Damian ended his call, rose from his desk, and reached for his cap. There's been a crash on the I-10 near the California border at Mile Marker 10. As he walks over to tell another trooper to grab his gear, then retrieves a leather attaché with his initials monogrammed in big gold letters from his desk. It's very elegant looking, a present his dad gave him for his birthday. This one came with a recurring speech about how Damian should use his current employment as a "short-term stepping-stone." His father was always suggesting that he should think about going to law school at night, like others in law enforcement have done. That’s not something Damian has ever seriously considered.
Damian stores official research documents, departmental memos, newspaper clippings, and other items in the fancy leather briefcase. He's been collecting this stuff as part of his work on a big project. He's been assigned to a multi-disciplinary team investigating the unusually high number of wrong-way driver incidents happening along Arizona's highways. Accidents and fatalities have increased exponentially over the past five years. Arizona's Governor has been getting a lot of political heat to address the problem.
The team includes the project's sponsor, Arizona State Senator Lewis Witter from Maricopa County, who is a personal friend of the Governor. The team also has a professor with the Behavioral Health Department at Arizona State University, a project manager from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and a grad student from ASU, Jennifer Wheeler. Jennifer is working on her Ph.D. thesis in transportation management.
A couple of weeks have elapsed since Damian’s last investigation. This new crash is not far from where his previous investigation occurred - just east of the Dome Rock Road exit on the same highway. On his way out, he pokes his head into the breakroom and calls out to his teammate, scarfing down a bowl of instant ramen. “Ms. Wheeler, grab your stuff, we’re headed out in five.” Just before he reaches the front door, Damian is intercepted by his post commander.
His boss wants to know how the Dome Rock Road investigation is going. More precisely, when does he think his report will be completed? They have a request from the La Paz County Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff Koontz wants to review the Dome Rock Road report before its published. Damian feels a small lump form in his throat. “What do you tell him?” Damian asks. “Well, it’s not normal procedure to do this sort of thing, but I called the sheriff and said I’d let him take a look at the report if he comes here to view it. I’m not sending something like that out over the wire, for God’s sake!” Damian nods in agreement. “I’m still tying up a few loose ends. It should be done in a couple of weeks, boss.“
As Damian hops into the patrol cruiser's passenger seat, his thoughts turn to the conversation he had with Sheriff Koontz at the crash scene. Something wasn’t right. The sheriff's tone and body language just wreaked of deception. It bothered him so much he looked up Barry's somewhat extensive criminal record, but he found no violence-related arrests. There were no careless and reckless driving infractions like what Sheriff Koontz had stated Barry was doing that day. It was stuff like vandalism, drug and alcohol-related offenses, traffic citations - lots of traffic citations.
This kind of snooping didn't strictly follow crash investigation protocols prescribed by the department but damn those protocols! Damian rationalized that if someone came after the sheriff in a wrongful-death suit, his team had better dot all their I's and crossed all their T's. Their handiwork, or perhaps he himself might someday wind up in court.
As the cruiser heads for the I-10, Damian has time to catch up on several reports he’s printed out. The department provides ruggedized iPad tablets for everyone. Damian could just as easily use one of those tablets to store his clutch of "beneficial intelligence." But, Damian liked being old school. He would reply when teased about his penchant for paper, "Hey! At least paper and ink never run out of battery power when you can least afford it."
Today, what catches his interest is a new data analysis that backs up his concern about a growing number of wrong-way crashes on Arizona highways. Damian believes the State of Arizona is not doing enough to prevent these crashes, usually the most violent and deadly.
The Dome Rock Road crash was a great example. The off-ramp road configuration there was a recipe for disaster. Damian took copious notes and pictures that day. He's already sent a memo to the state transportation office in La Paz County, urging them to install a larger Wrong-Way sign going up the eastbound off-ramp at Dome Rock Road.
When they arrive at the new crash site, it's almost 9:30 p.m., but it’s still pushing an uncomfortable 97 degrees. This is Arizona in the summer, after all. Cardinale pulls the cruiser in behind a giant tow truck, which will soon be called upon to drag a smashed Suburban up a steep ravine and onto a waiting flatbed truck. The shoulder of the highway is packed with firefighting vehicles and ambulances.
Damian spots paramedics loading two fatalities into one of the ambulances. A flurry of activity is happening in the back of another ambulance. He heads over to check it out. On his way, Damian is informed that two adults, one male, and one female, were pronounced dead at the scene. Al and Maddy Simmons, a married couple. Their two adult sons were seriously injured.
