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

The bang of the crash didn't wake me, but the piercing, high-pitched whir of a revving engine roused me to semiconsciousness. Three o'clock in the morning, Friday, November 20. As the revving stopped, I began to drift back under, victim to the migraine headache that had plagued me for the past 24 hours. But then my husband leaped to the window and peered down to the street. "The car's wrecked!" he cried with anguish. Stumbling after him in disbelief, I pulled on a shirt and pants, grabbed a reporter's notebook and a pen.

A few other apartment residents were already outside in the damp black air, where the street lights cast grayish halos. The road was wet, though rain was not falling at the time. With eyes fogged and head still groggy, I headed toward a red Nissan Sentra at the curb, thinking it was mine. Another car A a really damaged hulk A had rammed into the Sentra's left rear taillight following some violent impact. Staring and still trying to focus, I realized the Sentra I was looking at wasn't mine; it was a few years older. My red Sentra was the horribly damaged hulk behind it, hit somehow from the right rear. It had been parked alongside the curb, but now it was jutting halfway into the street. Nearly the entire back of the car had been demolished, the trunk lid stuck crazily up against the shattered rear window.

Our neighbor's daughter called from an open second-floor window: "The man who hit your car is in that black car, Kathy."

And there, maybe 30 feet to the north, in the middle of the street, sat a maroon A almost black A Honda Civic with its flashers on. I started toward it. "He tried to get away but his car stalled," commented another neighbor, one of the first on the scene. My hand began to shake as I uncapped the pen to write down the license plate number and make and model of the car.

A man was walking around the Honda to the driver's door. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with neatly cut and combed brown hair, a tight T-shirt tucked into jeans, and a chain around his neck. He didn't look drunk or drugged. "It's okay," he said quietly to me. "The police are on the way."

The police are on the way. Somehow that pacified me. Surely the police will take care of this mess. Then it began to drizzle, and the driver got back into his car. Instead of pursuing him for his insurance information, I walked back to our car to help my husband salvage some stuff from the trunk.

This wasn't the brightest thing to do, I now realize, but I was hardly alert, and didn't feel capable of talking to anyone anyway. The neighbors, though, had a lot to say. The two men who were first to run outside after the crash said they saw the man in the Honda trying to drive off, and they wanted the police to know. Both had called 911 and warned that the driver was trying to leave the scene; one gave the license plate number of the Honda.

Both of these neighbors, it turned out, also have had cars smashed while parked in the same place. Most people in our Miami Beach building A on Pine Tree Drive just above the 23rd Street intersection A parallel park along the road because there's no other parking nearby. But the street curves and dips slightly at that point, and a lot of careless drivers heading north on Pine Tree, especially when it rains, can't quite negotiate the curve and end up running into the parked cars.

Rick Hegarty, a 39-year-old computer programmer, has heard several bumps and crashes outside his second-floor window during the past year or so, but he had never gone downstairs to offer assistance. This time, though, "the thing really smelled," he said. "It was right outside the bedroom. We heard a big bang, and the instant we looked out the window we heard a screech and saw his car on the front pathway there. The front of the car was pointing to the street. Then he was revving and I knew he was trying to get away. I put on some pants and told my girlfriend to call the police."

At about the same time a downstairs neighbor had looked out to see the Honda "backing up like hell. You can see the tracks in the grass where he was backing up. And he was trying to drive off, but his car didn't make it." (This man A who I'll call Ben A didn't want his name used as part of this story.) By the time Ben and Hegarty got outside, the Honda had made it almost halfway up the block and then stalled in the middle of the street. "I got there and was kind of yelling at the guy," Hegarty recalled. "He said, 'I'm trying to get my car off the road.' And I thought that was really interesting because the last time I saw him, his car was ten feet off the road."

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.

Finally, at the end of the report, Sinkes recorded Chapman's explanation for the accident: "As [Chapman's Honda] approached intersection at 23 St., [another car] proceeded through intersection without stopping. [Chapman's] vehicle's brakes locked up causing the impact with [my Sentra]...." Other than noting that it was a dark color, no more information was available concerning this mysterious car that apparently caused Chapman to jam on his brakes. No other information revealing how Chapman could have then skidded more than 50 yards before hitting my Sentra with enough force to demolish it A when he supposedly had been traveling just 30 miles per hour.

