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Fire Captain May Face Charges in Accident

Inquiry: CHP alleges he fled scene of crash involving official vehicle and tried to cover it up. He has denied any involvement.

May 30, 1996|JOSH MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Highway Patrol on Wednesday asked that criminal charges be considered against a veteran Los Angeles County Fire Department captain for allegedly fleeing the scene of an automobile accident in his official vehicle with its lights and sirens on and later trying to cover it up by falsely reporting that his vehicle had been stolen.

Capt. Steven Sanchez is suspected of driving a Fire Department Chevrolet Suburban that crashed into a Dodge Caravan in the unincorporated Pico Rivera area May 17, slightly injuring three people, the CHP said. No action has been taken against Sanchez, authorities said.

Authorities quoted witnesses as saying that the Suburban was on the wrong side of the road before the crash, and that the lights and sirens were flipped on after the collision. The Suburban, a sport utility vehicle, began weaving erratically the wrong way down a one-way street while making its getaway, the witnesses said.

"The person [driving] never checked to see if anyone was injured," said Capt. Bill Whiteside of the CHP's Santa Fe Springs office. "They just put the siren on and left the scene."

Sanchez, 39, who denied any involvement in the crash, reported to the Sheriff's Department 12 hours after the incident that the vehicle had been stolen, authorities said. Neither Sanchez, who works for the Fire Department's Community Services Division, nor his lawyer could be reached for comment. Sanchez has called in sick since the incident, authorities said.

The CHP and the Sheriff's Department have conducted lengthy investigations into the incident. Witnesses told authorities that they saw a Latino male in a uniform driving the truck. Authorities said they have failed to uncover an eyewitness specifically tying Sanchez to the scene.

In an internal memo to the county Board of Supervisors, Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman confirmed that Sanchez has been questioned, and that he "may have been the driver of the vehicle at the time of the traffic collision."

Whiteside said the CHP believes that Sanchez was the driver because of inconsistencies and contradictions in information provided by Sanchez and his family.

Authorities cited inconsistent statements by Sanchez and family members about where he was the night of the crash, what he was doing at the time, and why he waited so long to report the vehicle stolen. Also, authorities said, Sanchez initially balked at signing the stolen vehicle report when told it was a crime to file a false report.

In addition, few people know how to activate a Fire Department siren and lights, especially in the dark while driving, Whiteside said, adding that Sanchez twice canceled interviews with authorities when they wanted to talk to him about the alleged theft.

When the Suburban was recovered two days after the crash in Downey by police, it was checked for fingerprints, but no "suspicious" prints of another driver were found, authorities said.

The CHP presented the results of its investigation to the district attorney's office Wednesday afternoon. Although it did not specify what charges it was seeking, authorities said Sanchez could face two potential felonies: Leaving the scene of an accident where injuries occurred and filing a false police report, which also can be charged as a misdemeanor.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Dennis Poey of the Special Investigations Division said he met with three CHP investigators and received their reports. He said it would be at least several days before he determines whether felony charges are warranted, the case should be dropped or referred to the city attorney's office for misdemeanor prosecution.

The lack of an eyewitness could result in no charges being filed against Sanchez, authorities said. "We are presenting the information to the D.A. because we believe he [Sanchez] is the suspect in the case, and we want the D.A. to review the case and see if there is anything they know of that could increase the credibility of our case," Whiteside said.

Authorities hope that prosecutors--and potential eyewitnesses--can more definitively establish that Sanchez was driving the vehicle at the time of the crash, Whiteside said.

Fire and Sheriff's department officials had little comment. "The department is waiting to find out what the D.A. is going to do," said Fire Department Inspector Greg Cleveland. "No action will be taken from our department until a decision has been made."

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