CLARIFICATION--AN ARTICLE WEDNESDAY ABOUT PROBLEMS IN THE INVESTIGATIONS OF SEVERAL FATAL TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS IN THE DISTRICT WAS UNCLEAR WHEN IT SAID A CAR THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PRESERVED AS EVIDENCE HAD BEEN SCRAPPED BY THE POLICE PROPERTY DIVISION. THE CAR WAS SCRAPPED BY A PROPERTY OFFICER IN THE 7TH POLICE DISTRICT, NOT BY THE CENTRAL PROPERTY OFFICE. (PUBLISHED 06/05/99)
A veteran District police detective who investigates fatal traffic accidents has been demoted after performing so poorly that 14 of his cases -- including some of the city's worst crashes in the last two years -- were reassigned to other detectives in an attempt to salvage some for prosecution.
Two cases -- the death of a single father from College Park and a deaf University of Maryland student -- appear doomed and unlikely to result in arrests, according to law enforcement sources. Others are crippled by the detective's failure to carry out such basic tasks as interviewing key witnesses, taking blood samples, photographing the crash scenes and preserving evidence crucial to the cases, the sources said.
For victim families in the Washington region and across the country, the original handling of the cases has left them waiting for answers that may never come. For the police department, the troubled cases highlight flawed practices and an apparent failure to monitor a key investigator.
"It's unfortunate when we have something like this occur," said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. "It definitely does give us a black eye. But we're really moving to correct those kinds of problems, and I'm taking the actions I think are necessary to see to it that happens."
The detective, Milton A. James, 52, was one of three who handled the 60 major crashes that typically occur each year in the District. He was made a station clerk after his demotion last month and has been ordered transferred to the 3rd District. Three other police officials were reprimanded for what sources said was poor supervision of James.
"To be honest with you, I don't know what happened," said James, a 28-year veteran. "I thought I was okay. In '98, I handled over 60 percent of the fatalities in the vehicle homicide section. I just became overwhelmed and burdened with cases."
He declined to talk in detail about his reassigned cases or about whether his performance was impeded by the death of his son, Eric, 26, and a close friend and co-worker, Officer Anthony Simms, in fatal accidents in 1995 and 1996.
James's work has led to dozens of convictions during his career, but many of his recent cases showed a pattern of carelessness, the sources said. His handling of the death in January of an 18-year-old American University student killed while roller-blading by a hit-and-run driver drew attention. Following the death of Matthew O'Dell, James failed to talk to all witnesses or collect key evidence, prompting the U.S. attorney's office to complain to the police department. The O'Dell case was reassigned, and a suspect has been charged with second-degree murder.
The lapses attributed to James are a symptom of a larger problem within the police department, officials said. Recently, police have not been responding to accidents fast enough, law enforcement officials said, and once there, they don't bring enough reinforcements to do a thorough investigation. Witnesses scatter, evidence becomes more difficult to track and valuable leads are lost.
Even the much-publicized conviction of a Maryland dump truck driver who killed a 17-year-old honor student two summers ago in Northwest Washington was serendipitous. D.C. police did not arrive for 45 minutes; by then, an off-duty U.S. Park Police officer driving behind the truck had segregated the crucial witnesses. That quick work set the investigation into place.
The death of Brian Walters offers an insight into James's approach.
Walters, 23, a heavy-equipment operator from College Park, was killed when a Ford Aerostar van slammed into him and a friend while they were watching cars drag racing on a strip of V Street in Northeast Washington.
The van driver didn't stop, and today, two years later, law enforcement officials say the driver probably will never be caught. Walters's friend who was injured slightly, Danny Bishop Jr., was not interviewed by James, law enforcement sources said. Ten people witnessed the May 24, 1997, accident, but James talked to only one, according to the sources.
Among other things, Walters's parents said James did not return their calls, leaving them confused and angry.
"We were never able to just mourn the loss of our son. Instead, we've had constant turmoil and stress. That investigator did not do his job for 22 months," said Linda Walters, of College Park, Brian's mother. Added his father, Paul, "The police department violated us, and you don't understand what it means to be violated until it happens to you."
Although a D.C. police captain told Walters's parents that James was working "diligently" on the case, James failed to obtain and save Walters's clothes, which could have yielded glass fragments or other evidence, law enforcement sources said. They added that James didn't call repair shops to see whether the van, which lost a side mirror in the crash, had been repaired.
Walters's family realized something was amiss, they said, when James told them after the accident that he had Brian's clothes. Linda Walters said she had already authorized the hospital morgue to destroy the clothes, unaware they could be evidence. The Walters and Brian's friends took matters into their own hands, studying Aerostar diagrams at a Ford dealership to determine that the van had been made between 1987 and 1992.
When James was removed from Walters's case, the family said it was the first hopeful sign they had had since the death of Brian, who was raising two daughters, ages 1 and 2. But law enforcement sources said the case is probably unsolvable.
"I have no intention as a parent of ever giving up," Paul Walters said. "We're still looking for an answer."
Chanda Smith's parents are similarly hopeful. Deaf since age 2 from meningitis, Chanda was two months away from graduating from the University of Maryland when she and a friend were driving on Florida Avenue NE last Oct. 7. While Smith was turning near Sixth Street, another driver hit Smith's Honda Civic broadside, killing her.
A suspect tried to flee but was caught by police. In the confusion, no one called for the department's mobile crime personnel, who would have examined skid marks and patterns of debris and taken photographs and measurements. And they did not quickly summon detectives from the Major Crash Investigation Unit, where James was assigned.
