crash when one or more of three components in the system fail: drivers, autos,
or the roads they run on.
Major failures can cost millions. Lawyers call expert
witnesses. Behavioral psychologists investigate drivers; engineers examine the
dynamics and design of cars and highways. The science of crash investigation got
serious when UCLA founded a Traffic and Safety Institute in the
Doctor of engineering, William Blythe, a leader in the field,
has investigated crashes for the last 19 years. "When I began," he says, "there
were two or three others in California. Today there are 20 or 30. I don't know
that the insurance crisis has affected the business, but increasingly
sophisticated legal work is being done in the courts. Yet judges still accept
the credentials of 'expert' witnesses too lightly. A lawyer must be very careful
who he engages -- supposing, of course, he wishes an honest opinion in the first
place," says Dr. Blythe. "For all the sophistication of crash investigation
today, I liken our times to those in Europe when barbers practiced medicine."
The good doctor should know, yet he seems harsh on himself when
you take into account the case of Sgt. Roderick Sinclair and the Secret Service.
In this case, Dr. Blythe worked closely with crash investigator Paul Kayfetz,
who, says Dr. Blythe, "is a lawyer, a certified genius, a perfectionist, and a
man who any egocentric trial lawyer has difficulty working with, since his
peculiar expertise will tend to take over most of a case."
Paul Kayfetz makes movies recreating people's last moments. He
is considered the Steven Spielberg of crash reconstruction. Consider the case in
question, one which Dr. Blythe regards with satisfaction, since "it is seldom
one gets carte blanche where money is concerned."
When Queen Elizabeth II visited the Yosemite Valley in March
1983, Sinclair, a deputy sheriff in central California's County of Mariposa, was
appointed to "clear the way." He was driving his 1978 Chevrolet Impala west on
State Route 132, a two-lane country road winding through open grasslands in the
foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Familiar with the road, Sinclair drove
quickly. He may have thought no one else was using it. He was wrong.
Coming the other way, in the van of the royal party, was a
convoy of three rented cars driven by Secret Service men. Stuck behind this
convoy was a lady truck driver, Mona Crocker, going home. The day was overcast,
the road damp.
Ranger Dwayne Bartlow had stopped his pickup truck near the
junction of Jalapa and State Route 132 to watch the queen go by. He saw
Sinclair's Impala pass and disappear over a crest. When he glanced back a moment
later, he saw dust and smoke rising. Alarmed, he jumped into his pickup truck
and raced toward the curve. He came over the crest of the hill to see Sinclair's
Impala badly damaged and facing back. Resting against it was a brown Dodge St.
Regis. A few feet from the edge of the roadway lay the demolished, twisted
remains of a blue Dodge Aries. Ranger Bartlow ran to it and immediately saw the
front seat occupants were beyond help. Nearby, a third man lay on the ground.
Another man was desperately trying to revive him. Bartlow hurried to them,
knelt, and administered CPR. Bartlow was heard to say, " . . . the pulse, where
is the pulse?" Dazed and injured, Sinclair kept asking, "Where did they come
from? Why were they in my lane?"
Sometime after, before the cars were moved, a California Highway Patrol
MAIT (Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team) arrived, consisting of an
accident investigation expert, a California Department of Transportation
engineer and a mechanical engineer. This team was led by Sgt. Robert Schilly, an
experienced California Highway Patrol (CHP) crash investigator.
MAIT responds to major accidents, accidents involving school
buses and the like. Since the queen was tangentially involved in the affair, the
whole world had heard about this crash. MAIT, realizing that it was being
watched, responded by calling a press conference. In a 177-page report, the team
announced that Mariposa County's Sgt. Sinclair, driving at 74 mph around a blind
curve, had panicked, lost control of his vehicle, locked his brakes, skidded
across the center line, and collided with a car carrying three Secret Service
agents, killing them instantly. The Secret Service convoy, according to the
testimony of the only independent witness, Mona Crocker, had at no time left its
lane and, therefore, Sinclair and his employer, the County of Mariposa, were
solely to blame for the fatalities. MAIT recommended that Sinclair be charged
with criminal negligence.
Modesto attorney Charles Brunn, hired by the County of
Mariposa, filed a cross complaint, maintaining that the crash was not entirely
This complaint was filed largely on the basis of Sinclair's
insistence that he came around the corner to find the Secret Service cars
"coming at me."
Attorney Brun brought in his own accident reconstruction team. The first evidence looked at by this team was some 70 photos taken by a
freelance photographer who had arrived at the scene while the CHP was still
present. "In about 10 of his photos," said Kayfetz, a member of Brunn's team,
"was what appeared to be a skidmark some six-feet long that ended right where
gouges in the road showed the impact had occurred." This
skidmark was not recorded in the CHP MAIT report even though MAIT investigators
could be seen straddling the skid in three photos, as they measured other marks.
