Keith Covey was sitting in a parked car — 30 feet away — when the violent crash erupted in front of him.
Covey jumped out, ran toward the wreck and bent over a young man on his back. The man’s eyes were open, but focused on nothing.
“Hold on,” Covey told him. “Hold on with me.”
Covey grabbed the man’s radio.
“Officer down!” he yelled. “Officer down! Officer down!”
The chaos seen by Covey — on the night of Dec. 3 — made him one of seven eyewitnesses to the crash that took the life of Montgomery County police officer Noah Leotta, according to a 13-page Collision Reconstruction Report obtained this week by The Washington Post in response to a public information request.
The death of Leotta, 24, has captured national attention. He was an energetic, well-liked officer out trying to find drunk drivers when one of them, according to officials, pulled away from a Hooters restaurant after four hours of drinking, drove north on Rockville Pike for a mile, and plowed into him. The case has invigorated efforts to toughen drunken-driving laws in Maryland.
The report makes clear how rapidly the crash occurred and how many people saw it.
One of the witnesses was another police officer, Kristopher Starks, who moments before had been driving south on Rockville Pike. From across the road, he saw a fellow officer had pulled over a vehicle and was out of his police cruiser. Starks decided to help.
As he prepared to turn left, Starks looked to oncoming traffic. He saw an SUV approaching fast in the lane directly behind the flashing lights of Leotta’s Chevrolet Impala. “He’s going to hit that cruiser,” Starks realized, seconds before seeing the impact.
Among the report’s key findings:
● The driver of the SUV, Luis Reluzco, 47, was confirmed to have been in Hooters through restaurant surveillance video and his credit-card bar tab. The tab showed that he bought four Stella Artois beers, one large “Big Daddy” Bud Light beer, two shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey and two shots of another whiskey. He paid for additional drinks in cash. Reluzco’s blood-alcohol concentration later was tested at 0.22, nearly three times the legal limit.
● After Reluzco left Hooters, he could see flashing police lights in front of him, he would later tell police. But he also said he could not distinguish which lane held the stopped police car and reacted too late to avoid it.
● Reluzco also told police that on the way to the restaurant, he smoked pot while driving. And he said that he took a Xanax pill.
● The roadway bore “no tiremarks of any kind leading up to the Impala, with no evidence of deceleration or evasive action.”
● Leotta appears to have been at the worst position when Reluzco’s SUV approached. After pulling over the other vehicle, getting out, speaking to the driver and walking back to his police car, Leotta opened his door and was trying to get inside when Reluzco’s Honda CR-V struck the rear driver’s-side corner of Leotta’s police car, swiped down its side and hit Leotta, according to a crash diagram.
● After hitting Leotta, Reluzco continued driving in the middle and left lanes, veered back right, stopped along the right curb, and then stayed in his car.
● At least three civilians ran to help Leotta.
Leotta suffered massive head injuries, was rushed to a hospital and died a week later. He is survived by his sister and parents.
John Roth, an attorney for Reluzco, declined to comment on findings in the collision report.
“He totally understands the gravity of his actions,” Roth said. “His life will never be the same.”
Reluzco, of Olney, remained held Wednesday on a $250,000 bond, according to a jail officer.
In the report, police said they could not determine how fast Reluzco was driving. Speed was not cited as a factor by crash investigators.
The seven eyewitnesses listed in the report include Reluzco, Covey and Starks. Of the other witnesses, one declined to comment for this report through a family member, and three couldn’t be reached.
In an interview, Starks, 33, said he had been working his usual shift for the Rockville City Police Department when he spotted the Montgomery police car and decided to provide backup.
At that moment, Covey, 43, was seated in the front seat of a car in a parking lot adjacent to the northbound lanes of Rockville Pike.
He and a friend had returned from a business dinner and were wrapping up their visit. They casually watched a police officer directly in front of them walk back toward his police car after talking to a driver he’d just pulled over.
From Covey’s left, a dark SUV suddenly appeared, striking the police car.
“No brakes,” Covey remembered. “No swerving. There was just hitting.”
In his police car, Starks, with his flashing lights, crossed Rockville Pike, parked in a way that hemmed in the striking SUV to hold it at the scene, and then ran toward the fallen officer. He, too, said, “Officer down!’ into a radio.
Starks bent and saw Leotta’s open eyes. He couldn’t get a response. He held Leotta’s hand and picked up a pulse.
An officer for eight years, Starks had served four with the Detroit City Police Department. He’d been at other fatal wrecks. And he knew instantly how bad this one was. But gazing down at a fellow cop, he pushed aside logic and opened himself to hope.
“Help is on the way,” Starks recalls saying over and over.
Minutes later, the road swarmed with officers and medics. Leotta was sped to a hospital.
Starks returned to the Rockville police station and learned the injured county officer’s first name — Noah — the same name as Starks’s 2 year-old son.
The next day in the hospital where Leotta lingered, Starks was introduced to Leotta’s father, Rich, and told him he’d been at the crash and that he and others had held Leotta’s hands. The two men embraced.
In the moments after impact, Covey, too, had remained fairly calm. A former Army reservist, he had worked as a combat photographer.
The day after the crash, though, as he drove back to his home in North Carolina — where he works as a salesman for a furniture manufacturer — Covey was on the phone for most of the ride, talking to friends and rattled about what he’d witnessed.
Six days later, his friend in Maryland with whom he’d watched the crash called to say the officer had died.
Covey said he still has trouble understanding how Reluzco couldn’t switch to another lane.
“I don’t know how you miss that cruiser,” he said. “I don’t know how you miss those lights.”