Local News

Monday, Dec 19 2011 06:17 PM

Deputy in fatal crash was responding to stolen vehicle call

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood answers questions from the media Monday regarding the deputy who stuck and killed two pedestrians with his patrol car Friday night.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The Kern County sheriff's deputy who drove a patrol car that struck and killed two pedestrians in Oildale Friday evening was responding to a report of a stolen vehicle with a suspect still at the scene, Sheriff Donny Youngblood said Monday.

And, according to the California Highway Patrol, which is investigating the crash, Deputy John Swearengin was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

An alcohol and drug screen was not performed on Swearengin because he didn't show any signs of intoxication -- which is standard procedure, CHP Officer Robert Rodriguez said.

Numerous other questions about the deadly collision remained unanswered Monday, including how fast Swearengin was driving and whether the vehicle's emergency lights and siren were on.

Rodriguez said the investigation is ongoing and could take weeks to complete. He said information from the patrol vehicle's internal computer, sometimes referred to as a black box, will be downloaded to see such things as how fast Swearengin was driving at the time of impact and whether he tried to brake.

Youngblood told reporters at a news conference Monday that Swearengin, a five-year veteran, has been placed on paid administrative leave. While the CHP conducts its investigation, he said, the Sheriff's Department will conduct an administrative investigation.

Swearengin was headed to the area of Highway 65 and 7th Standard Road for the stolen vehicle report, Youngblood said. He received the call just before 7:30 p.m.; the crash happened soon thereafter.

Youngblood said California law prevents him from commenting on specifics of the administrative investigation, but he'll release information as it becomes legally available. He also released the department's emergency driving policies, and said those policies will be reviewed by sheriff's command staff once the CHP investigation is complete.

"Any time a significant incident occurs, such as Friday night's accident, we take it very seriously and examine our actions," Youngblood said.

The department's emergency driving policy, which is seven pages long, says "the safety of the deputy and the public must be the primary concern when driving under emergency conditions."

The policy says sheriff's personnel generally can't violate traffic laws except when done in a safe manner and during Code 3 operations (lights and sirens during an emergency call), or while practicing generally approved patrol procedures.

Those procedures include approaching a prowler call with lights out and driving on the wrong side of a roadway to safely approach a robbery in progress.

The policy goes on to say deputies shouldn't drive faster than is reasonable or prudent taking weather, visibility, traffic and the surface and width of the road into consideration.

Youngblood said there's no speed threshold when responding to emergencies.

Swearengin was driving west on Norris Road and the pedestrians were walking south across Norris near where it intersects Diane Drive when they were struck, CHP officers have reported. Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 30, died at the scene.

Swearengin, 34, suffered minor injuries and was treated at and released from a local hospital.

On Saturday, mourners expressed outrage over the deaths of their loved ones. Several people said deputies routinely speed through Oildale.

At Monday's press conference, Youngblood said he can't respond to rumors about what may or may not have occurred. If a complaint is filed with the department, it's investigated, he said.

Acknowledging the anger voiced by some in the community, Youngblood asked for the public's patience, adding he has many questions of his own.

He said the department as a whole is deeply saddened by the deaths.

"This incident is a tragedy for everyone involved and for our community," Youngblood said.

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