"The inference was that the mark was made by the Secret Service car that was hit
-- 'the death car'," said Kayfetz. There was a sharp hook in the end of the skid
that could only have been made when some external force was applied to the
skidding car. So the suggestion was that the deputy's car hit the Secret Service
car as both were skidding.
Kayfetz now began a process he calls
"photogrammetry," which he defines as the business of deriving accurate
measurements from existing photographs -- an ability that makes him essentially
unique in crash reconstruction. To do this, he first laid out a grid system on
the roadway so that he could locate precisely the positions Schneider took his
photos from, showing the "phantom" skid. He thus located the skidmark to within
a fraction of an inch and then painted it exactly on the road. When it was laid
out, the skidmark was at a significant angle to the line of travel. Dr. Blythe,
another member of Brunn's team, inferred that the skidmark was made by the right
front tire of "the death car." Extrapolating back from this mark, "the death
car" thus would have been a few feet over the center line. Hard, scientific
data, however, would have to be presented in a court of law to sustain any such
The Mariposa team's first task was to very precisely
reconstruct the crash using its few clues. It took the two vehicles that had
collided and mated them perfectly so that the angle at which they struck each
other could be seen. Kayfetz got up in a crane directly above, laid out the
known positions and angles, and made, through photos, a documentary map of the
crash site. The team then took an undamaged Dodge Aries to the scene, placed it
with the right front tire on the "phantom" skidmark, and projected the car back
on a straight line extension of the mark to see where it crossed the center
line. Kayfetz also used photogrammetry to reconstruct some of the tire marks
running off the roadway after impact and located exactly where the "death car"
had come to rest. This was so Dr. Blythe could then do a very sophisticated
impulse momentum analysis of the collision using conservation of momentum and
conservation of energy to calculate the speed the cars had to have been
traveling to end up where they did.
He figured the deputy's car was doing between 62 and 66 mph,
not 74 as claimed by MAIT. The Mariposa team then wetted down the road and
showed that the deputy's car could track through the turn without any difficulty
at 70 mph, well above Dr. Blythe's estimated speed range, demonstrating that
Sinclair hadn't simply panicked and locked up his brakes as had been suggested
by the MAIT report.
And now another statement appeared to support Sinclair's
contention. A Secret Service agent in the lead car said the deputy's car had
missed them by inches. This suggested that when the deputy's car passed it the
lead car also was over the center line, since the "phantom" skidmark had now
established the position of the following "death car" at the moment of impact as
being exactly three feet inside the center line with its left-hand side.
The evidence was growing. The Mariposa County district
attorney, Bruce Eccerson, who had refused to file criminal charges against
Sinclair, told the press there was new evidence in the case and invited MAIT to
examine it. CHP Schilly's MAIT strongly questioned the "phantom" skidmark's
authenticity, " . . . implying, said Kayfetz, "that the mark was fabricated,"
and stood by Mona Crocker's testimony, putting the Secret Service cars in their
own lane all of the time.
The Mariposa team, continuing its
investigation, now began making movies. Using cars identical to those involved
in the accident, it tried various scenarios. It placed the Secret Service cars
in a range of positions relative to the center line and ran the cars at both
MAIT's speed estimate and at Dr. Blythe's estimate.
Cameras were set up precisely at each driver's eye level and at
each intersection where there had been witnesses. Electric timing equipment was
then placed on the road to measure the speeds and positions of the vehicles
throughout a series of mock collisions. A behavioral psychologist was then
brought onto the scene to estimate driver reaction times for the deputy and the
Secret Service man driving. These times also were factored into the team's
calculations. The results were stunning.
At the trial, conducted in Fresno, Mariposa County's lawyer,
Brunn, produced some startling witnesses. Among these were 50-year-old Dwight
Matcalf, who drove a bus in Yosemite during the queen's visit. Matcalf said he
overheard a conversation the day after the accident between two men thought to
be Secret Service agents. One man said to the other, "He was going too fast, but
we were over the line . . . we've got to blame the locals." According to The
Mariposa Weekly Gazette and Miner, another witness, ambulance attendant Joan
Tune, said that Secret Service agents had wanted to take Deputy Rod McKean with
them to Yosemite. McKean, who testified he was looking down at his clipboard
when the crash occurred, had facial injuries. Ambulance driver Tune had to
insist that he be rushed to a Modesto hospital for treatment.
