Tuesday, September 7, 2010 | It was supposed to be a quick trip to Wal-Mart for a prescription refill.
But for Kevin Halliburton, that winter night was the beginning of a months-long ordeal that left him with a wrecked BMW motorcycle and a sobering view of how the Orange County Sheriff’s Department handles things when one of its own causes an accident.
It started just before 9 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2009, with Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Froome seeing a car rip through a shopping center parking lot onto Bake Parkway in Lake Forest. Froome flipped on his lights and sirens and shot out onto the street after the speeder — and right in front of Halliburton on his motorcycle.
Halliburton hit the brakes but couldn’t avoid crashing into the door of Froome’s patrol car.
Froome jumped out of the car to aid Halliburton.
“Dude, you OK?” Froome asked.
Halliburton, 53, was shaken up but otherwise unhurt. His motorcycle, while not visibly smashed, however, was totaled.
“You just pulled right out; I didn’t even see you there,” Halliburton said.
Froome recounted the seconds leading up to the accident. “Did you see that other guy come flying out?” he asked. “This other dude comes ripping around here — comes flying through the stop sign straight across over here — so I came out to …”
“I came out and — yeah I didn’t see you coming down there — you know — either. I turned the lights and siren on up there, and I tried to go slow around the other car but… “
“I slammed on the brakes,” interrupted Halliburton, “but if he’s coming out there no way I can stop in time.”
“Yeah . . . no, yeah,” Froome replied, “I’m sorry.”
This exchange was captured by the video camera and audio recordings (video/audio is attached to this story) from inside Froome’s patrol car. All Sheriff’s Department cars are equipped with a video system that is supposed to go on as soon as the deputy flips his lights and sirens.
Halliburton obtained the recording through the California Public Records Act. He is adamant that Froome was at fault in the accident and said Froome’s words immediately following the accident provide irrefutable proof.
However, the official accident report that Halliburton obtained from the department six weeks after his accident tells a different story.
The report blamed Halliburton for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. The official police report also included an odd reference, under the headline of “INTOXICATION,” to the fact that Halliburton admitted under questioning to having one beer with dinner that night
“I was flabbergasted,” Halliburton said after seeing the official police report and its conclusions.
“I didn’t think that based on the circumstances … for them to turn that around [a beer with dinner three hours earlier] and make it as (if) it was an issue was complete fabrication. It was absolutely stunning,” he said.
After reviewing the tape at the request of Voice of OC, a Sheriff’s Department official said Froome and the other deputies acted properly following the accident. The official, Capt. Don Barnes, went on to contend that although some of the things said by deputies could be misconstrued as a cover-up by someone unfamiliar with how deputies conduct investigations, they were proper police procedure.
However, following complaints — and a formal claim — from Halliburton, the county now wants to settle and is offering him $6,500 to cover his totaled motorcycle.
But Halliburton won’t take the money. At least not until the official report reflects what he says really happened. “The truth should be out. And it should be put forth, and someone along the line should step up and do the right thing,” he said.
Accidents involving sheriff’s deputies are not rare in Orange County.
Since July 2007, there have been a total of 141 accidents involving sworn and non-sworn staff working for the Sheriff’s Department. That has cost taxpayers more than $3.5 million overall. Most of those payouts — $3.2 million — have been for bodily injury. Another $250,000 has gone to property damage settlements.
Sheriff’s deputies are often engaged in high-speed chases of suspects, so it is expected that they will get in accidents. But these numbers seem high to some county officials. Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach publicly questioned the numbers when notified of a Voice of OC public records request for both the number of accidents and total payouts by the county in recent years.
Yet while payouts can be tracked, accountability is a different story. County officials say most settlements don’t determine fault, so there’s no way to tell how many accidents were the fault of officials without substantial research.
Two Very Different Conversations
After his conversations with Froome that night, Halliburton was convinced that the department would take responsibility for the accident. It never occurred to him that the department would become confrontational, nor did he think of talking to a lawyer.
Indeed, Froome calmly put in a call to dispatch to report the accident and waited for backup to arrive. He assured Halliburton there would be no problem.
Yet once Froome’s colleagues arrived, official recordings captured a very different discussion among deputies than the one Froome had with Halliburton.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said an unidentified deputy to Froome.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” he replies.
“Just got done finishing up, and now I’ve got this,” the deputy said.
“I know it’s still … uh … probably my fault,” said Froome to the deputy investigating the incident. The official report identifies the other deputy as K. Holland.
“He didn’t really notice too that I had the lights and siren on,” said Froome.
The conversation among the deputies then abruptly turned to whether they should look into whether Halliburton was drinking and how that could help Froome’s situation.
Froome quickly affirmed that Halliburton had been drinking but made it clear that he did not think Halliburton was intoxicated.
“Um — I smelled it — but I don’t think he’s drunk — but I smelled it,” Froome said.
“Maybe we should go that route,” the second deputy said.
“Maybe what?” Froome replied.
“Maybe we should go that route because it’s going to give you even more … leeway if he’d been drinking,” said the investigating deputy.
“Well, I can’t investigate it,” Froome said. “I’m part of the crash.”
The investigating deputy then asks another deputy to interview Halliburton about drinking and turns back to Froome, telling him his thinking.