When James took over the case, sources said, he failed to order a blood sample from the suspect and did not get a warrant to search the suspect's vehicle.
After the car was towed, the police property division "inadvertently had it junked," a law enforcement source said. The suspect's 1987 Mercury Marquis shouldn't have been on the road that night anyway, investigators later determined, because of poor brakes and steering. But D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors had passed the vehicle just weeks before, sources said.
The U.S. attorney's office attempted to salvage the case. Another investigator worked the case for months, to no avail. Prosecutors used a grand jury in an attempt to obtain information. But without the car and measurements, the accident was impossible to reconstruct. To this day, investigators can't say who else was in the suspect's car.
"I don't see how this can ever be prosecuted," said a law enforcement official familiar with the case. The failures are "just unconscionable."
Chanda's parents said James told them a month after the accident that the suspect probably would be charged with vehicular homicide and that the case had been turned over to a grand jury. The parents assumed, they said, that Chanda's case was clear-cut.
The parents, David Smith of Pittsburgh and Yolanda Irby Smith of Baytown, Tex., said they never heard from James again. An assistant U.S. attorney called them in January, which is when they learned of the police department's lapses. David Smith said he wound up sending the U.S. attorney's office photos that his insurance company had taken of the crashed car. A grand jury was later called, but there have been no indictments.
"I've been denied closure," Yolanda Irby Smith said. "A trial would have been the only closure we had. Now, the only closure is corrective measures in the police department. What are they doing to help prevent this again?"
The U.S. attorney's office declined to discuss the specifics of James's cases, but Mary Incontro, an assistant U.S. attorney, said: "We will continue to investigate any pending case until we have run out every lead or pursue any investigative avenue."
The Major Crash Investigation Unit was placed under the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division, where Inspector Cathy Lanier and her supervisor, Cmdr. Thomas McGuire, began looking for ways to rebuild it.
They assigned staff round-the-clock for the first time in years. Investigators were ordered to regularly update family members and surviving accident victims. They now also must set monthly performance goals and schedule regular case reviews. D.C. officers have visited Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties to see how their departments investigate fatal accidents.
The D.C. unit was just issued video cameras and tape recorders and has ordered a high-tech device that uses lasers to map and diagram crime scenes, reducing the need to close roadways to manually measure and chart. Patrol officers will be retrained in how to handle a crime scene.
McGuire said scheduling should "even out the caseload. You don't want to load up one detective with 10 cases and another detective with two cases. . . . I couldn't believe that wasn't being done."
Added Chief Ramsey: "I'm looking to see what I need to do in order to give them more support, in terms of maybe some additional personnel."
Though James said he was overloaded with cases, several co-workers said his work deteriorated after his two personal losses. His son died in 1995 when he lost control of his Mazda 626 on Suitland Parkway. A year later, when Simms was killed, James investigated the case and helped secure a conviction.
James acknowledged that the accidents had a profound personal effect on him and made it more difficult when he went to notify families of deaths. But James said he did not want to discuss whether his personal losses affected his professional performance.
Law enforcement sources said Sgt. Allan Thomas had proposed disciplinary action on numerous occasions for James but was overruled all but once, when James was suspended for 20 days for mishandling a hit-and-run in Southeast Washington, according to one source. In an interview, James acknowledged being suspended but declined to discuss it.
James has told several victims' families about losing his son, drawing some empathy but also outrage that he wasn't more attentive to their tragedies.
"He did not need to destroy all these other lives because something went wrong in his," Linda Walters said.
James said he felt that he had been made a scapegoat and that he had tried to do the best job he could. "There's always room for improvement. There are things that could have been done a different way and gotten better results -- or even worse results. When you look back, yeah, I could have done things better."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
The 14 fatal traffic cases reassigned from Detective Milton A. James to other accident investigators:
May 24: Brian Walters, 23, pedestrian killed in 3000 block of V Street NE by unknown van.
July 21: Abdul-Mujeeb Adeleke, 3, run over by car in alley off 700 block of Oglethorpe Street NE.
Feb. 15: George Sherman, 35, passenger, killed at Ninth Street and Barry Place NW in two-car accident.
July 11: Maurice Willis, 33, motorcyclist, killed at 14th and S streets NW, after being hit by car.
July 24: Udell Lyons, 70, and Marie Washington, 80, killed at Valley Terrace and Southern Avenue SE in two-car accident.
July 28: Jeffrey Mathis, 33, pedestrian, killed in hit-and-run on New York Avenue NE near North Capitol Street.
Aug. 15: Clarence Butler, 11, killed on I-295 northbound near Pennsylvania Avenue in one-car accident.
Oct. 7: Chanda Smith, 22, driver, Sixth Street at Florida Avenue NE, killed in two-car accident.
Oct. 31: Roxanne Perez, 22, ejected from car after driver said she swerved to avoid an animal in 5900 block of Kansas Avenue NW.
Jan. 28: Matthew O'Dell, 18, killed while rollerblading along Nebraska Avenue NW near American University.
March 5: James Dean, 51, driver, and Cameron Mickel, 20, passenger, killed in two-car accident at Missouri and Kansas avenues NW.
March 20: Johvon Brown, 20, driver, killed in one-car accident on Southern Avenue near Erie Street SE.
1999: Lloyd May, killed. Additional details were not available.
SOURCE: Metropolitan Police Department
CAPTION: Friends and family of Brian Walters hold vigil in May near where van struck and killed him two years ago.