No Criminal Charges In Teens' Light-rail Deaths In July

August 08, 2009|By Nick Madigan and Michael Dresser | Nick Madigan and Michael Dresser,nick.madigan@baltsun.com and michael.dresser@baltsun.com

An investigation into the deaths of two 17-year-old boys who were killed last month by a light-rail train has found "no criminal wrongdoing" on the part of the train's operator, Baltimore County police said Friday.

The deaths of Jarrett C. Peterson and Kyle Wankmiller, who were struck July 5 as they walked on tracks near the Lutherville train station, resulted from an "unfortunate accident," Cpl. Michael Hill, a police spokesman, told reporters in Towson.

No charges will be lodged against the train's operator, who told investigators that he did not see the two boys ahead of him on the track, even though a lawyer for their families said a videotape taken from the train shows the teenagers there.

Hill said there was "no evidence that pointed" to the train driver talking on a cell phone or texting at the time of the accident. Investigators in Chatsworth, Calif., determined a train operator was sending and receiving text messages seconds before an accident there in September that killed 25 people and injured 135.

Investigators looking into the two deaths in Lutherville took a blood sample from the train's driver to see whether he was intoxicated. But the sample was not drawn until about 16 hours after the accident, Hill said, and rendered results that were "insignificant as to the investigation."

Hill said the Baltimore County state's attorney's office "agreed with our conclusion" that no charges were warranted in the case. That conclusion was relayed Friday morning to relatives of the two boys.

"They received it and understand," Hill said, referring to the family members.

Amy Wankmiller, Kyle's mother, expressed concern shortly after the accident that the Maryland Transit Administration police would protect agency employees who were involved in the accident. In response, MTA Administrator Paul J. Wiedefeld asked the Baltimore County Police Department to take over the investigation.

"The MTA as a whole is clearly responsible for these deaths," said Jay Miller, a lawyer who represents Kyle's mother and Connor's father and sister. Miller said Friday that he has notified the MTA that he intends to bring a civil action against the agency.

Miller said police had briefed him earlier on the investigation's findings and that there appeared to be evidence of negligence on the part of the train's driver. But it did not amount to the "willful, wanton disregard for human life" that would be required for a criminal conviction, he said.

"We are disappointed that they're not prosecuting anyone criminally, but we are satisfied with Baltimore County's investigation because it's a conclusion they almost had to reach," he said.

Hill's remarks to the news media did not include any mention of negligence, and he did not respond later in the day to a request for comment on Miller's assertions.

According to Miller, the probe called into question the conduct of two operators - the one whose train struck the boys and another who saw them trespassing and sounded his horn at them but failed to report them to the rail's operations center.

Miller said police investigators could not clarify why the operator of the train that struck the boys did not see them, either before or upon impact.

"The operator of the train that struck them never looked up and can't give a valid explanation as to why," he said.

Miller said drug and alcohol tests on the operators came up clean and no evidence of cell phone use was found. He said investigators came up with no medical explanation for any lapse of attention on the part of the operator whose train hit the boys.

According to the lawyer, who said he was permitted to watch a video taken by a camera mounted on the train, the boys were clearly visible walking - their backs to the train - on tracks usually used by southbound trains. The light rail system was operating on a single track at the time because of an earlier act of vandalism affecting the northbound tracks.

Miller said investigators found that the boys had been walking on the northbound tracks but crossed over after seeing a southbound train pass. He said they apparently assumed they would be able to see and get out of the way of any approaching train.

According to Miller, the video shows the operator would have had plenty of time to stop the train had he been paying attention. He said the operator apparently did not notice the impact, which tripped a circuit-breaker that brought the train to a halt about 60 yards up the line.

Miller said the operator dismounted and did a "cursory" inspection of the train. He then flipped a switch to resume operations but did not inspect the track behind him, the lawyer said.

Miller said his theory is that the deaths were the result of "negligent inattentiveness," a byproduct of repeated runs without incident. "You sort of get complacent and think it's OK to take your eyes off the track," he said.

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