Local News

Wednesday, Oct 17 2012 08:00 PM

CHP report: 'Excessive' speed cause of deputy's crash into pedestrians

BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

Two pedestrians struck and killed by a Kern County Sheriff's deputy would have been hard to see in the dark of night, and the street where the accident occurred has a history of traffic collisions, but the deputy's "excessive" speed is ultimately what makes him at fault for the fatalities.

Those are some conclusions from the California Highway Patrol's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team's 200-plus page report detailing the lead-up to, cause and aftermath of the December 2011 crash in Oildale. The report, which first became publicly available Wednesday in filings in Kern County Superior Court, offers new details about the incident that led the District Attorney's office to file two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter against Deputy John Swearengin.

On Dec. 16, Swearengin was driving on Norris Road en route to a grand theft auto investigation when he struck and killed Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 26, near Diane Drive, the report said. Hiler and Jolley were crossing the street pushing Hiler's motorized dirt bike, which Hiler had wanted to take to a family member's house because it had run out of gas.

"Had Party 1 (Swearengin) been driving Vehicle 1 (Ford) at the posted speed limit, Party 2 (Hiler) and Party 3 (Jolley) would have safely cleared the westbound lanes of traffic without conflict," the report concludes.

The scene of the accident was brutal, according to witness descriptions in the report. Some witnesses reported seeing the bodies flying in the air. Witnesses also said the two were obviously dead after they were hit. One described them as "nearly cut in half," according to the report.

Last week, Swearengin was charged. He is to be arraigned Oct. 26.

The crash outraged Oildale residents and led many to wonder if the deputy would be held criminally responsible. The families of both Hiler and Jolley have filed civil lawsuits against the County of Kern in the case.

Road, human conditions

Norris Road is a historically dangerous road, according to the report. The CHP studied a one-mile stretch of Norris. The crash scene falls in the middle of that stretch. Between 2008 and 2010, 87 car accidents occurred in that stretch. Of that, four were vehicle versus pedestrian.

And one of the vehicle versus pedestrian accidents bore a striking resemblance to the Swearengin case, according to the report. In 2009, another Kern County Sheriff's deputy struck a female pedestrian who was drunk and chasing her dog into the road. She suffered severe injuries. But in that case, the pedestrian was found to be at fault for entering the roadway at an area that was not a crosswalk.

In its investigation, the CHP also conducted a field visibility test to determine if Swearengin could have seen Hiler and Jolley and if they could see him. The roadway was dark, and neither Hiler nor Jolley were wearing any reflective material. Because of that, they appeared as shapes darker than the background, according to the report.

"As a result of this condition, it was 'extremely difficult' to discern the presence of the pedestrians and Vehicle 4 (Honda) in the roadway," according to the report.

Both Hiler and Jolley had alcohol in their bodies at the time they were struck, according to the report. Hiler had a blood alcohol content of .137 percent. Jolley had one of .253 percent. The legal definition of impairment for driving is a blood alcohol content of .08 percent.

In a statement to the CHP, Jolley's mother, Carol Gillum, described her daughter as a "weekend warrior" who "could hold her own" when drinking, according to the report.

Still, neither Jolley nor Hiler were at fault for the accident, the report said. The area where they were crossing was not a crosswalk. But they were legally allowed to cross there because there were no adjacent crosswalks with traffic control signals.

"Accordingly, Party 2 (Hiler) and Party 3 (Jolley) were allowed to cross Norris Road, where they did, as long as they did so when there were no vehicles so close as to constitute an immediate hazard," according to the report.

Speed, lights and siren

Swearengin's speed made it so Hiler and Jolley's judgment about crossing the street proved fatal, according to the report.

Fifteen seconds before the accident, Swearengin was driving at 84.9 miles per hour, according to the report. The posted speed limit was 45 miles per hour. As close as 3.8 seconds to the impact, his accelerator was pressed all the way down. At the exact time of impact, he was going 64.3 miles per hour.

Swearengin's lights and sirens were not on at the time of the crash, according to the report. Swearengin was about to radio for permission to go Code 3 just before the crash, according to his statement included in the report. Code 3 is when a law enforcement official drives with lights and sirens on.

Swearengin looked down to grab his radio because a larger than normal drink in his cup holder caused him to fumble when he grabbed for it, according to his statement.

"Right when I grabbed the radio and looked up, the motorcycle was right in front of me and I hit it," he said, according to the report.

The report described how Swearengin's patrol car looked after the accident. The front right of the car was smashed in. Blood and human tissue were on the hood and light bar. A shoe print was on the bottom of the radiator support.

Swearengin "had the facilities and ability to warn surrounding motorists and pedestrians of his intention to drive about the posted speed limit by activating his emergency lights and siren," according to the report's conclusion.

"However, by choosing not to turn on his emergency equipment to warn others, the surrounding motorists and pedestrians had a reasonable expectation that Vehicle 1 (Ford) would be obeying applicable traffic laws and driving at 45 miles per hour."

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