A Fairfax City police officer has been cleared of wrongdoing in a May 24 accident in which a retired college professor was fatally injured when his car collided with a police cruiser answering a burglary call.
Police Chief Lloyd W. Smith said an official inquiry into the incident, in which the cruiser struck a car driven by Henry H. Esterly, 64, broadside at 64 miles per hour, found the crash "was a direct result of the victim failing to yield the right of way to the police cruiser by pulling out directly into its path."
Esterly's widow, Joanna, 59, a passenger in the car, yesterday disputed the report's findings that Officer Hobert C. Peacher had sounded his siren moments before the crash and that her husband's blood alcohol content was only slightly below legal intoxication.
"I didn't hear a siren and my brother [Lewis Durham, another passenger in the car] didn't either," Joanna Esterly said yesterday. "Both of us are sort of back seat drivers. If we had heard anything we would have shouted 'Wait!'"
The report said alcohol was a contributing factor in the accident, Esterly said: "Henry and I were dancing the last two hours. I know he wasn't drunk."
The investigation was conducted by police from Fairfax City and Fairfax County and officials of the Virginia Department of Transportation Safety. Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr. said yesterday his office was not involved in the probe.
Horan, Fairfax County's chief law enforcement officer, said he reviews few vehicular deaths for possible manslaughter charges because Virginia laws on the subject are "soft."
According to police accounts, Henry Esterly was attempting a left turn from the parking lot of a restaurant on Rte. 50 after a party on the eve of his daughter's wedding when he was hit by Peacher.
Esterly was pronounced dead at Commonwealth Doctors Hospital shortly after the 12:30 a.m. crash. His wife, brother and Peacher all received minor injuries.
The report said Peacher was answering a backup call from another officer who was investigating a burglar alarm, which later proved to be false. Peacher had the car's red lights flashing and the siren sounding intermittently when the collision occurred, according to the report.