Mta Hands Over Control Of Probe

Mother Had Questioned Agency's Objectivity In Light Rail Accident That Killed Two Teens

July 09, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Shortly after the mother of one of the boys killed in Sunday's light rail accident questioned the objectivity of Maryland Transit Administration police, the agency's top official moved Wednesday to have Baltimore County police take the lead in the investigation.

MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld said he has full confidence in his agency's police department but was taking the step "out of respect for the family."

Amy Wankmiller, mother of Kyle Wankmiller, 17, had expressed concern that the MTA Police would protect agency employees involved in the accident near the Lutherville station.

"The whole thing stinks, and I really belive the MTA is trying to cover up something," she said.

She was also upset about erroneous information that the agency had given out since the incident. She pointed to a mix-up over which boy died Sunday and which died Monday - information that had been provided by the MTA.

Connor Peterson, 17, died Sunday at St. Joseph Medical Center, and Kyle Wankmiller died Monday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, she said. The boys lived in the same Lutherville home with her and Connor's father.

Wankmiller said Tuesday afternoon that she had no confidence in an MTA-run investigation. According to the agency, the boys were walking on the tracks with their backs to a northbound train when they were hit.

When Wiedefeld was told by The Baltimore Sun of the mother's comment, his first reaction was to say that the MTA Police would remain in charge of the investigation. But about 30 minutes later, he called back to say he had reconsidered.

"If that puts her mind at ease, I'm going to do it," he said. He instructed John Gavrilis, acting chief of the MTA Police, to ask the county force to take over the leading role, which includes responsibility for informing the public about the course of the investigation.

"I know our guys are very good at what they do," Wiedefeld said. "It's purely out of respect for the family, and our professionals will continue to work on this case."

County police have worked alongside the MTA Police since shortly after the boys were found about 3:10 p.m. Sunday, but the transit police were the lead investigators because the incident occurred on the light rail line.

Cpl. Michael Hill, a county police spokesman, said Chief James Johnson had agreed to the MTA request and that officers in both departments had begun the transfer of responsibility. He said the county force would be seeking outside help because "we're usually not in the business of dealing with trains."

Reached by phone later in the afternoon, Wankmiller and Connor's father, Gary Peterson, expressed satisfaction with the decision.

"I think it's great. That's what I wanted," Wankmiller said. "If they weren't going to do it, I certainly was going to push for it."

Wankmiller said some details of the incident as reported by the MTA do not ring true.

According to the MTA, video evidence showed that the boys were walking north on the southbound track at a time when the northbound track was out of service because an earlier train had hit a section of guardrail that apparently had been placed on the rails. MTA officials theorized that the boys did not know that the southbound line was being used for two-way operations and might have assumed that the train approaching them from behind was on the other track.

"If that video could capture it, why couldn't the [operator] see them?" Wankmiller asked.

The train believed to have hit the boys did not stop at the point of impact, just south of the Lutherville station, and continued northward. One of the central questions in the investigation is how the train operator could have failed to see the boys or otherwise sense the impact.

"That is the answer I want, but I'm not going to speculate on why or why not," Wiedefeld said. The operator of the train has been removed from duty as the investigation continues.

Even if the operator had seen the boys, Wiedefeld said, it is uncertain whether the train could have stopped before hitting them because the point of impact comes after "a very sharp curve." Trains travel at 40 mph to 45 mph in the area, the MTA has said.

Wankmiller said she doubts other aspects of the MTA account.

"They never walked on the tracks," she said. "They walked on the side of them. They're not that stupid."

She added that the boys' habit of walking along the tracks, which involves trespassing on MTA property, bothered her.

The MTA account of the incident changed abruptly Tuesday after investigators finally gained access to video evidence. Previously, the MTA said the boys had apparently been lying on the tracks, between the rails, when two trains ran over them. The MTA said the only evidence of contact was on the underside of a train that passed about 2:55 p.m. and on another that came through about 3:10 p.m.

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