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Sunday, Jun 17 2012 05:00 AM

Six months later, no outcome to probe in Oildale crash that killed two

BY RACHEL COOK AND JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writers rcook@bakersfield.com; jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A shrine to Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley still stands on a strip of grass at the edge of the grocery store's parking lot, a memorial of white crosses, fabric flowers and candles.

It's a sight that Janice VanWorth, a manager at Cope's Food Fair, said Jolley's sister has to see every day when she comes to work at the store.

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What we know

Absent a law enforcement report, specific facts about the crash that killed two pedestrian in December, including exactly how fast the Kern County Sheriff's deputy who hit them was going, are a mystery to the public.

Most of the available details came from a sheriff's department news conference given several days after the crash and conversations with the California Highway Patrol.

According to these accounts, at about 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 Deputy John Swearengin was heading west on Norris Road to the Hampton Inn on Highway 65 and 7th Standard Road responding to a report of a stolen vehicle, a call he received just before 7:30 p.m. The posted speed limit on the road is 45 mph.

Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley were crossing south on Norris near Diane Drive while pushing a motorcycle. Hiler's girlfriend has said Hiler called her shortly before the crash to tell her he had run out of gas.

The two pedestrians were not in a crosswalk. Swearengin hit Hiler and Jolley, who died at the scene.

Swearengin was treated for minor injuries at a hospital. The CHP has said Swearengin was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but that he was not screened for them because he did not show signs of being under the influence. Swearengin had been with the sheriff's department for five years when the crash occurred.

Questions about Swearengin's speed and whether his flashing lights were activated have been raised since the crash. Surveillance video from a gas station east of the collision shows what looks like a sheriff's vehicle speeding past without flashing lights.

"It's heartbreaking to watch her and then everybody that comes in (asks), 'Oh, what happened?' and then they wanna talk about it," VanWorth said. "It hasn't went away, like almost every other day at least somebody asks about it or somebody talks about it."

Six months after Kern County Sheriff's Deputy John Swearengin smashed into Hiler, 24, and Jolley, 30, with a sheriff's department vehicle as the two crossed the street, there's little resolution from the fatal crash. A law enforcement investigation is unfinished and lawsuits have been filed by the families of the victims.

California Highway Patrol Officer Robert Rodriguez said the local CHP office is still waiting on a report from the Central Division's specialized traffic collision investigation team. He couldn't estimate when the investigation would be completed.

"We'll look into it further once we receive that additional information from the (Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team)," Rodriguez said.

Despite the many months since the accident, there are signs that an investigation is ongoing.

Brandon Gudmundson, who witnessed the December crash, estimates CHP investigators have called him six or seven times since the collision.

Highway patrol officers have asked Gudmundson what he saw, how fast he thinks the deputy was going and if the deputy's lights were on. Gudmundson, 17, said the deputy's headlights were on, but his sirens and flashing lights were not.

"They don't ask the same questions, every time usually it's different," Gudmundson said of his conversations with the CHP.

Just last week, Gudmundson's brother, who also saw the crash, received another call from investigators, which got Gudmundson wondering if the inquiry is still going.

"If nothing's came out of (the investigation), yeah that's a long time but it is kind of a sensitive case," he said.

Taking time

Reached by phone Thursday, a staff member for the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team said the sergeant in charge of the team couldn't comment on the investigation because he was in Sacramento. In an interview with The Californian in April, CHP Sgt. Rob Krider said the team was handed 23 major collisions to investigate in 2011 and the Norris Road crash was 22nd on the list.

The officer said the team is called upon to look into crashes that might lead to civil litigation, officer-involved shootings or "a really nasty, horrific crash that we really need help on." The specialized team was called out the night of the Oildale crash.

There are eight MAIT teams acrosss the state, one in each CHP division, according to the CHP's website. The teams are comprised of a sergeant who leads the group, a "Motor Carrier Specialist I," a Caltrans senior transportation engineer and two or more CHP officers.

"Whenever the MAIT team gets involved it's a more in-depth investigation so there's more that they have to do," Rodriguez said.

Kern County Undersheriff RoseMary Wahl said given the amount of evidence and the rarity of a case like this, she doesn't believe the investigation has been overly long.

"This is the first time we've had this type of incident occur" in the sheriff's department, she said.

In addition to the CHP investigation, there's a separate Sheriff's Department administrative investigation into Swearengin's actions. Wahl said she can't comment on the status of that investigation because it's a personnel issue, but, generally speaking, administrative investigations can't be completed until the other one is over.

