be ineligible to run.
Brizzi said he hopes Vangundy is not ousted based on a state law that calls for the removal of officeholders who become intoxicated during the “hours of the office.”
The coroner is the person who is elected to serve the community – not her deputies – which technically puts Vangundy on call 24 hours per day, Brizzi said.
Brizzi added that he doesn’t believe the statute was intended to be interpreted so harshly.
“It’s not a game of ‘gotcha,’” he said. “It’s for real, serious misconduct in an office. This was an error in judgment. It was not misconduct.”