The Wreckage Speaks” is a three-part series on Tripping examining how officers with the Montgomery County Police Department’s Crash Reconstruction Unit investigate — and, in essence, re-create — major traffic accidents. (Part One: A crash reconstruction team tells stories that victims can’t)

The Montgomery County impound lot, with row after weedy row of forlorn vehicles, looks like any junkyard. But to the team of police officers who analyze fatal crashes, it’s also “Death Row.”  

About 30 to 40 times a year, tow trucks rumble through its gates bearing the wreckage from fatal collisions or near-fatal collisions. There the vehicles sit while the Crash Reconstruction Unit (CRU)  investigates, using old-fashioned police work and high-tech instruments and computers. Their job, team members say, is to tell the story that victims cannot. Often, those stories are horrifying. 

There’s the 2010 Dodge Viper, a sports car whose original design had been created by Lamborghini. When the Viper rolled out of the factory that year, it came with 640 horsepower and a sticker price of $91,000. It was a factory-issued, street-legal racecar with enough juice to hit 100 mph in less than eight seconds.  

But in the hands of Brandon M. Bussard, a 21-year-old driver showing his girlfriend what his powerful new car could do, the Viper became deadly.  

“This is a guy who was showing off,” said Detective Cpl. David Cohen, who helped investigate the crash.

Bussard, who had purchased the used Viper four days earlier, had picked up his girlfriend, Christina Koutsoukos, for a Valentine’s Day trip to the Build-A-Bear Workshop at a Montgomery mall. Police said they were traveling on Travilah Road near Stony Creek Road when Bussard gunned the Viper to a speed well over the speed limit, lost control and sideswiped a utility pole. The car veered back onto the road and started to spin before slamming sideways into a concrete bridge abutment. 

It took nearly two hours for emergency personnel to free Koutsoukos, 18, from the wreckage. Both her legs were smashed, and one of them had to be amputated to remove her from the vehicle. She died of multiple injuries 14 hours later at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.  

The memory of that crash, and the futile struggle to keep Koutsoukos alive, still troubles Cohen and other first responders who were there. One police officer cradled Koutsoukos’s head in freezing temperatures while firefighters worked to free her. 

Bussard, who suffered a broken collarbone and other injuries that weren’t life-threatening, was charged with manslaughter. The crash reconstruction team and the Montgomery County state’s attorney presented a case alleging that Bussard engaged in grossly negligent vehicular manslaughter, which carries a 10-year jail term upon conviction. But the event data recorder in the vehicle’s dashboard — the “black box” — was destroyed, and the inability to determine the vehicle’s speed before impact led to a lesser verdict. Police calculated, however, that the Viper decelerated by at least 45 mph between sideswiping the utility pole and hitting the bridge abutment — suggesting a far higher initial speed than what Bussard told police. 

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert A. Greenberg, who conducted a bench trial, found Bussard guilty of criminally negligent vehicular manslaughter and sentenced him to three years in prison with all but 18 months suspended.

Bussard was moved to a pre-release center in December, Montgomery County Circuit Court papers say. Efforts to reach him through his father were unsuccessful. His attorney, Paul T. Stein, did not return a call seeking comment.  

I tried to imagine what Bussard’s silver-and-blue sports car looked like before the crash. About the only thing that looked intact now were the bright red valve covers, stamped with the Viper brand.

Like the wreckage of other fatal crashes, the Viper remains in the impound lot until the court case is closed and judicial appeals are exhausted. Some stay on Death Row even longer, each one a testament to the consequences of human error, the folly of road rage and the limits of automobile design. It’s a place people should visit before they buy a new car or flip off that driver who cut them off in traffic.

“I think I’m going to take the bus home,” I said, after examining a vehicle that had been cut in two from the double impact of two cars that had been racing on Georgia Avenue. That crash killed three people, including a 4-year-old. The drivers who were racing — Audias Sanchez and Shaka Wakefield — were each sentenced to 20 years in prison. Near that was a motorcycle involved in a fatal collision with an SUV on Connecticut Avenue, and not far from that was a car that had struck a pedestrian, and another that had been rear-ended at a stoplight.

