April 4, 2009 in City

No charges in fatal car plunge from RPS garage

Evidence short of negligence, prosecutor says
By The Spokesman-Review
 

No charges will be filed from the 2006 death of a woman whose car broke through a parking garage barrier and plunged five stories to the ramp below.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said Friday he is closing the investigation of the death of Jo Ellen Savage after his office and the state Attorney General’s office concluded in separate reviews that there’s not enough evidence to prove the owners of the River Park Square garage were guilty of criminal recklessness or criminal negligence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Tucker, who received boxes of documents collected by federal prosecutors last September, released a letter from Assistant Attorney General Scott Marlow saying state attorneys also believe it would be difficult to prove criminal charges against officials of Cowles Co., or the corporation, for the Pullman woman’s death.

Neither their actions nor their inaction would be a “gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would exercise in the same situation.” Marlow wrote.

Cowles Co. owns the companies that developed and own the River Park Square mall, and is the parent company of The Spokesman-Review.

Spokane attorney Steve Eugster, a former city councilman who has challenged aspects of the River Park Square development for more than a decade, called Tucker’s decision “a whitewash.”

Duane Swinton, an attorney for Cowles Co., said Tucker’s and Marlow’s conclusion agreed with the company’s long-standing assertion, that the garage was built and maintained to the standards that applied.

“We are hopeful this will lay to rest any controversy,” Swinton said.

The garage and mall opened in 1974, but both were renovated and expanded in the mid-1990s. That renovation, which was done through a controversial public-private partnership with the city of Spokane, resulted in a series of lawsuits, including a federal securities fraud claim over the sale of garage bonds.

Savage was killed on April 8, 2006, when her car hit a concrete barrier that gave way, and the car plunged out of the garage onto an entry ramp five floors below. Witnesses told police she hit the barrier at a low speed.

The garage had experienced other problems with the barriers, known as spandrels, and critics accused Cowles Co. of ignoring warning signs of potential failures and putting the public at risk.

Last September, federal attorneys finished a yearlong investigation into allegations involving the mall and the garage, and concluded there was “no case of criminal wrongdoing” to be made involving the renovation and financing of the project. But any potential criminal charges stemming from Savage’s death would involve state statutes, Robert Westinghouse, criminal chief for the U.S. attorney’s office in Western Washington, said at the time.

He sent boxes of evidence his office had gathered to Tucker to determine whether state charges should be filed.

At the time, David Savage, Jo Ellen Savage’s ex-husband and a former president of the Washington State Bar Association, said he believed there were “substantial grounds for a criminal prosecution for manslaughter” based on information he learned during civil litigation on the matter. The civil case resulted in a settlement by Cowles Co.’s insurers to Savage’s family, which he described as “substantially” more than $1 million.

After he and chief criminal prosecutor Jack Driscoll studied the files, Tucker sent evidence to the state attorney general’s office for a separate opinion.

On Friday, Tucker said the evidence they reviewed failed to support charges of first-degree manslaughter, which requires proving criminal recklessness, or second-degree manslaughter, which requires criminal negligence. He released a letter from Marlow that concurred.

In a letter dated March 27, Marlow wrote that state attorneys reviewed evidence from the federal investigation plus other information about the garage from “concerned citizens.” Included in the information were studies dating back to the 1990s that looked at the spandrels.

Many studies focus on some type of failure of the spandrels, ranging from catastrophic failure to simple cracking, and some studies criticize the Cowles Co. subsidiaries’ failure to maintain the facility, Marlow wrote. Those studies can be considered an indication the owners were aware of potential issues with the spandrels, he added.

“The fact remains, however, that the majority of these reports and studies conclude, as did the Wiss, Janney, Elstner and Associates study, that the spandrels meet the applicable building code,” Marlow wrote. That particular study also concluded “maintenance of the facility did not play a role in the incident.”

Eugster said Tucker should have let a jury decide whether the evidence proved the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the prosecutor was trying to “let people off the hook” just as the three-year statute of limitations is about to expire, he added.

“It’s a whitewash,” Eugster said. “There is no next step. It’s too late for a grand jury; it’s too late for a special inquiry judge.”

Ron Wright, a former police detective from Riverside, Calif., and a vocal critic of River Park Square owners and local public officials, said he still questions whether the garage is safe and wants the city to order another inspection.

“To me this is a much more important issue than whether Mr. Tucker files any criminal charges,” Wright said in an e-mail. “We’ve already had one death in this garage. Is there any assurance to the public that there will be no further structural failures?”

After Savage’s death, garage officials said the facility exceeds code and insisted it was safe, but a few months later they added steel bars and plates to give the spandrels additional strength. Swinton said Cowles Co. has always asserted the garage met building standards, but he couldn’t speculate if Tucker’s decision will end questions about the structure, or any other controversy surrounding the project.

“The River Park Square project has been looked at from different angles on a variety of issues,” Swinton said. “I can’t imagine what else is left to be investigated.”


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