By Ernesto Londoño and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Driving north on Indian Head Highway after go-go band practice, Darren Jamar Bullock saw the silhouettes of dozens of spectators gathered for an illegal street race on the desolate Prince George's County road.
He told relatives that he slammed on the brakes of his white 1999 Ford Crown Victoria but that the car smashed into the crowd, leaving eight people dead and six injured.
"He doesn't remember seeing smoke" from the racing cars, James Michael Walls, who raised Bullock from childhood, said in an interview yesterday afternoon, relaying the 20-year-old's account of the crash that occurred about 3 a.m. Saturday in Accokeek. "All he remembers was coming onto a crowd of people."
Walls spoke outside his Waldorf townhouse while Bullock remained inside. "He hasn't been saying much of anything," Walls said. "He walks around like he's in a daze."
Bullock walked away from the crumpled car with a bruised lip, Walls said, and his older brother, who was in the passenger seat, also was not seriously injured.
The comments came on a day when police identified the eighth man killed in the crash as Otis Williams, 35, of Indian Head.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) said yesterday that it might take weeks to determine exactly what happened Saturday and whether anyone will face criminal charges.
"It's too early to make a final decision," Ivey said. "I want to wait for the interviews to be completed and the reconstruction report."
Collision reconstruction work typically takes several weeks as detectives measure skid marks, examine vehicles and interview witnesses. Authorities said they were still searching for the drivers of two cars who were racing illegally just before Bullock's car hit the spectators. A law enforcement source, speaking anonymously because the investigation is continuing, confirmed yesterday that Bullock was driving the Crown Victoria.
Walls, who is Bullock's uncle but said he considers him a son, sought to address some conflicting accounts of the crash. Some witnesses have said the Crown Victoria was traveling with its lights off when it slammed into the crowd; others have said the victims were shrouded by a cloud created as the racing cars roared off.
Walls said Bullock told him that the car's lights were on and that he doesn't remember seeing smoke. He also dismissed a rumor that the crash occurred during, or after, a police chase. He said Bullock was not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, was wearing a seat belt and believes he was going between 50 and 60 mph.
He described Bullock as a well-mannered, hardworking man with no ties to the illegal street-racing world. "The kid's only 20 years old," Walls said. "He was just coming down the road, not trying to hit anyone. He's a good kid."
Bullock, a father of two and a former linebacker at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head, bought the Crown Victoria about a month ago, Walls said. "This was his dream car," he said. "When he first graduated from high school, he wanted a Crown Vic."
Walls said he and his relatives feel terrible for those who lost loved ones in the crash. In addition to Williams, those killed were Mark Courtney, 33, of Leonardtown; Daryl Wills, 38, of Clinton; Maycol Lopez, 20, of Gaithersburg; Blaine Briscoe, 49, of La Plata; William Gaines, 61, of Nanjemoy; Ervin Gardner, 39, of Oxon Hill; and Milton Pinkney, 41, of La Plata.
"We're pretty sure we have friends or friends of friends who were hurt," Walls said. He said he hopes that those who organized the race will come forward and take responsibility.
Referring to Bullock, he added: "Don't let this young man be dragged through the mud."
According to court records, Bullock has had a few brushes with the law. He pleaded guilty in October 2006 to malicious destruction of property. In February 2007, he was charged with misdemeanor theft. Later that year, in May, he was issued two traffic citations, one for driving on a suspended license and another for having an unrestrained child in a vehicle.
Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) intends to meet with law enforcement officials today to be briefed on the investigation and find ways to collect better intelligence on illegal races.
In Annapolis, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's) said he believes there is little that legislators can do to crack down on illegal street racing.
"Everybody always wants to throw laws at it, but some of it may be better enforced by a coordinated effort between the local law enforcement jurisdictions and the state police," said Bohanan, who represents a section of Southern Maryland where illegal street racing is popular. "It's not like we haven't known this is going on. . . . I think ramping up enforcement is a lot quicker rather than searching for the magic bill to address it."
One model for enforcement might be one developed by officials in California, which has combated a street racing culture for years, said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Some jurisdictions in that state have enacted laws that allow authorities to impound not only illegal racers' cars, but also spectators' vehicles, Adkins said.
In San Diego, officials have a program in which street racing is legalized on certain nights, Adkins said. Such races, in a controlled environment, are overseen by law enforcement officials.
John B. Townsend II, of AAA Mid-Atlantic, said his organization is studying Maryland laws to determine whether to recommend specific legislation to try to discourage racing on public roads.
"I think what this tragedy does is expose the extent of it. We know about the young people engaged in drag racing. There's also this cult that follows the activity," Townsend said. "It's more widespread than we thought. It's a bigger problem than we thought, and it has a bigger fan base than we thought."
Townsend noted that all of the victims who died were adults; the oldest was 61.
"This is ingrained in the culture. You're not going to stamp it out," Townsend said. "What you can do is create alternatives. You have to bring it out of the dark into a more-controlled environment."
Townsend said that at least one group, the Maryland Street Racing Association, is advocating moving such races off public roads and onto racetracks.
"I think this is a wake-up call, not only for the community in Southern Maryland, but for the police department," Townsend said. "I think you're going to see increased enforcement."
At the scene of the crash, mourners left flowers, notes and stuffed animals at the locations where victims landed. Each spot had been outlined by police with a pink spray-painted circle. On Courtney's spot, someone left a toy model of a gray Saturn Ion and a note that read: "You may be gone but you'll never be forgotten."
Remnants of the race gathering -- including an empty bottle of Remy Martin cognac and a small bottle of Paul Masson Grande Amber Brandy -- lay amid the tributes. Also visible were pieces of its aftermath, including paramedics' gloves and shattered glass.
Staff writers Philip Rucker and Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.