Driver Didn't Look Before Taking Turn, Detective Says
Judge Sets Trial Date In Pedestrian Deaths

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Metrobus driver failed to look to his left before turning into a crosswalk when he struck and killed two pedestrians last month in downtown Washington, a D.C. police detective testified yesterday.

Detective Joseph T. Diliberto provided new details about the Feb. 14 accident, which occurred at Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, one of the city's most dangerous intersections. At least eight accidents involving Metrobuses and pedestrians have occurred there in the past two years.

The bus driver, Victor Z. Kolako, 53, is charged with two counts of negligent homicide. Yesterday, after a hearing in D.C. Superior Court, Judge Neal E. Kravitz ruled that there was enough evidence to move forward and set a June 8 trial date.

"Our laws require drivers . . . to look to their left before making a left turn," Kravitz said.

Kolako was traveling north on Seventh Street and making a left turn onto Pennsylvania when he struck Martha Stringer Schoenborn, 59, and her friend and co-worker, Sally Dean McGhee, 54. The women, both from Alexandria, were in a crosswalk and had the "walk" sign as they crossed Pennsylvania Avenue about 6:40 p.m. after leaving work at the Federal Trade Commission.

Diliberto said two witnesses told police that Kolako focused on the oncoming Seventh Street traffic to make his turn, rather than where he was turning. The detective identified the two witnesses as cabdrivers who were in oncoming vehicles.

Diliberto testified that although Kolako had turned on his left-turn signal, the witnesses said he was looking at them rather than carefully completing the turn. Only one passenger was on the bus, and that passenger had left the scene by the time police arrived.

Kolako did not bring the bus to a stop until nearly 100 yards from where the accident occurred, Diliberto testified.

The detective said that there was no sign that alcohol or drugs were involved and that it appears unlikely that excessive speed was a factor because there were no tire marks at the scene. The investigation is continuing.

Kolako, of Southeast Washington, had worked as a bus driver for Metro for nearly seven years, and this was his first serious traffic violation, Diliberto said.

Diliberto said that he interviewed Kolako briefly after the accidentbut that the driver soon said he wanted to consult a lawyer.

Defense attorney Lawrence B. Kupers tried to raise the possibility that Kolako had followed proper procedures and that the driver's conduct was not a crime.

Under questioning from Kupers, Diliberto said that one of the victims was wearing dark clothes and that snow and ice along the sides of the road could have made conditions hazardous. The bus was inspected after the accident, Diliberto said, and a mechanical problem was detected in the steering linkage that controls the wheels.

Prosecutors did not ask Diliberto whether the mechanical problems could have contributed to the crash. But in an interview later, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said inspectors found that one of the pins that goes into the steering column was loose.

"It was not something that would have impacted safety or the ability of the vehicle to operate," Catoe said. "It was the kind of thing that we would have taken care of under preventive maintenance."

Kolako did not testify yesterday. The judge has barred him from driving while awaiting trial.

Diliberto's testimony angered many of the 20 uniformed Metro workers who crowded the courtroom in support of Kolako. "How could a cabdriver see where [Kolako] was looking?" one asked.

After the hearing, many of the Metro workers hugged Kolako. As Kolako was leaving the courthouse, several workers held up umbrellas and jackets to shield him from the media.

Kolako is on paid administrative leave from Metro. Metro officials are taking new safety measures after the accident, one of three since January in which pedestrians were killed. Four people have died.

Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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