Even with agony, Las Vegas police officer hurt in crash feels empathy

Las Vegas police officer Tony McCleery hurts.

You would, too, if a pickup plowed into you as you stood on Las Vegas Boulevard.

When I received physical therapy for an Achilles tendon problem, I saw the motorcycle cop - he's had a half-dozen surgeries and been off work more than a year - struggling to strengthen back muscles so he can put off further surgery.

As so often happens in Las Vegas, the 55-year-old McCleery is alive only because of the expertise of the UMC Trauma Center. Struck as he investigated an accident near Town Square, he suffered a fractured skull, facial fractures, mangled leg, punctured lung, broken back, broken ribs, separated shoulder, fractured teeth and assorted rips and tears.

Four days passed before he regained consciousness.

Sometimes as he lay on the therapy table next to mine he'd moan as his therapist worked.

But this man who will always have to wear a brace to keep his left leg together, who often takes strong pain medication to get through the day, also hurts today for reasons beyond the physical.

Whether we can truly appreciate this kind of pain - he agonizes over what will happen to the man who hit him - demands soul-searching that philosophers and men of the cloth urge us to do, but few of us try.

As strange as it may seem, McCleery can't handle having Brandon Potts, charged with driving drunk after nearly killing McCleery, go to prison.

"I know I didn't cause the accident, but I'd feel responsible for his kids not having a father, for his employees losing jobs," McCleery said. "He hit me. I didn't hit him. I know that. But his going to prison hurts too many innocent people. I forgive him."

Potts, a father of three, owns Civil Works Inc., an engineering firm that has done many projects for the Clark County School District. He's employed as many as 50 people.

He was charged with DUI-substantial bodily harm after blood tests showed his alcohol level above the 0.08 limit. Law enforcement officials haven't released the official finding. If convicted of the felony, Potts will go to prison for two to 20 years. The law does not allow probation. His trial is scheduled for next month.

Potts' repeated apologies have rung true to McCleery, whose own investigation of the civil engineer found he had never been in trouble before, "that he made one bad mistake." The two men have become friends, often visiting each other.

"Tony's unbelievable," Potts said. "I've never met anyone like him. I wish this hadn't happened. I think about it every day."

What would be better punishment for Potts, said McCleery, is speaking publicly about what drunken driving can do.

"We'd be together at schools and community groups," McCleery said. "A learning experience for people."

McCleery has repeatedly tried to get the charge against Potts reduced.

But Bruce Nelson, the chief deputy district attorney handling Potts' case, notes that Nevada law prohibits a prosecutor from reducing a charge of DUI unless he can tell the judge why he cannot prove the case.

"There is nothing wrong with this case," Nelson said.

McCleery, whose future is filled with more physical pain as arthritis attacks his body, doesn't want to also deal with the mental anguish of knowing that Potts' children will grow up without a father.

"I know what it was like for my kids when I was in the military - it's terrible," he said. "It really hurts to think I'll be connected to that again with his kids."

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.