Local News

Saturday, Dec 17 2011 09:39 PM

Outrage in Oildale after crash

BY JASON KOTOWSKI AND STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writers jkotowski@bakersfield.com; smayer@bakersfield.com

At least two Oildale families were in mourning Saturday after learning that two loved ones had been struck and killed Friday by a fast-moving patrol car driven by a Kern County Sheriff's deputy.

But for many in the small community north of Bakersfield, their sadness was joined by outrage over how such a thing could happen -- and cynicism about whether the many questions that remain will ever be answered to their satisfaction.

Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 30, were identified Saturday by the Kern County coroner's office as the man and woman who were hit by a sheriff's patrol car near the intersection of Norris Road and Diane Drive. Hiler and Jolley died at the scene.

The deputy, identified by the California Highway Patrol as John Swearengin, 34, was taken to a hospital Friday. Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Saturday he believed Swearengin was released Friday evening and didn't suffer any significant injuries. He was in good health, physically, Youngblood said.

"It's very tragic and I'm deeply saddened that two people lost their lives," Youngblood said. "It's just a tragedy."

Roadside shrine

Whittney Peaker embraced friends and family Saturday morning as she stood near the intersection where Hiler and Jolley were killed. She talked about the love she and her fiance, Daniel Hiler, shared.

"He was a fun, outgoing, loving person," Peaker said of the man she'd known for most of her life and with whom she had shared a relationship for the past three and a half years. The couple had two young children together.

As the small group set flowers, candles and notes on the sidewalk near the intersection, they discussed what happened.

They spoke with heavy hearts, but anger was mixed with the sorrow. Michelle Cameron said it had only been a matter of time before something like this happened because deputies speed through the area all the time.

"They have no consideration for the other public," said Cameron, whose husband is a cousin of Jolley's.

Cameron said witnesses told her they estimated the deputy was traveling between 75 and 90 mph along Norris Road when the 7:30 p.m. crash happened. The impact crumpled the hood of the patrol vehicle.

California Highway Patrol is investigating the crash. CHP Sgt. Kenny Hagerman said Friday that Swearengin was driving west on Norris Road and the pedestrians were walking south across Norris, which has four traffic lanes.

Hagerman said the Kern deputy had "openly struck" the two pedestrians, who had not been at a crosswalk.

The speed limit is 45 mph on that section of Norris. A street light is located on the northeast corner of Norris and Diane. About one block east of the accident scene, a traffic light and crosswalks regulate the intersection of Norris and Oildale Drive. But there are few crosswalks in the area.

Hagerman has said he could not confirm bystanders' reports that the deputy's emergency lights weren't on. Cameron said she was told the deputy didn't turn on his emergency lights until after the crash, and also that he hadn't been using his siren.

Witnesses said the victims appeared to have been killed on impact. Some described massive, shocking injuries.

Brandon Gudmundson, 16, said he and a friend were the first people on the scene.

He said he and other friends had been in a car turning left onto Norris from Oildale Drive -- about a block east of the accident -- when a sheriff's vehicle passed them at a high rate of speed.

Reaching the accident scene seconds later, they parked at the market.

Gudmundson and one friend ventured into the street and came upon an appallingly grisly scene. He said it was clear that the victims had suffered severe trauma. They appeared lifeless.

He said the deputy was still in his vehicle.

"I'm still shocked," he said. "We were just (out) trying to find something to do. We were just making a left."

Debra Lewis, a friend of the Hiler family, said she was in shock after hearing the news Friday night and drove to the scene. She stayed for several hours, watching what she said seemed like half the local CHP force show up and block off the intersection to traffic as they investigated.

Lewis said deputies often speed through Oildale, even in residential areas.

History of problems?

Forrest Faulkner, who lived at the same address in Oildale for 11 years, has had his own problems with patrol deputies speeding through Oildale's narrow streets.

Faulkner said he's been acquainted with several members of law enforcement over the years. "They're great people," he said.

But it's dangerous to area residents when patrol cars, without emergency lights or sirens on, travel at excessive speeds through the neighborhoods.

"I've seen sparks fly from the car's undercarriage when they hit a dip," he said.

But when he called the sheriff's department to complain, he was asked whether he could provide the license plate or vehicle number of the offending patrol car.

"Of course I can't," he said. "They're going too fast."

Faulkner's unanswered complaints have left him feeling powerless to bring about change in his own neighborhood.

"It leaves a bad taste in your mouth," he said.

Peaker, the fiancee, said Hiler's motorcycle had run out of gas and he was pushing it to the house of a relative. He happened to come across Jolley, a friend, and she decided to walk with him, Peaker said.

As they were pushing the motorcycle across Norris, they were struck by the patrol car.

By late Saturday morning, a steady stream of mourners and concerned residents were stopping at the small shrine of candles, handwritten notes and flowers that appeared near the accident scene. A sign attached to the roadside shrine noted that donations were being accepted inside Cope's Food Fair Market, located at Norris and Diane.

Some said they knew one of the victims. Others said they didn't know Hiler or Jolley, yet felt compelled to come.

"We couldn't even go to sleep last night," said nearby resident Bonnie Green.

When a patrol car driven by an officer of the law, someone who is sworn to protect local citizens, runs down and kills two people, it's a concern for the entire community, Green said.

"Why? How could this happen?" she asked. "Everyone knows people cross here all the time."

The market's parking lot filled with people Friday night, visitors to the shrine said. Tempers flared as many expressed anger at what they view as a general disregard for traffic laws exhibited by deputies who patrol Oildale -- and a routine lack of accountability when things go bad.

"What gets me is we already know what the outcome will be," said Anna Rodriguez, 19, a friend to one of the victims.

"The officer will go on paid suspension," she predicted. "Then they will say he didn't do anything wrong -- and that will be the end of it."

Her face grim, Rodriguez left a bright red poinsettia plant at the corner shrine, along with religious candles. Then she climbed into her car and drove away.

Questions

Sheriff's Cmdr. Ed Komin confirmed Saturday that four relatives of Jolley were arrested Friday night when they became involved in some sort of altercation with law enforcement officers at the scene.

The California Highway Patrol said Friday the deputy was responding to a call. But some residents who gathered at the scene Saturday pointed out that the main office of the Sheriff's Department is on Norris Road, just a mile or two west of the accident scene, the direction in which Swearengin was traveling.

Gabriel Garcia, 22, said he was standing near the railroad tracks that run parallel to Norris on the south side of the road when the pair were struck by the cruiser.

"We saw the sparks flying from the motorcycle as it was pushed down the road," he said.

"His lights were off," Garcia said of Swearengin. "Not even his headlights were on."

The CHP's Hagerman told The Californian on Friday, "We won't ultimately know" whether emergency lights were on at the time of the accident.

Others at the small shrine said Swearengin never checked on the victims. He got out of his car and sat on the curbside, then later turned on his emergency lights.

Some complained the bodies of Hiler and Jolley were left uncovered for as long as 30 to 45 minutes.

At one point Saturday, more than a half-dozen people visited the shrine independent of one another. Not only was it a place to mourn the community's loss, it also seemed to double as a forum where those who live in the struggling neighborhood could vent and express their anger and concerns.

They say a long list of questions remain, questions that must have answers.

For example, if the patrol vehicle is equipped with a GPS device, and it is believed that most are, shouldn't the speed the car was traveling be available to investigators and the public almost immediately?

What about the car's emergency lights and siren? If witnesses are to be believed, evidence is mounting that they were not in use.

What was the nature of the call Swearengin was responding to? What was the location? What time did his shift end?

Did the deputy undergo an alcohol and drug screen ? If not, why not?

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