Damian ended his call and reached for his cap. There's been a crash on the I-10 near the Arizona/California border at Mile Marker 10. Several days have gone by since his last on-site investigation, and this new crash is just a mile or so from where the other accident occurred near the Dome Rock Road exit. Damian has told another trooper on duty to bring a cruiser around the front of the police station, and then he pokes his head into the breakroom to inform a visitor, who will be riding with them today, it's time to "saddle-up."
On his way out, Damian stopped at his desk to retrieve a leather zipper pouch bag with his initials monogrammed in big gold letters on it. It's an elegant looking bag his dad gave him for his birthday last year. His dad is always giving him fancy gifts like this, and in this case, the gift came with a speech from his dad about how Damian could use his current employment as a "short-term stepping-stone" - suggesting that he should think about going to law school at night. Dad was always pushing him to become a "serious professional," and he would say, "wouldn't it be special to have a doctor and a lawyer in the family."
In the zipper pouch, Damian has stored various official research documents, departmental memos, newspaper clippings, and other related items he's been collecting as part of his work with a federally funded project. He's been assigned as a part-time member of a multi-disciplinary team investigating the unusual number of accidents, especially wrong-way driver accidents, that happen along Arizona's highways. The total number of 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, an Arizona State Senator from Maricopa County, and a Governor’s personal friend. It also consists of a professor with the Behavioral Health Department at Arizona State University, a project manager from the U.S Department of Transportation, and a Ph.D. student from ASU, Jennifer Wheeler, who is working on her Ph.D. thesis in transportation management.
As he reached the front entrance to the building, Damian is stopped by his post commander, who wanted to know how the Dome Rock Road investigation was going. More precisely, when would it be completed? Damian assured the Captain that everything was on track to be completed by within a week or so.
Then Damian wondered. What about that whole conversation with the Sheriff at the crash scene? He's been wondering a lot about why the Barry Jankins chase wasn't called off before they ever got to Quartzsite. When Damian looked up Barry's somewhat extensive criminal record, there wasn't one violence-related arrest he could find. It was mostly vandalism, drug and alcohol-related offenses, and numerous motor vehicle violations. More striking, none of the motor vehicle violations were related to anything like careless and reckless driving, as Sheriff Koontz had expressly stated Barry was doing that day out on the roadways. This issue wasn't exactly central to his investigation of the crash. Still, if someone came after the Sheriff, Damian thought his team had better dot all their I's and crossed all their T's since their handiwork, and perhaps himself or a member of his squad might someday wind up in court.
Damian was riding shotgun on this trip with his coworker, Jim Cardinale, from the Yuma office. Now, he had time to catch up on several reports he had just received and printed out. His coworkers tease him about the pouch bag. It's not just that the bag looked too fancy for a cop – like some high-brow attorney might use, but that the department provided ruggedized iPad tablets for everyone. Damian could have just as quickly used one of the tablets to store his clutch of "beneficial intelligence," but Damian used to retort when teased about the pouch, "Hey! At least paper and ink never run out of battery power when you can least afford it."
Today, what caught his interest was a new report he started reading that showed an unusually high number of wrong-way crashes on Interstate I-10, specifically in western Arizona. Damian began to think this might turn into a personal mission for him because he 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 particularly concerning due to the eastbound off-ramp configuration. Damian has copious notes he took about that off-ramp, and he's already sent a memo to the ADOT office in La Paz County, urging them to install a larger Wrong-Way sign on the eastbound off-ramp.
When Damien arrived at the new crash, he was informed that two adults, one male, and one female, were pronounced dead at the scene. Al and Maddy Simmons, a married couple, were the deceased. Their two sons were seriously injured. Damien also heard the distinct sound of yapping dogs... small dogs. "What is that?" he asked another trooper. The trooper replied half-laughing, "You're not going to believe this. There were two pug dogs 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 to help. Coyotes could have made quick work of those pugs if they were left alone for just a few minutes out here in the desert.
Trooper Cardinale called Damian over to an ambulance where people had been feverishly working on a patient inside. "It's the deceased son. His name is 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 newspaper reporter from the Parker Pioneer happened to walk up to the back of the ambulance and flashed his press credential. Cardinale continued, "He claims that his dad kept yelling that someone named Barry was forcing him to turn the wheel." Damian asked if he could speak to the young man. The paramedic gave him a worried glance and said, "Yeah, but make it quick. We've got a long drive to Parker, and this guy could crater any minute."
Damian poked his head into the ambulance. "Hi, Mark. My name is Damian, and I'm with the Arizona Highway Patrol. Marks' eyes were pretty foggy, but he managed 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 there being someone else in the vehicle at the time of the crash," Damian said slowly and calmly. "Did your dad pick up anybody along the way, like a hitchhiker or someone?" Mark's eyes momentarily cleared demonstrably, and he stared indignantly into the trooper's eyes. "My dad would NEVER, EVER pick up any stranger hitchhiking on the side of the road," he said, almost as if he was trying to shout the words.
Still, there was little energy left in the severely injured youth. Damian asked another question, "and you didn't meet anyone at a stop along the way, or--"but the Mark raised his hand slowly and cut Damian off. Very sternly, the injured young man bellowed, "there was NO ONE else besides our family and our dogs inside our SUV when it crashed." Quickly, the paramedic interceded, "That's all, trooper, you'll have to get any additional information at a later time back in Parker."
The reporter from the Parker Pioneer newspaper, Jess Gutierrez, who just happened to be driving by the crash scene and decided there might be a story, approached Damian as the two started walking away from the ambulance. After flashing his press credential again, he asked Damien what he thought about what Al Simmons' son said to him. "What do you think that guy means by saying there was a Barry or someone being in the car with them?" Damian replied, "I don't know what to think, but he just got done being thrown around like a tossed salad, so I assume his head is a just little jumbled right now. Maybe he's not thinking too straight?"
Jess thought what Mark Simmons said was interesting because just a few days earlier, a young man, also named Barry, was killed in a head-on crash only a couple of miles down the road from this crash. "Kinda weird that he said the name Barry, huh? You know, that was the name of that kid who got killed just a couple of miles down the road from here," Gutierrez clamored as he then jokingly hummed part of the theme song to the old TV show, The Twilight Zone.
Damian was annoyed at the reporter's humor, but he did flash for just a second on that "strangeness" in his car that day at the crash site. Damien filed that thought away quickly in the this just isn't relevant to what I'm working on right now file folder in his head and told the reporter he needed to get back to work. Gutierrez took some pictures with his iPhone, and as he prepared to leave the scene, he bumped into a young female "college type," scampering around the crash scene taking photos with a fancy camera. His curiosity got the best of him, and he approached her - flashing his press credential, and asked her what she was doing. "Oh, my name is Jennifer Wheeler. I'm part of a special project the State of Arizona commissioned to recommend possible improvements to Arizona highways to reduce serious crashes. Did you know that there are over one thousand wrong-way driver incidents in Arizona every year? These wrong-way driver incidents result in hundreds of fatalities. A disproportionate number of those accidents and fatalities happen right here in western Arizona – on this particular highway!" she stated shrilly.
Gutierrez thinks. Wow! Now I may really have a story here. "Can I get your contact information, young lady? In case I have any follow-up questions," Gutierrez asked the bespectacled young student. She hesitantly agreed but warned him she could not divulge any specific data collected about the research. Jess thought to himself, yeah, that's what they always say, but he's always found a way to get the information he needs if and when the story required it. He'll need to keep her number on speed-dial as he continued to work this.
To be continued...