“Did you ask him if he had anything to drink? Ask him that — and see how much it is — because that way you could put it in a statement — at least that could account for some of the [inaudible] . . .” said the investigating deputy.
He appears to attempt to calm Froome on the rationale behind exploring the alcohol angle saying, “I don’t really want to — like — arrest him.”
“No — I know,” replies Froome.
“I would like to get that in the statement,” he said.
“He seems pretty cool,” replied Froome.
“I just want to use that as maybe kind of a — a negating factor,” says the investigating deputy. “I don’t want to make it look like retribution.”
Halliburton said when a deputy came up to him and asked him about drinking that night, he replied that he had one beer with a bowl of chili at home that night about 6:30 p.m.
There was no breath-alcohol test administered on the scene or citation issued.
In the end, Halliburton left the scene on his own with a small business card from the Sheriff’s Department that had a report number listed. As far as he knew, he would be walking into the department soon to get his bike fixed once he collected estimates.
A Rude Awakening
A month later, after getting a few estimates for repairs to the motorcycle, Halliburton did indeed walk into the Sheriff’s Department’s Aliso Viejo substation. There he met Deputy Paul Villenueve, who had been assigned his case.
He did not get what he expected. Villenueve told him that not only would the department not be paying him for the damages to his motorcycle, but it had determined he was at fault and that alcohol might have been a factor in the accident.
“I was speechless,” Halliburton said.
He read the word “INTOXICATION” at the top of the last page of the accident report.
The report reads as follows:
While speaking with Driver 1 [Halliburton] I could smell a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from his person. Driver 2 [Froome] also told me that when he made contact with Driver 1 after the collision he too could smell an odor of an alcoholic beverage.
Initially, Driver 1 stated he had not had any alcohol prior to driving Vehicle 1 [BMW]. When I advised Driver 1 that I could smell an alcoholic odor coming from him, he stated that he did have 1 beer while at home but had not had anything else to drink.
Sergeant S. Ellerman, #482, arrived at the scene of the collision and spoke with Driver 1. After speaking with Driver 1, Sergeant S. Ellerman did not feel Driver 1’s impairment constituted a need for a DUI investigation.
The report went on to conclude that Halliburton was at fault and should be cited because “he did not yield to an emergency vehicle that had its red light and sirens on.”
The final blow came when one official told him that the Sheriff’s Department would be submitting a claim to his insurance company.
Halliburton, who has always considered himself a law-and-order Republican left the Sheriff’s Department substation that day with an anger that was unfamiliar to him. The system, he felt, was not only failing to help him, it was actively trying to hurt him.
So he fought back. The first thing he did was file a public records request for the videotape footage of the incident.
“After listening to the tape in its entirety, I was left with the impression that what I heard was a group of police officers manipulating and changing the story and ultimately conspiring to write a false police report,” Halliburton said.
Since getting the videotape evidence, Halliburton said he traveled to a series of Sheriff’s Department substations, talking to an array of supervisors who basically told him that despite what the video indicated, the report would stand.
Halliburton kept fighting. He submitted a claim against the county for $10,000.
The Department Speaks
Sheriff’s Department officials acknowledge that they’ve pulled the Halliburton report because of concerns.
In fact, this month, a quarterly review committee that looks at deputy-involved accidents is expected to finish its own examination of the case and issue a final decision on the version of events that December night.
“Obviously, we had some problems with the findings, so we pulled it,” said Barnes, who oversees the department’s South County Operations.
Barnes said he reviewed the videotape and acknowledged the conversation between officers could be alarming to people unfamiliar with such traffic investigations. Yet Barnes maintains that the conversation is normal operating procedure.
“From a third party, I can see where you would hear and say these guys are conspiring,” Barnes said.
“I look at that as: Have you covered all the bases in an accident investigation?” Barnes said. “Which always includes if there’s any impairment of the parties involved.”
“They did and determined that he was not impaired.”
So if Halliburton wasn’t impaired, why put the word “INTOXICATION” in the report?
That’s just how the traffic accident forms are done, basically following the format prescribed by the California Highway Patrol, Barnes said.
And what about the investigating deputy’s use of the word “leeway” in his report?
“It’s just a bad choice of words,” Barnes said.
“Focus on the outcome of what happened on that dialogue,” Barnes said. “If they were colluding to come up with some forgone conclusion, they would have gone through a DUI investigation and arrested him.”
Barnes said there are also internal controls, such as the one that flagged the report for review.
“As difficult as it was for him to understand now the interactions with the department, at least our process worked,” Barnes said.
Although the Sheriff Department’s internal reviews aren’t completed, county risk managers have looked the issue over and have come to their own decisions. Halliburton got a letter June 16 offering a settlement of $6,445.33 — the value, according to the county, of his totaled motorcycle.
But the offer comes with a catch. The county will not admit liability, and the police report saying Halliburton was at fault, and drinking, stands.
Halliburton isn’t having it.
He believes the Sheriff’s Department’s report should reflect the truth.
“I’ve always thought that police strive to do the right thing under often difficult circumstances,” Halliburton said.
Yet his collision with a sheriff’s deputy “absolutely took the air out of that notion,” he said. “I’ve been left with a very cynical outlook.”
Voice of OC staff writer Adam Elmahrek contributed to this report.