CHARLOTTESVILLE, JULY 30 -- Ordinarily there's no need to set aside special seating for reporters to cover traffic court here. But ordinarily, Patricia Kluge -- estranged wife of a billionaire and rumored companion of a governor -- isn't appearing in Albemarle County General District Court on a charge of reckless driving.
She was today. And after Judge Stephen H. Helvin lowered the charge to improper driving and fined Kluge $50 plus $22 in court costs, Kluge apparently was caught a little short of cash. Confronted with the court's policy of accepting no personal checks, Kluge and her legal team left the clerk's window without paying.
One of Kluge's two lawyers came back later to pay with a check from his firm's account, which the court accepts, a clerk said. Kluge presumably can reimburse her lawyers from the reported $85 million a year she is receiving as a settlement from husband John W. Kluge, founder of Metromedia and said to be America's richest man.
Thus, one of Virginia's most celebrated driving cases in years ended in much the same fashion as most of the cases that come to traffic court. After a hearing that lasted just 15 minutes, it ended with a dull thud.
The sense of disappointment among the news media was palpable, especially when Kluge, 41, wearing a dress with a floral print, walked past the reporters and television cameras without stopping for interviews. She was accompanied by a security guard.
The fuss got started on April 27 when, according to testimony, Kluge drove off the right side of a country road near her Albemarle Farms estate in her 1988 Range Rover. The vehicle hit an embankment and a culvert, flipping over onto its side. Kluge was not seriously injured.
The investigating officer, Trooper J.E. DeFord, said there was no evidence alcohol was involved in the incident. He said the crash scene appeared to corroborate Kluge's assertion that she was going only about 35 miles an hour.
Kluge, who did not testify, told DeFord that she ran off the road while trying to avoid an animal, although she couldn't identify what kind of animal, the trooper testified.
Kluge's attorney, Lindsey Barnes, asked Helvin to dimiss the charge because Kluge was not speeding, she was wearing a seat belt and the road she ran off had no shoulder.
Even though Kluge wasn't driving recklessly, Helvin responded, she did have "slight culpability" for leaving the road. He said drivers should not swerve uncontrollably even to avoid striking an animal.
Gov. L. Douglas Wilder reportedly has been socializing with Kluge on weekends in Nantucket, Mass., and Virginia Beach since she separated last spring from her husband.
Authorities and emergency personnel indicated that Kluge was alone in the vehicle.