After puzzling over all this with a growing uneasiness, I called the insurance company named on the report, U.S. Security. A woman in the claims department said she couldn't find the policy number Chapman had given to Officer Sinkes. I read it to her again, and she tried variations. No such number in the company computer, she said, and asked the name of the insured. She found no policy for Chapman, Lopez, or Shindler.

Later that day I contacted the officer in charge of accident investigations for the Miami Beach Police Department, Sgt. Garth Hammond, who said he would try to verify the information on the accident report. When we spoke again the next day, he told me the registration on the report checked out. I protested that the insurance information was wrong, and furthermore, I couldn't even locate the man who hit my car; his address and phone number had been blanked out on the report.

Then Hammond said something that made me catch my breath for a second, though by now it didn't come as a surprise: "I think this Chapman is an officer on the Beach."

A quick call back to the police department verified that Ronald Denis Chapman was in fact a sworn officer. Another call confirmed that state law protects officers' addresses and phone numbers from release to the public. (However, no provision is made to inform the public why an address and phone number might have been deleted from an accident report.) Yet another call, this one to the state's Bureau of Financial Responsibility in Tallahassee, which registers all automobile insurance information, brought more unsettling news. The 1990 Honda in question was owned by a Carmen Lopez but her policy with Orion Insurance, according to the bureau, had been canceled in June 1992. And Orion Insurance was now known as Aries Insurance. Aries officials, in turn, said they couldn't match the number on the report to any existing insurance policy.

I called Sergeant Hammond again. "Well," he said, "you should call your insurance company and let them handle it."

"An employee of the Miami Beach Police Department put wrong information on an accident report," I replied evenly. "Isn't there something more you can do?"

Hammond said it wasn't his job to verify insurance policies and there was nothing more he could do.

"Listen," I began again, "I have at least two witnesses who watched the driver trying to leave the scene of an accident. He put false information on the report. And there's nothing you can do? I'll have to file suit against him."

Hammond, who has since retired from the force, answered calmly. "You can file a civil action if you want," he said. "You can call your insurance company. That's what your insurance is for. There's nothing more we can do."

It became clear that if they couldn't (or wouldn't) do more, I would have to. I checked Chapman's driving record (clean) and made arrangements to examine his and Sinkes's personnel files at the police station. I requested the 911 emergency and radio dispatch tapes from the morning of the accident. I reviewed state auto insurance requirements and laws applicable to driving and accidents (providing false information on accident reports, leaving the scene, exceeding safe driving speeds). And because my Sentra was clearly a danger to drive, I also had to rent a car at my own expense. That Thursday was Thanksgiving. No one ate the yams I contributed to a communal dinner. I've had better holidays.

The two officers' personnel files did not contain any complaints investigated by the department's internal affairs unit. Chapman's file portrayed him as a model officer in his six years on the Miami Beach force, consistently rated highly for his initiative, helpfulness to fellow officers, coolness under pressure, and professionalism. During field training in 1986 and 1987, Chapman was described by his training officers as displaying "a high degree of reflexibility and competence while driving in the rain," and "avoided a certain traffic accident caused by a citizen running through a red light." Another observation noted he "needs improvement in skid control technique."

Something in Chapman's file did stand out: he's had two accidents while driving police vehicles, in 1989 and 1990. In the first case, a motorist in Miami failed to yield at a stop sign and collided with the police motorcycle he was driving to work. The second time, Chapman wasn't able to stop his patrol car when a vehicle turned in front of him on Pennsylvania Avenue in Miami Beach. Neither accident, the reports noted, was his fault.

The accident he had with my Sentra also stemmed from a car improperly crossing an intersection, according to Sinkes's accident report. And Chapman again was not cited for improper driving. He should have been.

To determine just how fast Chapman was driving when he hit my car, and to provide any other information about the likely cause of the accident, New Times hired Miles Moss, a respected traffic engineer who investigates contributing causes of pedestrian and vehicular accidents, and who has worked for numerous attorneys as well as nearly every law enforcement agency in Dade County, including the Miami Beach Police Department. Moss and his associate, Robert Wyman, brought their customized van to the accident scene, measured angles, calculated radii on the roadway, and produced a great deal of relevant data.

