Probe into officer’s killing of pedestrian continues, but vehicular homicide standards high
For a vehicular homicide charge to be filed against a Spokane police officer who hit and killed a pedestrian last month, investigators must show that he was intoxicated, driving recklessly or driving with a flagrant disregard for the safety of others, according to Washington law.
Authorities said this week that Officer Gordon Ennis, an eight-year veteran, was driving between 34 mph and 39 mph in a 30 mph zone without his emergency lights and siren on when he struck John A. Van Curler, 52, at Monroe Street and Montgomery Avenue on Jan. 30.
Toxicology results from a blood-alcohol sample submitted by Ennis are pending.
High speed can be a factor in vehicular homicide charging decisions, but Ennis was driving just slightly over the speed limit.
“Is 34 to 39 driving down Monroe a willful or wanton disregard for life? No. That’s the average speed on Monroe,” said Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Dave Thornburg, who is investigating the incident with a team from the Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Police Department and Washington State Patrol. “It’s not that I’m a fellow officer and I want to protect him. If we had probable cause that night, we would have made an arrest.”
On June 10, a pizza delivery driver who was slightly speeding ran a stop sign and crashed into another vehicle, killing a 9-year-girl; the driver received a $500 ticket for negligent driving.
The victim, Olivia Chaffin, was a passenger in a car driven by her father, Richard Chaffin, who Thornburg said also was speeding before the crash at Monroe and Hazard roads in north Spokane County.
Deputy Prosecutor Mary Ann Brady, who handles felony traffic cases, said Echo Henderson was only slightly speeding and that running a stop sign, while a bad driving error, is not criminally negligent.
“Ordinary negligence is not sufficient in the state of Washington to sustain a vehicular homicide,” Brady said. “You have to show more than just ordinary negligence.”
Brady on Friday declined to discuss Ennis’ crash, citing the pending investigation.
But, she said, “Every case is evaluated, regardless of who is involved.
“It may seem counterintuitive to some people that somebody dies as a result of an accident and there are no criminal charges,” she said. But, “I have to go on what the law says.”
An internal police investigation will look at whether Ennis was following procedure by driving without his lights and siren activated.
Spokane Police Department policy calls for officers responding to routine calls to observe traffic laws and drive without the use of lights and sirens. Officers are to use their discretion when activating emergency equipment for other calls.
Ennis was responding to a report of “trouble unknown” at a home on West Spofford Avenue. He’d been at the home about 90 minutes before for a similar call but hadn’t found anything unusual, Thornburg said Friday.
Investigators can obtain a blood sample only if they suspect a motorist is intoxicated. In Ennis’ case, he volunteered to submit a sample because investigators had no reason to believe he was intoxicated.
Investigators believe Van Curler “was either inside or outside of the crosswalk by a matter of inches,” according to a news release.
Thornburg said detectives are still trying to determine if Ennis had a green light or if Van Curler had the right of way. He declined to say what Ennis told investigators.
Detectives also are still trying to find two motorists who witnessed the accident.
Ennis said a white vehicle slowed down as it approached the scene but accelerated southbound on Monroe. A second southbound car also passed the scene and turned west on Montgomery.
The second officer on scene, Elina Bishop, saw both cars and said the second car appeared to be dark-colored.
“We want to know what they saw. We don’t care why they didn’t stop,” Thornburg said. “Just please, come forward.”
Witnesses should call Crime Check at (509) 456-2233.