Local News

Thursday, Apr 19 2012 05:00 PM

Still no answers in Oildale crash that killed 2

BY JILL COWAN Californian staff writer jcowan@bakersfield.com

Four months after a Kern County Sheriff's car ran down two people in an Oildale intersection, the accident report has not been released, leaving the victims' families in what one lawyer described as "total limbo."

The crash took place on the evening of Dec. 16, when Oildale residents Daniel Hiler, 24, and Chrystal Jolley, 30, were struck and killed while crossing Norris Road. Kern County Sheriff's deputy John Swearengin was driving the fast-moving patrol car that hit them.

The deaths sparked outrage in the community over what residents said was a pattern of unsafe driving by law enforcement.

By now, two lawsuits have been filed in Kern County Superior Court -- one on behalf of each grieving family -- but no solid answers have emerged.

Kern County Chief Deputy Counsel Mark Nations, said there's not much to be done until the California Highway Patrol's Multidisciplinary Accident Investgation Team releases its report on the crash.

"We have not received any report from the California Highway Patrol or MAIT," Nations said late last week. "We have no more information today than we had the day after the accident occurred. So we're sort of in a holding pattern."

As anticipated, attorney Steve Nichols filed a wrongful death suit on behalf of Jolley's survivors on March 13, according to documents and the superior court website. Attorney David Cohn, representing Hiler's family, filed a wrongful death suit on April 10. The cases will likely be consolidated, Nations said.

Both suits allege that Swearengin, in his capacity as a sheriff's deputy, acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of the public's safety by driving at an excessive speed without emergency lights or sirens through an area known to have high pedestrian traffic.

The sheriff's department has said Swearengin was responding to a stolen vehicle call, but a surveillance video Nichols' office obtained from a nearby gas station shows what appears to be a sheriff's cruiser speeding past near the time of the accident without flashing lights.

CHP's Fresno-based MAIT, which is called to investigate particularly severe crashes, is still working on its final report, officials said.

A separate sheriff's department administrative investigation into Swearengin's actions is also ongoing, said Senior Deputy Ryan Dunbier.

Swearengin remains on paid administrative leave, Dunbier said, pending results of the investigations.

CHP Sgt. Rob Krider said he couldn't estimate when the report might be complete, adding that MAIT investigations are typically projected to take about 90 days, but they often go on much longer.

Krider said the Central Division MAIT team covers a large geographical area, from the top of the Grapevine to north of Modesto which can make for a heavy caseload of all fatal incidents.

"They're obviously very tragic," he said. "We're going to look at each case objectively" -- regardless of whether or not a law enforcement agency is involved.

Central Division MAIT was assigned to investigate 23 major collisions in 2011, of which the Oildale case was 22nd, Krider said.

Cohn criticized the wait, coupled with the fact that the CHP has remained mum on the progress of the investigation.

"I won't say they're shining us on -- I think that would be too strong," he said this week. "I certainly have no sense of urgency on their part."

Cohn said he plans to formally request that the CHP allow his investigators to look at the car and its black box.

"CHP's going to say no, I'm going to go to the court," he said, "Maybe (the process will) light a fire under them."

He said such a request is -- unlike the court order for CHP to preserve evidence his office asked for and got in February -- "totally not common. But I don't know any other way to get this ball rolling." Meanwhile, he said, "the family's in total limbo."

Attorney Thomas Brill, who is working on the case for Nichols' firm said this week, "I don't blame (CHP) for taking their time and I can't say anything negative about this."

"Are our clients anxious to have this put behind them? Absolutely," he said. "On the other hand, I understand there are times when things take longer."

--Staff writer Rachel Cook contributed to this report.

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