Sudden Impact

It was dark and slick when the accident occurred, but not nearly as dark and slick as it was when she tried to get to the bottom of it

So we all waited for the police to arrive. For the owner of the other red Sentra, Nancy Fredericks, who had moved into the building next to ours only a few days earlier, this was the latest in a week's worth of torments: her apartment still had no hot water, but was well fumigated A so well, in fact, the fumes had been making her sick. For me and my husband, this was a misfortune we simply couldn't afford. We'd moved to Miami Beach from Texas just two weeks before Hurricane Andrew blew out our roof and bedroom windows. Things hadn't gotten better since. My husband needed our car to get to his job. We had insurance, but the $500 deductible was beyond reach. At least we knew who wrecked our Sentra, and we even dared to think it would be a simple matter of being compensated for our loss.

We stood around for about half an hour before an officer arrived. Apparently he had first been sent to a few other accident scenes. I had my back turned at that moment, but according to two neighbors, the driver of the Honda strode up to the officer, greeted him with a friendly, "Hey, what's up," and presented a wallet identification. By then it was raining heavily, and the driver got into the patrol car on the passenger's side.

As the officer, William Sinkes, stepped from his car, my neighbor Ben approached and told him the Honda driver had tried to leave the scene. "Oh, he's not going anywhere," Sinkes replied dismissively. He then asked me and Nancy Fredericks for our driver licenses and registration and got back into his patrol car.

While we retrieved our papers, Sinkes and the Honda driver, according to my neighbors, appeared to be enjoying each other's company. Hegarty saw the two men laughing, and wasn't quite sure what to think. Later, he recalled, his suspicions were heightened when he took Sinkes aside and said, "'Look, I've been waiting to tell you this guy was trying to get away. Are you interested?' And he said, 'No.'" Ben told me later: "They were laughing in the car. I thought it was strange, like they knew each other, like he was a cop."

License and registration in hand, I returned and knocked on the police car window. Sinkes rolled it down. By this time a tow truck had arrived and was hooking up the Honda. "Do I need to talk to the driver of the other car?" I asked, "or is he going to give you his insurance information?"

"I'll take care of it," Sinkes replied.
"Does he have insurance?" I pressed.
"Yes, he has insurance."
Pacified again.

My car's assailant soon climbed into the cab of the tow truck and, along with his car, disappeared into the darkness. Suddenly a sense of great stupidity washed over me. The guy was gone and I had collected almost no information about him, leaving me at the mercy of Officer Sinkes's accident report. When he finally got out of his patrol car (the rain had stopped), Sinkes gave us our driver licenses, registrations, and cards that included a case number and phone number. Copies of the accident report, he said, would be available in three days.

Over the weekend, my husband and I pried red metal away from the car's tires and drove the grotesquely twisted hulk to the grocery store. People stared. I smiled sheepishly. My husband scowled.

After picking up the accident report on Monday afternoon and reading it carefully, I, too, was scowling. The name of the Honda driver was there: Ronald Denis Chapman. But incredibly, his address and telephone number had been whited out. And Chapman apparently didn't own the Honda. The owners were listed as Carmen Lopez and Marilyn Shindler. No explanation was offered regarding their relationship to Chapman.

More confusing discrepancies followed. Officer Sinkes's report said he received the dispatch call at 3:04 a.m and responded at 3:10 a.m., but we had waited at least half an hour for him to arrive after the 911 calls were made. The Sentra looked as though a speeding bulldozer had hit it, but the report stated that at the time of the accident, Chapman had been traveling only 30 miles per hour A which, coincidentally, was precisely the posted speed limit for that stretch of road. Sinkes had not administered any tests to determine whether Chapman (at 3:00 a.m.) was driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In answer to the question, "Driving Ability Questionable?" Sinkes checked "No."

In the section of the report listing "Contributing Causes" to the accident, Sinkes marked that there was "No Improper Driving/Action" on Chapman's part, that his vehicle movement was "straight ahead" even though the accident occurred on a notoriously dangerous curve, and that the "traffic character" was "straight/level" even though Sinkes could have marked "curve/level," which would have more accurately described the scene. "Standing water" was also listed as a contributing cause to the accident, and though there was water in the gutter along the curb, no one at the scene recalled any puddles on the road that night.

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