Loose Lips

Crash Course

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 10.11.10 AMTwenty-year-old Arnell Robinson andMetropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Pepperman started on opposite ends of the 400 block of O Street NW on the afternoon of March 6, 2009. Robinson rode an unregistered motorbike; Pepperman, on his way to sign warrants at the courthouse, drove an unmarked police Ford Taurus. Only one of them would make it out of the encounter alive.

Robinson, headed the wrong way down the block with two other friends on off-road motorbikes, hit a speed bump as he passed Pepperman and attempted a U-turn. Though the officer stopped his car to make room for the bikers to go by him on both sides of the street, Robinson flew off his bike and into a parked car. His bike came to rest under Pepperman’s car.

Robinson, who had hoped to become a firefighter one day, died of a severed aorta at Howard University Hospital six hours later. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Pepperman after looking into Robinson’s death. A crash review panel investigating his death ruled that Robinson’s death was an unavoidable accident.

Except, with the exception of Robinson’s death and the crash board ruling, there’s evidence that suggests that much of that didn’t happen. There were no cars on one side of the street to make for a tighter passage between the police car and Robinson’s bike, according to video evidence in a lawsuit. Robinson wasn’t going the wrong way down a one-way street—he was on a two-way street, the video shows. Most worryingly of all, the other officer in the car and witnesses on the street would later claim that Pepperman struck Robinson deliberately, court papers indicate.

Newly public documents in a wrongful death suit between Robinson’s mother and the District government paint a different picture than the one approved by MPD’s crash board. It’s one in which MPD brass worry about interference from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the crash review board acts on incomplete information.

Pepperman didn’t respond to a request for comment about the case. MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump referred questions to the District’s Office of the Attorney General, which declined to comment on the case.

Five years after Robinson’s death, the most explosive question in the accident is whether Pepperman swerved his car to hit Robinson deliberately. Hours after the crash, MPD Officer Gina Leveque, who had been in the passenger’s seat of Pepperman’s car, told a crash investigator that her own account of the crash would differ from Pepperman’s. “He did that on purpose,” Leveque told the investigator.

Four days later, she recanted the statement in another interview, chalking it up to the emotion of seeing Robinson’s crash. By then, the interview prompted one investigator to write that it was “nothing more than a traffic collision.”

“I guess I just wanted to point the finger, I guess,” Leveque said. “I don’t know. I was just really, really upset.”
But Leveque wasn’t the only person to say Pepperman had deliberately crashed into Robinson. Witnesses who had been standing near the crash site provided statements referenced in the legal battle saying that Pepperman sped up his vehicles and swerved into Robinson’s lane.

“The officer sped up as he swerved into Mr. Robinson’s lane of traffic,” witness Adam Wilson said in a statement for the plaintiff. “He did not slow down. The police car crashed into Mr. Robinson’s motorcycle head-on, and Mr. Robinson’s body hit the right-front of the police car and went flying over the hood.”

Why would a cop deliberately strike a teenager who hadn’t committed a crime beyond driving a motorcycle that wasn’t street legal? David L. Shurtz, the attorney for Robinson’s mother, has a theory—and a separate class-action lawsuit on behalf of eight motorbikers to go with it. In Shurtz’s telling, District cops, frustrated by their inability to catch stunt-loving youths breaking traffic laws, have taken to just striking them with their cars.

In fact, the area around Dunbar High School where Robinson crashed was the site of mischief from the subculture Shurtz calls “the biker boys.” Fifty minutes before Robinson’s ride down O Street, the principal of nearby Scott Montgomery Elementary called police to complain about motorbikers riding on a field near his school.

Even if you don’t believe Shurtz’s theory that District cops are using their cars as weapons to fight stunt bikers (and again, Pepperman has never been charged in the crash), the initial MPD investigation and review of the crash was filled with holes and miscommunications.

The trouble started almost immediately after the crash, when Major Crash Investigations Unit detective Sheryl Harley arrived on the scene. Harley ran into enough interference in her investigation from other MPD employees that she felt the need to send an email the day after the investigation to MPD Assistant Chief Patrick Burke and other brass saying that she would do her investigation with the help of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“The case will be conducted in the standard fashion that all cases are handled and reviewed by the United States Attorney’s Office in regards to any fatal crash,” Harley wrote in the email she claimed was meant to “prevent any misunderstandings.”

Harley’s email didn’t persuade Michael Anzallo, the assistant chief in charge of Internal Affairs, which wanted its Force Investigation Team to conduct its own investigation over Harley’s objections. Anzallo worried in an email, which like Harley’s email LL obtained through Shurtz’s discovery process, to other MPD officials why the U.S. Attorney’s Office was getting involved in the case.

“Not sure why US Attorney is invovled [sic] so early unless subpeonas [sic] are needed,” Anzallo wrote two other MPD officials. “I thought we did investigations to bring evidence to US Attorney. Not the US attorney investigate for us. Not out [sic] shops but W0W.”

The eventual report produced by the Internal Affairs division cleared Pepperman, as did the crash review board. It wasn’t the first time his driving record had been scrutinized before the crash: Between 2006 and the crash in 2009, he had been cited for two other accidents, according to a letter sent to him by MPD’s human resources department.

