By Jim Smith
Devin Petelski had just finished her shift at a detox center near Costco. At 11:45 pm on Oct. 15, she pulled up to a stop sign at Glyndon and Venice Blvd and began a right turn onto Venice. She never saw the angel of death barreling toward her in the form of an LAPD police cruiser.
The car, with two officers, Eldridge and Vasquez inside, was hurtling east on Venice Blvd. at about 60 miles per hour, according to witnesses, with no headlights, flashing lights or siren.
There have been different explanations of the officers’ behavior from police. The day after the accident Lt. Paula Kreefft, a watch commander at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Pacific Division said the officers were not on a pursuit or responding to a call for service.
However, when contacted by the Beachhead, LAPD Detective Jesus Ravega said Eldridge (the driver) and Vasquez were responding to a backup call. However, he didn’t know if they had time to radio in their intention to respond.
Driving without lights is called “silent running,” a military term for stealthy cruising. Many Venice residents are familiar with this tactic of LAPD cars roaming on the streets of Oakwood and elsewhere. While silent running can be dangerous at any speed, it is foolhardy to drive at highway speeds on our streets without any lights. This time, it resulted in the death of an innocent.
The Los Angeles Police Department patrol car was headed east on Venice Blvd. According to a family friend, Christopher Medak, two witnesses saw the car turn off its lights and accelerate when it turned onto Venice.
They and two more witnesses saw the cruiser ram the side of Petelski’s BMW. Her car was spun completely around. She didn’t die until the next day, but was unconscious from this point.
The impact also threw the police car into a tree by the side of the road. Both officers were taken to the hospital where they were treated for minor injuries and released. An Emergency Medical Technician, who happened to be driving east on Venice behind the police car, rushed to give first aid to Petelski, who was beyond saving. He was one of the witnesses who saw the police car speeding without lights.
It took paramedics 15 minutes to respond to the 911 call, even though they were only blocks away. However, within moments, says Medak, between eight and 14 patrol cars arrived on the scene. Residents had heard a loud crash and began pouring out of the apartment buildings that line this part of Venice Blvd. Police declared the crash to be a crime scene and told residents to go back inside. Some protested and continued their photographing and observation. Detective Ravega said it was standard practice for police to converge on the scene if an officer has an accident.
Devin Petelski was in the prime of life. She had lived in Mandeville Canyon and in Brentwood most of her life. She went to good schools including Crossroads, Northwestern University and UC Santa Barbara. In her 25 years of life, her middle class upbringing had enabled her to travel the world and develop friendships with hundreds of people. She was not the typical person who runs afoul of the LAPD.
It will be impossible for the LAPD to claim she was a gang member or a homeless person as they often do without evidence. Already, anonymous comments have appeared on the internet alleging that she was drunk or ran a stop sign, or both. Neither charge will stand up. She had just moments earlier finished working at the Clearview Treatment Center, a detox facility down the street. She had been an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past two years. As to running the stop sign at Glyndon, her family and friends have been active in lining up witnesses, including some who noticed that she had stopped before pulling out onto Venice.
There is a police investigation examining the incident. It will take two or three more weeks to conclude, said Ravega. He did not know whether there will be a separate Internal Affairs or Pacific Division investigation into the conduct of the officers. Ravega told the Beachhead he didn’t think there was any wrongdoing. He believes the officers are continuing to perform their usual duties. One wonders what would have been the police response if someone else had been speeding without lights and hit and severely injured or killed someone? Would not he or she have been arrested on the spot? Obviously, there seems to be a double standard.
This is not a death that the LAPD can brush aside. Petelski’s family has hired Mark Geragos, a celebrity lawyer, who has represented Michael Jackson, actress Winona Ryder, politician Gary Condit, Susan McDougal, who was involved in the Whitewater scandal, and Scott Peterson. He has also been a frequent guest on the Today show, Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, and on the Larry King show. Interestingly, he is a criminal attorney, who likely will be after more than civil damages.
No matter what the outcome of the lawsuit, the policy that allows silent running must be stopped. Even if silent running helps nab drug dealers and petty criminals, it is not worth a single life. A better way to enforce the law must be found that does not endanger the public. At the very least, contact L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl at Councilmember.Rosendahl@lacity.org or 213-473-7011 to urge that the LAPD policy that allows silent running be ended.
It would be nice to be able to love the police for all the good things they do. But the constant misuse or overuse of the powers that have been granted them by the public they are sworn to protect, call for other emotions: anger and sadness for their victims.
On Oct. 23, hundreds of friends of Devin Petelski turned out for a memorial service at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Many more have written condolences to the family including on Facebook. There has been no expression of sympathy from the LAPD, says Medak.
On Oct. 24, the LAPD dedicated the most expensive police headquarters in history, in spite of record budget deficits in Los Angeles. It cost $400 million and is already filled to capacity. The building, with two small exceptions, will be off limits to the public. If there were any justice in this city, it would be named the Devin Petelski Center, or after any of the other countless victims of police malfeasance.