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In fatal LAPD crash, blame proves elusive

In 2009, a patrol car slammed into an aging BMW and took the life of Devin Petelski, 25, a counselor for troubled children. That much is certain. Much more is not.

January 17, 2012|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners light candles at a memorial to Devin Petelski, shortly after she was killed in a collision with an LAPD squad car in 2009.
Mourners light candles at a memorial to Devin Petelski, shortly after she… (Christopher Medak )

The two calls for help came across the radio minutes apart. The first was for a routine home burglary. The second put the night's tragedy in motion.

It was Oct.15, 2009, a Thursday, and James Eldridge, a 20-year LAPD veteran, was on patrol in Venice. His partner, a rookie on the job only a few months, rode beside him. Shortly before midnight, a dispatcher came over the radio and assigned the officers to the burglary at a nearby home on Venice Boulevard.

Moments later, the radio squawked again: Another burglary at a different location. This one, however, was a more serious "hot prowl" — cop speak for when thieves are still in the house. Other officers were dispatched to the second call, but Eldridge decided that he and his partner, Ramon Vasquez, would back them up. With the car's emergency lights and siren turned off, he sped east down Venice Boulevard toward the second address.

Suddenly, Eldridge told investigators, he saw an old BMW sedan "come flying" out from a side street. His 4,300-pound Ford Crown Victoria slammed into the driver's side, sending the car spinning until it came to rest facing the wrong way on Venice. The patrol car careened onto the sidewalk and hit a tree. Eldridge and Vasquez escaped with relatively minor injuries. Devin Petelski, the 25-year-old driving home from her job as a counselor for troubled children, sustained traumatic chest and head injuries. She died two days later.

In April, the city quietly paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Petelski's parents — one of the largest amounts taxpayers have ever paid to resolve a case like this. But that does not begin to tell the whole story of the crash.

Behind the legal resolution of the case, there remain two starkly different accounts of that night. In one, Eldridge is driving recklessly fast. Eldridge, Vasquez and other officers later try to shift the blame for the crash onto Petelski. In the other account, what happens is a tragic accident caused by a woman who pulls into the path of a responsible cop trying to do his job.

There is science to support both versions. But both can't be true.

News of the accident spread quickly through the tight social circles of the Westside. Petelski was well-known, having grown up in Brentwood and attending private schools in the area. A few thousand people joined a Facebook page created to share information. By the morning after the crash, rumors were spreading that the officers not only had been speeding without their emergency lights and siren on, but they had turned off their headlights as well.

Someone coined a term for it — silent running — and it was assumed to be a common LAPD practice. "End Silent Running" became a rallying cry on protest T-shirts, blogs and in news accounts of the crash.

The claims weren't true — tests on the filaments in the headlights showed that they had been on. Nonetheless, the LAPD found itself on the defensive. The demands for a full accounting of the accident grew louder when Petelski died. A few nights later, 200 or so people holding candles silently marched from the accident scene to the local LAPD station. They were met at the door by Capt. Joseph Hiltner, who at the time was commanding officer of the area.

Hiltner, reading from a prepared statement, expressed the LAPD's condolences to the family, but quickly made it clear how he felt about the allegations being made against his officers.

"Unfortunately, there has been erroneous information put out that is not only inappropriate, but disrespectful," he told the crowd. "These misrepresentations are hurtful and serve no valid purpose. This investigation is ongoing and so we don't yet have all the facts to provide the community with exactly what transpired leading up to this tragic accident."

LAPD investigators, meanwhile, were working to piece together what had happened. In separate interviews the day after the accident, Eldridge and Vasquez gave nearly identical accounts. Both estimated Eldridge had been driving between 40 and 45 mph.

Ryan Case, one of the first officers on the scene, recounted for investigators how, "During CPR, I detected the odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from the female's mouth." Case did not respond to requests for comment.

The few witnesses to the crash talked to police as well. Those who saw Petelski approaching the intersection said she came to a stop before pulling onto Venice. They were divided, however, on the question of how fast the police cruiser was traveling.

One witness wrote that "it appeared the police vehicle was traveling at the speed limit, but it may have been increasing speed."

Zachary Edminster and Krysta Ohle recalled the accident differently. They were driving behind Eldridge and, in recent interviews, said they saw the squad car traveling far faster than the posted speed limit of 40 mph.

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