The family and acquaintances of a Prince George's County woman who was killed when a county police cruiser struck her car in Hillcrest Heights expressed concern yesterday over how the Saturday accident occurred and how it was handled by police.
But county police maintained that Officer Jerry F. Forsythe, the driver of the cruiser, was not to blame and that the situation was handled correctly by responding officers. Police said that Forsythe is on "injured leave" while they continue their investigation.
Police spokesman Carol Landrum said yesterday that Bessie Mae Tucker, 63, pulled out of the entrance to a shopping center in the 2300 block of Iverson Street, failing to yield to Forsythe, who was only 30 feet to her left and who crashed into her side of her car.
Tucker was pronounced dead at the scene. A granddaughter, Leona Tucker, who was also in the car, is in stable condition at D.C. General Hospital. Forsythe, 24, of Oxon Hill, was treated at Southern Maryland Hospital Center in Clinton and released.
Tucker's daughter, Diane Tucker Fenwick, 32, of Clinton, claimed yesterday that police keep changing the details of their account of the accident. On Saturday, police told reporters that Forsythe was responding to a "non-priority call," explaining why his car didn't have the emergency siren and light on. The next day, a police spokeswoman said it was a "priority situation," but still didn't require a siren or light.
Fenwick said she and other relatives don't believe Forsythe was only going 25 to 30 mph, as police claim. The posted limit is 30 mph. "All of a sudden, he's going 25 miles an hour?" she asked. "The car was totaled, my mother was killed and my niece is still in the hospital."
Some nearby residents, among about 30 observers at the scene according to family members, also questioned why the police allowed Tucker's body to lie in the car for more than two hours.
Police said Forsythe was going to aid another officer who had radioed moments earlier for help in chasing a theft suspect near the shopping center.
When Tucker pulled out in front of Forsythe, "there was no reaction time, no leeway," Landrum said. The police cruiser's brakes were in working order, she said, but he had no time to apply them. No skid marks were left on the road.
Sgt. Ray Cotton of the Maryland State Police said a car needs 30 feet to stop when it is traveling at 25 mph on dry asphalt, about 40 feet at 30 mph. "Either the person wasn't paying attention or the other party pulled out at the last second or the guy didn't apply the brakes," he said. "It's very possible to total a car at 30 mph, particularly from a side impact."
At the scene of the crash on Saturday, many of the crowd claimed the officer had been speeding, although few had seen the accident occur.
"There was a very disorderly crowd," Landrum said, requiring six or seven officers.
Police would not allow Tucker's son, Phillip Tucker, a 30-year-old carpenter, near the car at first. "They tried to push me away," Tucker said. "I told them 'This is my mother, this is my mother.' They finally let me through the line. They said, 'Your mother's dead and don't look at her.' "
Police Capt. Richard Beavers said "There would be no reason to let the son into the police line. It wouldn't be good for him."
One woman who arrived at the scene about 30 minutes after the accident complained that the body had not been removed. "What really disgusted me . . . is that it was approximately two hours before they came and took that lady away," said Dolores Anderson of Friendly. Police said the medical examiner had requested that the body be kept at the scene until the coroner could move it.
Relatives said Tucker, 63, had lived in the Washington area for 32 years, with her husband, a retired truck driver. A housewife with 10 children, she lived just blocks from the site of the accident, "and had never had an accident," according to her daughter.