The feds, represented by the U.S. attorney's office, intended
to prove that the "phantom" skidmark was exactly that. Schilly, "expert" witness
and leader of MAIT, argued that it was not real. Another "expert" witness said
that it was real, but that it was made not by the right front tire of the "death
car" but the left. This would move the car laterally four feet to the right,
and, if you extended it back, the car never would have been out of its lane.
Mariposa County's response was simple. Kayfetz's photogrammetry
had been so precise that he had calculated the width of the tire that left the
"phantom" skidmark as 4.6 inches. The four tires from the "death car" had been
sent to Herb Hinben, a tire expert in Grass Valley, California. Hinben examined
the tires and reported that the right front showed a skid patch immediately
before it went out of use. It also had a footprint of 4.6 inches. The other
three tires were mismatched and all had footprints of five odd inches. So the
"phantom" skid could only have been left by this one tire. The rightfront tire.
To deal with the feds' contention that the "phantom" skidmark
was only that, Kayfetz took the CHP's own photos and processed them for maximum
contrast. There it was. The CHP had made routine quality enlargements. Kayfetz
also produced videotapes from a local TV station showing the "phantom" skid.
Kayfetz was on the witness stand for over four days, Dr. Blythe for two. The
highlight of their testimony came when they screened the movies they had so
painstakingly made. These showed that from where she sat Mona Crocker couldn't
see the center line on the road where the cars rounded the curve.
Further footage showed that when reaction time was taken into
account, it was clear that Sinclair was not reacting to the sight of "the death
car" when he went into his skid, because the "death car" was still out of his
sight around the curve. What he had reacted to was the lead Secret Service car
coming around the corner over the center line. And since the "death car" driver,
George P. LaBarge, couldn't yet see the deputy's car, what he was reacting to
was the sight of his leader turning to get back in his lane. One of Kayfetz's
films shows the accident clearly from the dead man's point of view. Kayfetz has
a clip of such films. How normal everything appears to within a split second of
the end. There is an alarming little device installed for the benefit of the
jury: A light in one corner of the screen blinks a second and a half before
impact. If the jury sees the light blink before the danger is apparent, the
driver had no time to react. No chance. If, on the other hand, the danger is
apparent on the screen before the light blinks, it may be that the driver could
have done something. Like a thunderbolt from the blue, the Impala appeared to
the wretched LaBarge. When he saw Sinclair's Impala, the "phantom" skid was
underway and life was over.
In the face of such devastating testimony, the feds
called upon the leader of MAIT, Sgt. Schilly. But after Schilly had testified
for only half a day, Judge Robert E. Coyle ruled that he was not competent to
give expert testimony in reconstruction. Judge Coyle then ruled that every
contention made by the Mariposa team was correct. He agreed that the lead Secret
Service car was over the center line as well as the "death car" and that Mona
Crocker may have thought she could see, but, in actuality, could not.
The Mariposa County team was hoping to get a 25 percent
contribution toward the $4 million settlement from the feds. Judge Coyle found
that the Secret Service was liable for 30 percent and ordered it to pay $1.2
Schilly now has a desk job in San Diego. This case was
apparently not a unique example of his orientation. In another accident, Schilly
found in favor of a California highway patrolman who said he was "in hot
pursuit" when he came over a hill doing 100 mph to find the road blocked by a
flock of sheep. The patrolman went off the road into the desert some very
considerable distance from the road, striking and killing the shepherd. Schilly
ruled it was the shepherd's fault for "stepping into the area of danger." It was
not made clear how the fugitive had avoided the flock.
Schilly is still not convinced the "phantom" skid was real. He
says, "The only thing I'm sure of is that the deputy panicked and locked up his
brakes." Undoubtedly Schilly was a man caught in an investigation between two
law enforcement agencies and, as he said, ". . . whichever way I came out, I'd
be a loser."
Kayfetz takes the point further. "CHP investigators are cops,"
he says, "and once cops get an idea of guilt, they tend, naturally, to stop
investigating an accident and start building a case."
CHP commissioner James E. Smith issued a statement to AutoWeek
which said, in part, "The court decision . . . (assigning) 70 percent of the
crash responsibility to the sheriff's vehicle and 30 percent to the Secret
Service vehicle supports the patrol's findings."
Sinclair declined to be interviewed.
More than three and a half years have passed since the queen of
England traveled down State Route 132. Thousands of words of testimony have been
given. Yard upon yard of film has been studied. Untold thousands of dollars have
Despite all this the matter still has not been settled.
The case is currently under appeal. A judge in Fresno is
considering arguments that, as a matter of procedure, Mariposa County never had
the right to sue the feds in the first place. AW
James Fox, the author's son, contributed to the researching
and writing of this story.
Reprinted from Autoweek