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Sunday, January 9, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter

Darin Detwiler: He Lost Son To E. Coli, Now Is Hellbent On Making It To Olympia

BELLINGHAM - Barely a month after their son, Riley, died from E. coli bacteria, Darin and Vicki Detwiler were pounding on doors and meeting with Vice President Al Gore, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and members of Washington's congressional delegation.

Drawing on a bottomless well of grief and rage, the Detwilers wanted to spare other parents the overpowering, tears-any-time sadness they were experiencing.

After returning home, they saw a family on TV discuss how their child was on dialysis from an E. coli outbreak seven years earlier. Something snapped: Why hadn't this family been more outspoken? Why hadn't they played a larger role in warning others?

In his sorrow, Darin Detwiler didn't realize it right away but gradually he was being politicized. Since 17-month-old Riley's death last February from secondary infection (a day-care chum had eaten a tainted hamburger at Jack in the Box), the couple has worked hard to get the Agriculture Department to hire more meat inspectors. They have done public-service radio announcements promoting safe handling of food.

And Darin Detwiler is now seriously considering running for an open seat for the Legislature from the 40th District, in northwest Washington.

Whether his background prepares him for the Legislature is open to discussion. He has previously been a nuclear-submarine machinist for the Navy, an oil-refinery inspector, an appliance-store deliveryman and salesman. But Detwiler, 25, is young, driven and hellbent on making a difference. In other words, some of what the Legislature needs more of.

His agenda goes beyond a crusade to make the world safe from hamburgers, though that is certainly part of it.

Detwiler also has become a reluctant expert on health-care reform. He was laid off from his job last January, three days before Riley became ill and two weeks before he would have become eligible for health insurance. (Vicki, a Canadian lawyer who worked in British Columbia, also lacked coverage because she does not reside in B.C.)

As it turned out, the insurance company for the Bellingham Jack in the Box franchise paid Riley's medical bills.

Detwiler has learned a lot in the last year. But is it the right stuff to prepare him for a career in politics? Other folks who have suffered tragedy have crusaded on issues and learned at times bureaucracy is thicker than one person's passion. Maybe the whole idea is naive.

Candidly, he says he doesn't know how realistic it is for him to become a politician. "I do know I can't expect elected officials to do what I want to be done if I don't do it myself," he said.

Detwiler, for example, recently discovered that personal hygiene is not being taught in many school districts in the state. Students may spend time studying how to stay off drugs, but not learning about how to wash their hands between meals. As Vicki Detwiler puts it: "So your kid won't do cocaine, but he'll die from a cheeseburger."

After talking to Darin Detwiler for a while, one thing becomes clear: He has integrity. Hollywood would have paid big bucks for the TV rights to Riley's story, but only if they could tinker with the truth. Tinker? TV audiences don't take well to stories about the loss of children, so the filmmakers wanted Riley to live.

"Another network came right out and told us that even though most TV movies come from real-life stories, only those that fit the preset network mold of an action drama will be turned into a TV movie," Detwiler wrote in a paper for his composition class at Whatcom Community College. "Translated, this means there was not enough sex or violence in our story to make it worthy of a TV movie."

No deal. On any of it. And there won't be unless they tell the truth.

The seat Detwiler is eyeing will open next fall because incumbent Democratic Rep. Rob Johnson is running for Al Swift's congressional seat. Of course, no decisions have been made about the likely Democratic candidate. But Jim Cozad of the Whatcom County Democratic Central Committee is impressed by the fire in Detwiler's belly and his eagerness to work within the system to force change.

Equally inspiring is his desire to save others from the agony he and Vicki endured and the idealism he has managed to pull out of his deep dark hole of hurt.

Joni Balter's column appears Sunday and Thursdays in the Local News section of The Times. Her voice-mail number is 464-3279.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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