In direct contradiction to the accident report filed by Officer Sinkes, Moss concluded in a written summary of his findings that "Chapman vehicle was probably exceeding the speed limit, traveling too fast for conditions, and probably lost control due to excessive speed." At the moment of impact with my car, Chapman was traveling 41 to 43 miles per hour, Moss found. But he must have been going much faster than that as he approached the intersection at 23rd Street, some 160 feet away, and slammed on his brakes to avoid colliding with the mystery car. "If Mr. Chapman locked his brakes prior to the intersection of 23 St. to avoid impacting another vehicle, as indicated in the accident report, then when braking begins, speed of Chapman vehicle was probably 62-64 mph (minimum)," Moss wrote. The maximum safe speed on that road when wet? Moss calculated it to be 24 to 25 miles per hour.

Florida motor vehicle laws state that a driver going the speed limit can still be cited for speeding if special conditions (such as a wet roadway) make it dangerous to travel that fast. And those who don't take all circumstances into consideration can be found guilty of careless driving.

Moss determined that Chapman was "probably in violation" of three Florida statutes: speeding, not taking into account special driving hazards, and careless driving. Despite that, he wouldn't put the blame on Sinkes for not citing Chapman. "An investigating officer isn't going to be able to be trained to estimate how fast he was going," Moss asserted. But he did fault the practice of having Miami Beach police officers investigate accidents involving one of their own, a common procedure among law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Moss doesn't see why local agencies can't agree on reciprocal arrangements for such accidents. Under a system like that, Moss speculated, "They might still show a little favoritism, but not nearly as much."

Don't look for any policy changes in Miami Beach, however. Major Rocco DeLeo, supervisor of Miami Beach's patrol division, said reciprocal agreements with other law enforcement agencies have never been seriously considered because they wouldn't be feasible and they aren't necessary. "I can't afford to be sending people out of the city," DeLeo protested. "If you have a problem with an accident that an officer has investigated, we look into it. We scrutinize our own a lot more than we do the public. I've reviewed accidents involving officers and I've asked questions I wouldn't even look at if there hadn't been an officer involved." Every on-duty officer who has an accident goes before a police review board, which determines fault and possible penalties, DeLeo added. Off-duty officers involved in wrecks, however, are treated as civilian members of the public.

The Monday following Thanksgiving I found Chapman at the station before he began his shift. The insurance information on the accident report was wrong, I told him. Could he clear it up? He was insured, he emphasized. In fact, someone from the insurance company had just called to come out and look at the Honda. It was a brand-new policy, he explained, and he had handed the wrong card to Officer Sinkes the night of the accident. But, he added, he returned to the station the next day with the correct information. (As of this past Thursday, according to department officials, no changes had been made to the report.) After making a phone call, Chapman gave me the name and number of a local insurance agency, First Insurance Group, and he urged me to call him if I had any more problems.

That encounter was only the beginning of the problems, but repeated efforts to contact Chapman again were fruitless. The agent at First Insurance, Martha, informed me that Chapman was named on a new policy held by Carmen Lopez and that the accident had been reported to Lopez's insurance company a few days earlier. The policy was so new, in fact, that a policy number had yet to be assigned. The number Chapman had provided for the accident report was a binder number, a guarantee of coverage. She advised me to call the company, U.S. Security.

So eleven days after the wreck, it was back to U.S. Security for another dose of frustration. No policy number, no possibility of processing a claim, regardless of the fact that Chapman said he'd already been contacted by the company about his Honda. Assigning a policy number could take more than two weeks.

After many more calls, I finally reached the president of U.S. Security's parent company, whose first reaction was one of suspicion. "This doesn't look right," said Roberto Espin. Information about a new policy should be in company computers within a couple of days, not weeks. "This is done precisely to prevent what I don't even want to think is happening here A to avoid incidents where the insured goes to the agent and pays, and the agent just keeps the money and does not inform the company.

At last U.S. Security's underwriting supervisor interceded and laid to rest any suspicions: she provided the coveted policy number and began the claim process. She also provided an excuse for the confusion and delay, that most popular of code words for all that runs amok these days in South Florida: Hurricane Andrew.

My Sentra, not surprisingly, was eventually declared a total loss, an obvious judgment twenty days in coming. The insurance company then appraised the value of the car (before Chapman smashed it) and agreed to pay off what I still owed on it. The remaining money, about $700 is supposed to come to me directly.

I'm still waiting for reimbursement for my rental car (nearly $800). And I'm still waiting for Officer Chapman to return repeated messages so that he might respond to many unanswered questions.

In the meantime, I've bought A or rather agreed to go into debt again on A a new model of the same car. This one is gray, reflecting our more cautious mood. Not long ago a tow truck came and hauled away the remains of our red Sentra as we watched from our window.

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