Local News

Friday, Oct 12 2012 07:05 PM

Felony charges filed against deputy who struck, killed two pedestrians

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The makeshift memorial for Chrystal Jolley and Daniel Hiler remains at Norris Road and Diane Drive after the December 2011 crash.

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  2. 2 of 3

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Norma Cortez doesn't know if jail time is appropriate for the Kern County Sheriff deputy who was charged Friday regarding the death of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley on Norris Road in Oildale.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Kenneth Bates of Oildale said he was glad the Kern County District Attorney filed charges against the Kern County Sheriff deputy Friday in regard to the death of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley on Norris Road. His wife knew of the victims.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

Nearly 10 months after a horrific crash killed two pedestrians, prosecutors have filed two felony charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence against a Kern County sheriff's deputy who sped at more than 80 mph, with no flashing lights or sirens, through Oildale.

Some outraged residents had questioned why the California Highway Patrol's investigation into the Dec. 16 incident took so long, and wondered if criminal charges would ever be filed against Deputy John Swearengin for the deaths of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley.

On Friday, Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green said the decision to charge Swearengin was tough, but she and four other prosecutors discussed the case after Supervising Deputy District Attorney Michael J. Yraceburn conducted a thorough review of the evidence. They unanimously agreed vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence was the proper charge.

Swearengin was subsequently arrested, booked into jail and released Friday after posting bond, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said. The deputy, who if convicted of both charges faces a maximum of seven years, four months in prison, has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Steve Nichols, at the Law Office of Young & Nichols, which is representing the Jolley family in the civil lawsuit filed in the crash, said it's unusual to see a law enforcement officer charged with a crime when the act was unintentional. But it's an appropriate charge given the circumstances, he said, and Green has done the right thing by letting a jury decide what's proper.

"They want justice to be done and the streets to be safe," Nichols said of the Jolley family, adding they did not wish to comment. He did say the family believes the charges send a clear message that everyone needs to abide by the law.

The investigation

The deaths angered the victims' families and other Oildale residents who have said law enforcement is not held accountable for its actions.

In this case, the CHP's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team was brought in to probe the incident, and produced a 200-plus page report with their findings.

The team found Hiler, 24, and Jolley, 26, bore no responsibility for the crash at Norris Road near Diane Drive. They were pushing a motorcycle south on Norris Road the night they were hit, and died on impact.

Swearengin, 35, was driving his patrol car at 80.2 mph without emergency lights or sirens an eighth of a second before impact, according to the CHP investigation.

The posted speed limit in that area is 45 mph. A civil lawsuit filed against Swearengin and the County of Kern says the deputy acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of the public's safety by driving at excessive speed through an area known to have high pedestrian traffic.

Swearengin was treated for minor injuries at a hospital, and the CHP has said he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Deputies have said Swearengin was responding to a call of a stolen vehicle when the crash occurred.

The CHP submitted its investigation to prosecutors in mid-September and recommended the charges that were ultimately filed.

Swearengin's excessive speed was a major factor in filing the charges, Green said, as were the facts that he didn't activate his overhead lights or siren, and that the pedestrians were crossing in an area where they had every right to be.

Green said Swearengin will likely be arraigned within a few weeks. His bail was set at $100,000, the scheduled amount for the two felony counts.

She commended the CHP -- which conducted the investigation -- on the thoroughness of its report.

"I thought the CHP did an excellent investigation," she said.

Sheriff Youngblood said the incident has strongly impacted the families of everyone involved.

"This is a tragedy from all angles," Youngblood said.

On the one hand, you have a deputy sheriff, a good man, out on the streets trying to do a good job, the sheriff said. But he said that doesn't take away from the terrible fact that two people lost their lives, and those families don't have their loved ones anymore.

Community reaction

Several Oildale residents said Friday they thought criminal charges were appropriate, and some even expressed sympathy for the deputy.

"He's got a family too," Geraldine Astor said of Swearengin.

Astor lives off Norris Road and was home the evening of the crash, which she described as sounding like two trains colliding. She ran outside and saw bodies lying in the road, and the deputy appeared to be stunned as he sat on the curb.

Astor said she'd hate to see Swearengin go to prison if he's convicted, but he should have to pay in some way. She said he should no longer work in law enforcement.

Henry Wade, who also lives near the crash site, said he's glad Swearengin is being held accountable. The 69-year-old said he's surprised by the filing of charges because he expected the incident would be "swept under the rug" and officials would declare the deputy did nothing wrong.

"This here, I'm happy they've finally done something about it," Wade said.

Norma Cortez stopped at a business in the area Friday where her husband works. She said she didn't know a lot about the crash, but thinks it may have been avoidable if the patrol car's overhead lights had been activated because people tend to quickly get out of the way when they see police approaching.

She said the filing of charges doesn't surprise her.

"I'd hope the rules apply to everyone, deputies or not," Cortez said.

Kenneth Bates, 31, said his wife knew Hiler because they'd gone to school together. He said he's "kind of glad" charges were filed because Swearengin was driving much too fast for this roadway.

What's next

David Cohn, the attorney representing the Hiler family in the civil lawsuit, said it's always difficult when a law enforcement officer is charged with a crime. The reports in this case, however, are the most comprehensive ones he's seen from the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team in his 36 years as a practicing attorney.

After speaking with his own experts regarding the report, Cohn said he was confident the DA's office would file charges. A criminal conviction against Swearengin would make it extremely difficult for the county and Swearengin's attorney to defend the civil case because the burden of proof is much lower in civil trials, Cohn said.

Neither Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations nor Swearengin's attorney in the civil case, Oliver Robinson, could be reached for comment Friday.

The Hiler family feels somewhat vindicated by the charges because there were a lot of questions at first about whether the pedestrians bore any blame in what happened, Cohn said. The CHP's report makes it clear they did nothing wrong, he said.

"They're gratified and feel like justice will be done and Deputy Swearengin will have his day in court, be tried by a jury of his peers, and it will be up to the citizens of this county to decide whether he's guilty," Cohn said.

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