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Some Police Criticize Anaheim's Handling of Disneyland Death

January 08, 1999|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators in several cities with major amusement parks say Anaheim police violated basic standards of police work when they delayed going to the site of a serious accident at Disneyland until after park employees had moved and cleaned up some of the evidence.

"If there's a serious injury out here, we are going to be there on the spot," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Carl Deeley, who patrols Magic Mountain near Santa Clarita.

Even before Disneyland officials briefed Anaheim police, amusement park workers had mopped up the scene of the accident that ultimately took the life of a tourist and injured his wife and an employee.

Police defended their decision not to view the accident site until after Disneyland officials had washed away blood, moved evidence and brought witnesses for police to interview, often accompanied by a Disneyland official. It was an accident, not a crime scene, Anaheim police said.

But other police agencies that provide services to amusement parks said they would have raced immediately to seal off the scene, corral witnesses and probe for evidence of foul play.

"You lose a lot by not going directly to the scene," said Santa Clara Det. Sgt. Phil Zaragoza, who recently investigated a death at Paramount's Great America amusement park in that Bay Area city. "You want to know [the workers'] state of intoxication or sobriety. What if there were sabotage? If the evidence was cleaned up, how would anyone know?"

It is impossible to tell whether a serious incident is an accident before a full investigation is conducted, several police officers said.

Buena Park Police Sgt. Ken Coovert, whose agency covers Knott's Berry Farm, said: "If there's a death and it's potentially due to worker error, that's a potential manslaughter case."

Coovert and others interviewed for this story commented before the release late Thursday of Anaheim's police report, which indicates that detectives who investigated the accident did not arrive at the park until three hours after it occurred, then spent another hour and a half with Disneyland officials and witnesses before heading to the scene. A patrol officer, however, had arrived at the park 40 minutes after the incident.

Santa Clara Sgt. Anton Morec said that he was unfamiliar with Anaheim's policies but that most agencies would send officers immediately to the site of the incident.

"You're taking control of the information," Morec said. "You're not allowing them to spoon-feed you. Maybe Anaheim has a special relationship with Disney. Maybe they trust their security. Obviously, there's a comfort zone."

The coroner's report attributed the Disneyland accident to a worker's attempt to tie up the sailing ship Columbia at dock while the vessel was moving too fast. The report said a mooring rope pulled off a metal cleat that struck two tourists in the head, while the rope seriously injured the worker on the dock. The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the accident because the worker was involved.

The incident has raised questions about how the police--and Disney officials--handled it.

"You need to have an independent investigation that would be uninfluenced by Disney," Morec said. "Maybe the worker was under the influence, maybe the maintenance records indicate this cleat was due for maintenance two weeks earlier. You treat it as a crime scene until you know otherwise."

Anaheim Police Chief Randall W. Gaston on Thursday supported the actions of his detectives, saying it is "usually counterproductive to rush directly to the scene."

He said it was the decision of his seasoned lieutenant to stay in Disneyland's security office to question people "who had knowledge of what transpired" instead of heading first to the scene.

"The detective on the scene didn't think there would be any additional information to be gained by rushing to the scene," Gaston said. Paramedics had summoned patrol officers to Disneyland when it became clear that one of the victims might die.

Luan Phi Dawson, 33, of Duvall, Wash., died two days later of a brain hemorrhage and skull fracture. His wife, Lieu Thuy Vuong, 43, underwent surgery for facial disfigurement. The Disneyland employee, Christine Carpenter, 30, had surgery for a severely lacerated foot.

Gaston said that much of the accident scene had been cleaned up by the time detectives arrived and that Disneyland had moved much of the equipment involved.

But, he added, "we were able to inspect all the apparatus that was involved. . . . No item that would have been of evidential value had been tampered with or was missing."

Despite the cleaned-up site, Gaston said his detectives conducted a thorough inquiry, documenting the scene and taking numerous measurements to reconstruct what happened. He said he is confident that his investigators did not miss any possible evidence of sabotage or other foul play.

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