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THE STATE

Sunbather's Death Puts Focus on SUV Patrols

June 14, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

After celebrating her son's wedding, Cindy Conolly wanted to soak up a little more California sun before heading back home to Iowa.

So she stayed by the Oxnard surf Monday afternoon when fiance Bob Pierson walked back to their beachfront hotel.

She didn't return to the hotel, and it would be an agonizing six hours before Pierson learned what had happened.

Oxnard police officers patrolling the beach in a sport utility vehicle had run over and killed the 49-year-old Sioux City woman as she sunbathed.

The day after Conolly's death, her family remained in seclusion at the hotel and were not talking.

Neither were the officers involved in the accident.

Meanwhile, local officials, who described the SUV's driver as distraught, began investigations and discussed the safety of vehicle patrols on beaches.

On Sunday, along with extended family from Iowa, Conolly attended her son's wedding at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort, Ventura County authorities said.

Now her son is "devastated, just devastated," said Mike Feiler, a senior deputy medical examiner in the coroner's office. "The whole family was."

An autopsy showed that Conolly was killed by injuries to her head and chest, Feiler said.

She probably died immediately, he added.

Feiler, who had met with the family, gave the account of Conolly's actions before her death.

On Tuesday, Oxnard Police Chief John Crombach met with the woman's family to answer questions and offer condolences, Police Cmdr. Tom Chronister said.

"This is a tragic, tragic event," Chronister said. "We've been patrolling beaches for at least 30 years, since the mid-1970s, and nothing like this has ever happened."

Police officials said they were still trying to piece together what happened. The two officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave pending investigations by the Police Department and the Ventura County district attorney's office.

In order to give the officers time to "catch their breath, visit a psychiatrist and talk with their families," their names are being withheld, police spokesman David Keith said.

He said the driver was a nine-year veteran of the department and "one of the nicest guys around." The other officer has been with the department for 20 years, Keith said.

Initial reports indicate that the officers were on patrol about 2 p.m. when they ran over Conolly. Clad in a light blue swimsuit, she was lying near the shoreline, just below a 2-foot-high berm carved by the waves.

The officers told investigators they were looking at someone in the water and didn't see Conolly as they rolled the Chevy Tahoe down the gentle slope and turned right.

Unaware that they had hit anything, the officers continued driving north along the shoreline and had reached nearby city streets, which they also patrol, when they got a call a few minutes later about a woman bleeding on the beach, Chronister said.

He said it wasn't until they returned to the site that they realized what had happened. By then, Conolly was dead.

Patty Arthur said she and her husband were body-boarding when the accident occurred. Both of them tried to help Conolly and were still there when the officers arrived.

"The officer, I know he is accountable," she said of the driver. "But he was a mess. He had his head in his hands and was sobbing."

Louie Federico was sunbathing about 50 feet away when he noticed Arthur, in a wetsuit, running toward him.

"She was frantic. She was yelling, 'Is anybody a doctor or a nurse?' " said Federico, 52, a Tujunga repairman.

"I asked why and she said a woman had been run over by a police truck."

A man performed CPR on Conolly, Federico said, but gave up when he got no response. The severity of her injuries was apparent.

Feiler said Conolly appeared to have been lying face down when she was struck. She probably never knew the truck was coming, he said.

"You've got the combination of the crashing surf and the ocean breeze to muffle sounds," he said. "Maybe she was using the berm to break the wind."

The family wasn't immediately notified because Conolly had no identification on her, Chronister said. Police and coroner's officials surmised she was staying at the Embassy Suites hotel because she had two small white hotel-style towels with her, he said.

They informed the desk clerk about what had happened and asked him to tell anyone looking for a missing woman to call police, Chronister said.

Conolly's fiance and other family members finally checked with the hotel's desk sometime after 8 p.m., Chronister said. Other family members may have learned the news from the reporters they met as they searched the beach for Conolly, he said.

"They were looking around for her and a KABC reporter connected the dots," Chronister said.

Early Tuesday, several family members laid flowers near a small wooden cross erected where Conolly died. They declined to talk to reporters.

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