Crime/Police

In Fatal LAPD Crash, Blame Is Obvious

By Jim Smith

This is a story about a crime, and no justice. It’s also a story about police officials, who are here to “protect and serve” being about the law.

It has been more than two years ago since Devin Petelski was killed by a police car traveling 78 mph. Witnesses said it was engaged in “silent running,” which means driving without lights. She died in the hospital.

Had anyone other than the police engaged in this behavior, a judge and jury likely would have put them in jail and thrown away the key. Regrettably, the driver of the police car, James Eldridge, and his accomplice in the passenger seat, Ramon Vasquez, were not charged with reckless driving or third-degree murder, and were not even subjected to internal discipline.

While it was not justice, we taxpayers shelled out $5 million to settle a civil suit brought by the Petelski family. On April 27, 2011 the Los Angeles City Council unanimously adopted the $5 million recommendation of the City Attorney. The motion stated: “this matter involves a traffic accident that resulted in a wrongful death which occurred on October 15, 2009.” Wrongful death is defined by the Free Dictionary as: “The taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of another person or persons.”

Devin Petelski was a popular 25-year-old woman who spent much of her time volunteering for good causes. She worked at a center for disturbed children just two blocks from where she lost her life. That corner of Glyndon Avenue and Venice Blvd. has been the site of many vigils by her friends. Now, two years later, her friends still bring flowers to a small shrine there. On Nov. 19, 2009 dozens of her friends marched two miles to the Pacific Division Police Station in hopes of getting officials to take the case seriously. Instead Capt. Joseph Hiltner launched into a tirade about irresponsible journalism (i.e. the Beachhead) for publicizing the case. (See video at http://bit.ly/5Cyo2G).

The Coverup

Instead of facing up to the potentially criminal behavior of two of its officers, the LAPD decided to stonewall. It conducted an internal investigation instead of calling in the California Highway Patrol or another agency to conduct the investigation. The result was predictable.

1. An officer who arrived on the scene stated that he smelled alcohol on the breath of the unconscious Petelski. A test at the hospital found no alcohol in her blood.

2. A city attorney told the press that the police car was traveling between 40 – 45 mph when it hit Petelski’s car. The vehicle’s “black box” recorded the speed as 78 mph.

3. Before the internal investigation was completed, a police spokesperson said Petelski was at fault for pulling out in front of the police car.

4. The cover-up reached all the way to the top. On Nov. 25, 2009, Chief of Police Charlie Beck told radio station KPCC that “a preliminary report that examined the lights’ heat following the crash indicates that officers had their lights on. He said the report also found they were traveling at a safe speed.” Apparently, although smashed in the impact, they felt warm to the touch. But a witness driving behind the police car said Officer Eldridge turned on to Venice Blvd. from Lincoln Blvd. and turned his lights off. According to the black box, the police car came to a stop (at the intersection) 17 seconds before the crash. Even if the lights were off for that period, they would still be warm to the touch after being on all night.

5. The black box, which records everything up to 25 seconds before a crash in all police cars, could not be read by police investigators. That would have been the end of the story had it not been for the civil suit from Petelski’s family. Lawyers forced the examination by three independent experts, all of who were able to extract information from the black box, and all of who agreed that the police car was traveling up to 78 mph within three seconds of the crash.

6. Police initially said Eldridge and his partner were not responding to a call for assistance. Later, the story was changed to say they were responding to a call (as justification for silent running and driving at a high rate of speed?).

7. Both Capt. Hiltner and Chief Beck claimed they had never heard of “silent running.” Yet officers at other police forces in the area have told Beachhead reporters that the term is in common use for driving without lights. LAPD cars are frequently observed in Venice employing this tactic when on the prowl.

The L.A. Times Joins In

The mighty L.A. Times has mostly supported the police story. A brief article on Nov. 20, 2009 uncritically reported a city attorney’s statement that the police car’s lights were on. The next story in the Times was not until Jan. 17, 2012, under the dubious headline, “In fatal LAPD crash, blame proves elusive.” The article reviews some of the evidence pointing to negligent and criminal behavior by the officers but ultimately whitewashes their behavior. “There is science to support both versions,” says reporter Joel Rubin, who neglects to tell readers what science supports the police version.

Readers of the Times article must be wondering why the City Council doled out $5 million while the cops were not even disciplined by their superiors.

The Aftermath

Devin’s shocking – and seemingly inexplicable – death was devastating to her family and her many friends. It was particularly a blow to her only sibling, Michael, with whom she was very close. Michael’s life was never the same. He began a spiral downward into depression and drug use. It ended with his death from an overdose last July 14.

Before the crash, Shaunnah Godfrey and Ronald Petelski had two loved and loving children who were just at the beginning of their adult lives. Now they have none. And no one is to blame?

Why hasn’t the Dept. of Justice intervened to investigate why Devin Petelski’s civil rights were violated when her life was taken? Why hasn’t the Los Angeles Times taken the side of justice instead of the side of the cover up? Why have the city councilmembers and the Mayor, who are ultimately responsible for the conduct of the police, gone along with this cover up? And who will be the next victim of criminal behavior by those we expect to defend us?

Beachhead articles about Devin Petelski include those in back issues for Nov. 2009 (2 articles), Dec. 2009 and June 2010 at http://www.freevenice.org.    

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Categories: Crime/Police, Jim Smith

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