“Everybody always asks us, what’s the safest car to buy?” Cohen said. “It’s simple Newtonian physics: The larger [vehicle] is always going to win. If I had the money to buy a Suburban, that’s what I’d be driving around town in.” 

For the crash reconstruction team, the wreckage is just one of the pieces that allows them to reverse-engineer a crash and explain its cause — a task that’s particularly important in fatal crashes where victims and sometimes survivors can’t explain what happened. Yet the work also stirs troubling memories for officers who investigate these crashes. 

“There are images that we see that you can’t get out of your head,” Cohen said. 

Not far from the Viper is the hulk of just such a nightmare — the charred and rusted frame of what had once been a blue Toyota Echo. On March 23, 2012, four teenagers were inside, partying and smoking marijuana. It wasn’t their car.

Officer Keith Diehm, who was on patrol in a marked car, ran the Toyota’s license plate, which came back as stolen. Diehm followed the Toyota and called for assistance.  His plan was to make a felony stop with four other officers as backup — one for each occupant in the stolen car — near the National 4-H Conference Center on Connecticut Avenue. At the intersection of Connecticut and East-West Highway,  three officers in marked cars converged and fell into place. 

When the traffic light changed to green, the Toyota took off south on Connecticut Avenue, picking up speed. Officers in the four cruisers hit their blue lights and sirens, and the chase was on. A speed camera clocked the Toyota at 99 mph just before it reached Chevy Chase Circle. Unable to round the turn, the Toyota skidded, T-boned a tree and began to burn.   

Police, using fire extinguishers to try to put out the flames, managed to rescue the two front-seat occupants, Reyard “Ray” Osman, 16, and Reeco Ricardo Richardson, then 18.  

But the vehicle became engulfed in flames before officers could save the two in the back seat. Emanuel Nelson, 16, and Tyree Nelson, 14, who were cousins, died. Osman, who had been driving the stolen car, later died of his injuries. Only Richardson survived.  

Richardson — who was charged with car theft and convicted of lesser, theft-related charges and given probation — later filed a $10 million lawsuit against the police department alleging that the pursuing officers had rammed the stolen car and caused the fiery crash.

“What our position was, and quite frankly still is, is that the police did not handle the investigation appropriately — that it was rushed and done from the perspective of an inside job in covering up what we felt was the culpability of the officers,” said Governor Jackson III, who was one of Richardson’s attorneys.

Dash cams, along with other evidence compiled by the reconstruction team, led a court to toss Richardson’s lawsuit.

Then there are the unsolved fatal crashes on Death Row, the ones that leave behind a tangle of wreckage and questions that haunt the officers in other ways.  

On June 17, 2016, just as the Friday morning rush hour was underway, Victoria M. Hitchins, a 71-year-old scientist with the Food and Drug Administration, was killed in a high-speed, single-vehicle crash on Randolph Road in the Colesville area of Silver Spring. Police said Hitchins’s 2009 Toyota Camry flew off the road near Locksley Lane and hit a tree. The impact left the vehicle looking as if a chunk had been scooped out of its roof. Hitchins was killed instantly. 

About a minute after the 911 call came in reporting Hitchins’s crash, police received a report of a single-vehicle crash at Randolph Road and New Hampshire Avenue: A black 2005 Mercury Mountaineer had been trying to turn south onto New Hampshire Avenue when the vehicle lost control and hit a utility pole. Three occupants got out and disappeared. The driver, who remained at the scene, suffered minor injuries.

Detective Sgt. John O’Brien, the deputy commander of the team, said detectives think there is a connection between the crashes. But what that connection is remains a mystery, despite direct appeals to the public for more information.  

For Cohen, the image of the wreckage that morning is something that stays with him.  

“I don’t lose sleep over it now, but I’m sure 20 years from now it will come back to haunt me,” Cohen said.

NEXT: WHAT HAPPENED ON BOWIE MILL ROAD

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