It happened so fast…52 seconds, just shy of a minute…a routine drive up Crows Landing Road…a brief stop, then mad acceleration, weaving onto the wrong side of the road…then slamming into roadside objects, ending atop a dumpster with the 2014 Ford Police Interceptor a ball of flames.
We will look into what was found, not found and, perhaps, hidden by investigators in the nearly 18 months since that May 13, 2017 crash intro the wrecking yard on Crows Landing Road, just south of the junction with Seventh Street in south Modesto.
We have in hand a 258-page CHP report, but a substantial part of that document has been redacted (blackened out) including witness statements and other relevant information. In some cases, information is blacked out in one part of the report, but untouched in others.
The participation of Ford Engineers is hidden in one place, but the report reveals the telephone conference with Ford engineers, Ford’s litigation defense counsel and the CHP officers in another.
We also have the Coroner’s narrative, the autopsy report and a toxicology report which shows, as previously report, that he did not have any drugs or alcohol in his system.
What hasn’t been previously reported, and the impetus of this series, is that there was something else found in his blood…something which might explain everything. But we are saving full discussion of that, dear reader, until the end.
Today, we begin at the beginning of that work day for Deputy Garner and CSO Johnson. He was 41 with 9 ½ years of service; she was 42 and had been with department more than 15 years
It is a crisp spring morning, about 55 degrees at 7 a.m., when Deputy Garner powers up the computer in the 2014 Ford Police Interceptor, in the Sheriff’s parking lot on Hackett Road. The vehicle is specially equipped by Ford for law enforcement work, but modified by each agency for installation of lights, radios and other equipment.
Typically, for each shift, the vehicle is started and allowed to idle while the deputies attend the daily briefing, keeping the computer powered up and ready for use.
The computer begins sending “samples” through a GPS system (AVL or automated vehicle locator) which locates these patrol vehicles by longitude and latitude, with one sample a minute when the vehicle is stopped and a sample every two seconds when the vehicle is in motion.
Tracing by using this system it can be seen that the vehicle leaves the facility about 8:11 a.m., then heads north on Crows Landing Road. Deputy Garner and CSO Johnson are on their way to take a report of a burglary which had occurred the night before, a non-emergency call.
All is normal on the tracing as the vehicle passes through the Whitmore Avenue then Hatch Road intersections. Near Pecos, just south of the Highway 99 overcrossing, the vehicle stops for 18 seconds. During some of that time, the driver’s door is open. No explanation has been given for this stop.
The vehicle then re-enters Crows Landing Road. “The speed of Vehicle 1 (Ford) rapidly and continually increased as it traveled in the northbound lane of Crows Landing Road, as evidenced by the AVL data,” according to the CHP report.
From about this point, half a mile away from the crash site, the CHP used three methods for calculating speed and two for positioning the vehicle within or alongside the roadway.
In addition to the speed calculated from the AVL track, the officers used surveillance videos from businesses on Crows Landing Road which they collected right after the crash.
They then used fixed objects seen in the videos, and timed how long the vehicle took to pass those objects, allowing a further calculation of its speed.
In addition, the Interceptor was equipped with an event data recorder, the automotive equivalent of a “black box”. This runs continuously while the vehicle is in motion and “locks in” the last five seconds of data prior to an impact of sufficient severity.
This data includes vehicle speed, throttle position, engine rpms and steering and brake inputs.
All of the electronic data and the calculations consistently show a pattern of acceleration which continues up to almost 90 mph before the impacts in the wrecking yard. This was a 35 mph zone.
The surveillance videos and the AVL data also show that the Interceptor was driven into the northbound, oncoming lane, on at least two occasions. The black box shows definite steering inputs matching these movements. The last movement from its proper lane into the oncoming lane occurs after it approaches the back of a slower moving northbound van.
After this movement, with the steering wheel back to its 12 o’clock position there is essentially no steering input for about 3.5 seconds, followed by the impacts at about 8:17, about six minutes after the vehicle left the sheriff’s parking lot, and about 52 seconds after it left the Pecos Avenue stop.
The vehicle strikes first a support pole for the overhand of the building then hits a table holding heavy car parts like engines, transmissions and torque converters, other objects before finally coming to rest atop a dumpster. A small fire starts then fuel from the ruptured gas tank ignites and creates what one officer called a “waterfall of fire.”
In the last five seconds recorded in the black box, the throttle was depressed 100%; the engine rpms were near redline, the brakes were not applied and, during the last 3.5 seconds, there was essentially no steering.
At least one witness said the brake lights on the Interceptor never came on before the crash.
That identity of that witness and other witnesses was redacted in the CHP report we got. And one fairly lengthy statement was taken from one of those witnesses, the length of which hints at that person having seen more than just the aftermath of this crash.
The CHP has struggled with identifying the cause of the crash and with articulating what they have concluded. They seem to have eliminated a mechanical flaw, or at least one which could not have been dealt with. For example, there had been a report of a “sticky throttle” on one occasion in the vehicle but, if that was a problem, application of the brakes or a shift into neutral would have remedied it.
So, they find: “The totality of the evidence suggests Party 1 (Deputy Garner) suffered a health related condition that rendered him incapable of cognitively controlling a motor vehicle.”
In a statement to The Bee CHP Spokesman Tom Olsen said “Nobody in their right mind would drive a vehicle in that manner…”
He went on to tell The Bee that although there had been issues with exhaust leaks in other units like this Interceptor, carbon monoxide poisoning had been ruled out as a factor in this crash.
Chapter Two will deal with exhaust leak problems in Ford Explorers and in the Interceptors in particular. Chapter Three will discuss the findings after an autopsy, and the toxicology findings which call into question the CHP’s statements.