Mr Roadshow tags along on traffic fatality investigation
- Published Monday, June 27, 2005, in the San Jose Mercury News
Traffic's grim side: at the scene of a fatality
By Gary Richards
My cell phone rang on a Saturday morning, a call I dreaded.
"We've got one," said Lt. John Carr, head of the San Jose Police
Department's traffic investigation unit. "A fatal. You ready?"
No, I wasn't. Previous Mr. Roadshow stories had me pumping gas,
filling potholes, driving 55 mph around the bay and helping stranded
motorists. Jovial, upbeat pieces.
Not this time. For weeks, I had been on-call with the department's
traffic-reconstruction team, the small group of officers who respond
to fatal road accidents in the city, news that typically generates a
few paragraphs in the paper.
This is the dark side of traffic. Someone is dead on a San Jose
street, and police need to find out what happened.
It can take 100 hours of investigation, using both the latest
high-tech equipment to digitally document a scene and some
old-fashioned, low-tech detective work: cops painstakingly walking the
road -- heads down -- searching for disturbed dirt, scrapes on
pavement, anything that may offer a piece of evidence.
The morning before Father's Day began in splendor. After weeks of
rain, the warm, sunny day enticed Bruno Chiarenza to take his Suzuki
1300 motorcycle for a spin. Ten days earlier, the 35-year-old man had
moved into an apartment off Almaden Road.
The call came in at 9:26 a.m. -- motorcyclist down on Almaden Road
north of Malone Road, across the street from his apartment.
Patrol officer Stephen Donohue arrived seven minutes later. He found
Chiarenza on the ground near a utility pole, his helmet on, blood
seeping from his ears and nose. He was unconscious.
The smashed Suzuki rested on its side a few feet away, part of a
debris field that stretched maybe 30 yards. Among the strewed
evidence: a biking glove, a New York Yankees cap, a still-warm
muffler, a detached helmet visor, slivers of plastic and metal.
Witnesses said they heard a motorcycle roaring by moments before the
crash. One noticed the rear tire lifting off the roadway. There were
no other cars on the isolated section of road. Just one guy on a bike
built for speed.
By the time Donohue arrived, Chiarenza was not breathing. He died at
9:38 a.m -- 12 minutes after the 911 call.
Then came the next round of calls, the ones to members of the traffic
investigation unit -- and to me. The team had arranged for me to come
to the scene of a fatal accident and observe the investigation, hoping
such a story would promote traffic safety, perhaps even save a life.
The call could come at any time and without warning. Just like for
the investigative team.
Officer Liz Checke was at home, resting after a week of training.
Partner Kevin Cassidy was preparing to watch a T-ball game. Officer
Denise Escobar was working on a grocery list. Lt. Carr and his wife
were about to visit friends in Menlo Park. I was heading to the bank.
Within 35 minutes, Cassidy and Checke were on the scene, Cassidy
laying down 19 yellow metal evidence tags that tracked clues of
Chiarenza's final journey. Checke set up a laser machine that would
photograph the scene, creating an electronic working map for the
investigation. Escobar supervised the investigation.
"The $1,000 question," Cassidy told Escobar, "is why he went down.
"Maybe he's looking down or looking back at something. Then he looks
up and all of a sudden sees he's in trouble. Maybe he grabs the front
brake and off he goes. But there's no indication of real braking."
Escobar looked down at the body and then noticed a second helmet
nearby. Could there have been a passenger who was thrown down a hill
into a nearby creek?
"I'd really hate to find somebody else in the creek," she said.
Donohue reassured her: "We looked in the creek; didn't find anyone.
Witnesses said he was alone."
Coroner Joe Davis arrived, going through Chiarenza's wallet. He found
a $1 bill, a Wells Fargo card, an American Express card, business
cards and a speeding citation.
Davis called the destroyed motorcycle a "screwy thing."
Why, I asked.
I got a disgusted look back. "It's dangerous, dangerous," he replied,
having gone to far too many fatal motorcycle crashes.
This case appears pretty clear-cut. A biker going too fast on a
powerful bike loses control on a straight, lightly traveled road.
There are witnesses. The road is dry. No other drivers are involved.
But witnesses will be re-interviewed, an autopsy performed. The speed
and path of the bike will be determined based on laser calculations.
Lawsuits are always possible.
"You don't want to assume anything," Escobar said, "because that
can come back to bite you."
Nearby, residents stood quietly behind yellow police tape, glancing at
the body. Overhead, only birds could be heard. Death is quiet.
Then a phone rang -- Chiarenza's cell phone. No one answered it. How
do you tell someone the person they are calling is dead?
Two coroner assistants in white shirts, ties, black pants and black
shoes arrived in a mini-van. Davis rolled the body over, looking for
bruising. When he gave the go-ahead, the assistants gingerly placed
Chiarenza in a white sheet and onto a gurney, covering him with
Chiarenza's cell phone rang again. And, again, no one answered.
The corner would inform next of kin, but Escobar knew she also would
talk to his loved ones -- and they would have questions she may not be
able to answer.
"The big thing is, they always want to know why he died," she said.
"We can tell them how, but, boy, we can't tell them why.
"There is no answer there. That is where most of the angst from the
family comes. Above and beyond the grief of having just lost a family
member, they will never know why. With homicides, you can come up
with a motive even if it doesn't make any sense. You have evil. You
have someone who perpetrated a crime.
"But this ... is hard to deal with. It leaves a hole in a family that
probably never heals."
Three hours after the first 911 call, the team wrapped up. A flat-bed
truck had yet to arrive to tow away the bike, so Escobar decided to
bag small items and put them in the back of her pickup truck.
She carefully lifted Chiarenza's bloodied helmet into a black garbage
bag. She paused and took a deep breath.
"We have a death," she said, "but he can't tell us what happened. We
have to figure that out for him."
Contact Gary Richards at mrroadshow@... or (408) 920-5335.