Swearengin, 35, was taken off paid administrative leave May 26 and assigned to the human resources division on administrative assignment pending the outcome of the investigation. Wahl said the switch was made because of the length of the investigation and because they don't know what the outcome will be.

"If we can have him doing work at the office, that's what we want to do," she said.

Swearengin's annual salary is $67,180, sheriff's officials reported.

Open wound

The wait has placed a heavy burden on the families of the victims.

Thomas Brill, attorney for the family of Chrystal Jolley, filed a wrongful death lawsuit March 13 alleging Swearengin 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 family wants to put this behind them and do their best to move on with their lives, Brill said.

"Any time you're involved in litigation it kind of keeps the wound open," he said.

Plaintiffs for the Jolley family are Michael Shane Jolley, Michael Shane Jolley Jr., Chloe Renee Jolley, Arian E. Phillips, James O. Clevenger II, Sherry Renee Clevenger and the estate of Chrystal Jolley.

The litigation is likely to continue as long as it takes to get answers from the CHP's investigation. Brill said he has several theories about the time it's taking.

One factor is probably budgetary issues, and resources are limited, Brill said. It's also an exceptionally high-profile case, directly involving a deputy.

Whether fairly or unfairly, cases involving peace officers tend to take longer, Brill said.

"When they're investigating their own, officers tend to take steps they might not otherwise take," he said.

Brill said he's viewed surveillance video taken by a camera at a Mobil station the cruiser passed just seconds before the crash. He estimates the cruiser was traveling 60 to 70 mph, about twice the speed of other vehicles seen on the footage, just before impact.

The speed limit in that area is 45 mph.

A speed estimate has not yet been released by investigators. Brill said he's anxiously awaiting that report because it will contain measurements by an engineer to give a more precise estimate than what he can judge just by viewing the video.

The dents the vehicle sustained and the cruiser's internal computer -- also called the "black box" -- are also important components of the investigation, Brill said. He has not been given the opportunity to examine either.

"I haven't heard from (CHP investigators) in months," Brill said.

The lawsuit Brill filed on behalf of the Jolley family has been combined with one filed by the family of Daniel Hiler by attorney David Cohn. Plaintiffs from the Hiler family are girlfriend Whittney Dawn Peaker, Kalob Ace Hiler, Kaden Deuce Hiler and the estate of Daniel Hiler.

Both suits list the county as a defendant as well. Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations could not be reached for comment. A case management conference is scheduled for Sept. 10.

Cohn was unavailable for comment, but attorney Matthew Clark, also with the firm of Chain, Cohn and Stiles, said the Hiler family also awaits completion of the investigation. He said it's certainly gone on longer than normal.

"All we can hope for is that it's a thorough investigation and that it justifies the time it's taken," Clark said.

An exact monetary amount is not attached to the lawsuits, but the families are seeking general damages, loss of earnings and earning capacity, punitive and exemplary damages against Swearengin, costs of the litigation and other relief the court deems proper.

Both attorneys said the families weren't interested in talking about the case.

Remembered and forgotten

On the street where Jolley and Hiler were hit, not a lot seems to have changed.

Henry Wade and Maxie Derry, who live just down the street from where it happened, said drivers still speed on Norris in front of their houses, while pedestrians continue to dart across the road.

The couple, who are going on four years living on the Oildale thoroughfare, said more crosswalks might help. They said the foot traffic is driven by people crossing the street to get to Cope's Food Fair and the recycling vendor in the store's parking lot.

"I think (traffic on Norris is) gonna stay just like it is. (Drivers are) gonna use it for a freeway," Derry said. "That's just the way people are. You know they soon forget things happen and then they just go about their business."

VanWorth, the Cope's manager, also said nothing has changed the way drivers and pedestrians approach the stretch of road where Jolley and Hiler drive. Even she jaywalks to get to work.

"I make sure there's absolutely no traffic for miles. I'll stand there 10 minutes if I have to," she said.

VanWorth speculated that the investigation might be taking longer because a deputy was involved.

"I'm torn because I think if the officer was doing the speed limit then he would have avoided them but I'm sure it was an accident... I'm sure he did not see them until it was too late for both of them," she said.

Rodriguez said he didn't know when the local CHP office last found an officer at fault in an incident, but he said it does happen. Officers will be found to be in the wrong if they are violating vehicle code laws, he said.

Asked what he would say to those who wonder why the investigation into this officer-involved crash is taking so long, Rodriguez said more detailed investigations are time-consuming and asked for understanding.

"These kind of investigations take a while. We want to be very precise with the investigation because there is the potential for civil liability," Rodriguez said. "We just continue to seek their patience."

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