Damien thinks he hears the distinct sound of yapping dogs... small dogs, maybe? "What is that?" he asked. A trooper replies, half-laughing, "You're not going to believe this. There were two pugs in the vehicle at the time of the crash. We found them milling around the area, trying to break into a container of dog food ejected from the vehicle. Not a scratch on them!" Damian thought it's a good thing there were plenty of motorists around who stopped by to help. Coyotes could make quick work of those pups if they were left alone for just a few minutes out here in the desert.
Damian asks Trooper Cardinale what’s going on inside the ambulance. "It's the deceased man’s son. His name’s Mark. He's in shock, but before they loaded him into the ambulance, he kept blabbering that his dad told him something bizarre just before their SUV went off the road." Just then, a guy flashing a press credential walks up. Damian acknowledges the man’s credential, as Cardinale continues, "He claims that his dad kept yelling that someone named Barry was forcing him to turn the wheel."
Damian asks a paramedic in the ambulance if he could speak to the young man. The paramedic gives him a worried glance, "Ok, but make it quick. We've got a long drive to Parker, and this guy could crater at any moment."
Damian pokes his head into the ambulance. "Hi, Mark. My name is Damian. I'm with the Arizona Highway Patrol.” Marks' eyes are glazed over, but he manages to focus them on the man peering into the back of the transport. "The officer here tells me that your dad was yelling something about someone being in the vehicle with you at the time of the crash." Damian talks in a slow reassuring voice. "Did your dad pick up anybody along the way, like a hitchhiker or someone like that?" The injured young man suddenly tried to sit up but was restrained by the paramedic. Staring indignantly into the trooper's eyes, Mark shouts, "My dad would NEVER, EVER pick up a stranger hitchhiking.”
Surprised there was so much energy left in the severely injured patient, Damian starts to ask another question. "Did you meet anyone at a stop along the way, or--" Mark raised his hand quickly and cut Damian off. “There was NO ONE else with us when we crashed, damn it!" The paramedic intercedes, "That's all, trooper, we need to scoot.” They close the back door and the ambulance speeds off - siren blasting away in the still Arizona night.
A reporter from the Parker Pioneer, Jess Gutierrez, had been driving by the crash scene and decided there might be a story. He turned to Damian as the two walked away from the ambulance. After flashing his press credential again, he asks Damien what he thought about what the young man just said. "What do you think his father meant when he said someone named Barry was in the car?" "I don't know, sir. This guy has just been thrown around like a tossed salad, so I assume his head is a little jumbled right now. Maybe he's not thinking too straight?"
Jess thought what the young man said was interesting. "Kinda weird that the name Barry came up, huh?” Gutierrez said. “How so?” Damian replied. “You know, that was the first name of the guy who got killed just a couple of miles down the road from here," Gutierrez said. Damian got visibly annoyed at what the reporter was suggesting. Still, for just a second, he flashed on the "strangeness" in his patrol car that day out at the Dome Rock Road crash site. Damien pushed that thought down quickly, “I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, sir. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work,” Damian declares as he starts hiking down to the smashed Suburban.
Gutierrez began taking pictures with his iPhone when he bumped into a nerdy-looking young woman." She was scampering around the crash scene, taking photos with a rather large fancy camera. His curiosity gets the best of him. He approaches her - flashes his press credential - yet again - then asked her what she was doing. "Oh, hi! My name is Jennifer. Jennifer Wheeler. W-h-e-e-l-e-r. I'm working with the Arizona Highway Patrol,” she states in a shrill, annoying voice.
“The State of Arizona commissioned a study to analyze the causes of serious crashes on Arizona highways. Did you know that there are over a thousand wrong-way driver incidents in the state every year? Wrong-way driver incidents result in hundreds of crashes, and dozens of fatalities.”
Gutierrez thinks. Hmmm! Maybe I do have a story here. "Can I get your phone number, Ms. Wheeler?” he asks the bespectacled young student. “In case I have any follow-up questions.” She hesitantly agrees but warns him that she can’t share any specific data she’s collecting.
Jess thinks to himself, “yeah, that's what they always say.” Yet, he's always found a way to get the information he needed when the story required it. He'll need to keep her number on speed-dial. Jess felt a story brewing. Maybe a big one. One that he might even pitch to the national media outlets. He may need some of the data the young lady was collecting.
To be continued...