But discrepancies continued to exist between different official versions of the story. Some reports, including the traffic report created the day of the crash and an email summary of the incident from Anzallo to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, don’t mention Robinson’s body colliding with Pepperman’s car, but the car’s headlight had broken glass that one investigator described as consistent with cuts on Robinson’s knee.

Surveillance footage taken from a police camera of 5th and O streets raises other questions about the crash panel’s decision. While the MPD official in charge of the crash review panel said in a deposition that he wasn’t sure whether Pepperman and Robinson were on a one-way street, the video shows that the block has two-way traffic.

And though a police report after the crash described parked cars on either side of Robinson and Pepperman’s encounter—something that would make a crash in close quarters more understandable—the camera’s last image of the street, taken less than two minutes before the crash, showed that the crash occurred on a long stretch of road with almost no parked cars on one side.

Interestingly, though, James O. Crane, the MPD commander in charge of the crash unit, didn’t know whether the investigator ever saw the footage from the police camera. Similarly, there’s no record of the panel hearing Leveque’s initial statement that Pepperman caused the crash deliberately, even though Crane conceded in a deposition that Leveque’s statement was significant.

All that remains of Robinson’s crash is a lawsuit working its way through and questions about whether the city will agree to a settlement. While Robinson’s mother waits for answers, though, one part of the District government has embraced her son. In 2013, Mayor Vince Gray held a ribbon-cutting for a D.C. National Guard academy meant to help at-risk youth that Robinson had graduated from two years. Behind Gray, organizers set up a life-size picture of Robinson in uniform as an example of the model student.

“You’d be better off flipping a coin than coming up with the result that they did,” Shurtz says. “So it’s inconceivable that this investigation was done in good faith."

Comments

  1. #1

    The word is out that at that time Third District Police Commander George Kucik covered up the accident in a police report.

  2. #2

    Word is also out that the citizens of DC are sick and tired of these marauding bandits on these illegal bikes, 99% of them are unlicensed or stolen riding in and out of traffic, violating numerous traffic laws. What we have hear is another DC ambulance chaser -AKA- Attorney and a family attempting to gain financial wealth off the misconduct of a child as a result of his actions causing his own demised and of course as usual the cash cow DC will settle which the Ambulance chasing lawyer already know, Ka ching, Ka ching and the beat goes on.

  3. #3

    So, some guy riding illegally on the street gets killed and his family thinks they should get paid? Same idiocy that thinks a burglar or other crook who gets injured or killed while committing a crime or other stupidity should get paid as well? Please.

    Maybe DC needs to pass a law that if you're riding in an unlicensed, illegal vehicle (here's looking at you, SE knuckleheads riding off-road vehicles on city streets at high rates of speed), you are automatically at fault in ANY accident?

  4. #4

    What the Mayor needs to understand is that our youth has an interest in dirtbike riding.

    Why not build a park/indoor riding park so that kids can take their bikes to a control enviornment where people can ride casually.

    Instead they are going to crack down and either arrest the kids or ban them from riding, which will not solve the issue either.

    RIP to the person who died in this fatal crash. We need solutions not finger pointing.

  5. #5

    I'm sorry for the young man, but in DC, Maryland and Virginia, the rule is if a plaintiff contributed to the crash at all, he cannot win a tort case. Here he was driving illegally the wrong way against traffic, which shows he was partially responsible. Thus, he will not recover.

  6. #6

    It doesn't matter if the kid was riding illegally if the cop ILLEGALLY and intentionally tried to run him over. The cop was committing a crime. I hate the rogue dirtbikers as much as anyone oelse, but I think it is even more dangerous to have cops riding around thinking it is OK to run people down with their cars. I hope the family gets paid!!

  7. #7

    I'm really worried about the attitude that riding an illegal dirtbike somehow merits an extrajudicial execution. Yeah, the dirtbikers are obnoxious little jerks, but that's not a death penalty offense -- if it were, nobody would ever live to their 21st birthday!

  8. #8

    @ROB-IT IS A 2 WAY STREET AND POLICE OFFICERS BEEN DOING THIS FOR YEARS. WHEN I GREW UP IT WAS MINI BIKES AND THEY WOULD KNOCK US OFF WITH THEIR CARS AND TAKE BIKE TO THEIR HOMES IN SOUTHERN PG COUNTY.

    WE WERE LUCKY THEY DIDN'T ARREST US AND CHALKED UP SCRAPED KNEES, ELBOWS AND HURT FEELINGS TO THE GAME!

    @TYP-I GREW UP IN N.W. ACTUALLY 2 BLOCKS FROM WHERE THIS HAPPENED. IT IS NOT ENDEMIC TO S.E.!

    PAY HIS MOM AND LOCK HIS ASS UP!

  9. #9

    @ cminus, yeah, there are a lot of creeps commenting on this article. If that cop did it intentionally it would be second degree murder and he would deserve to pay the penalty for that.

  10. #10

    Just wanted to clarify--I'm talking about the lawsuit for the accident, not any criminal proceeding. If there is enough for a charge against the police officer, that is an intentional tort, not one of negligence. But DC has one of the worst rules ever on negligence--Contributory Negligence. If the plaintiff did anything to cause the accident, he cannot recover. Most other jurisdictions have comparative negligence, where the award is modified based on how much the plaintiff's actions caused the accident.

    Finally, I want to clarify the illegal act I'm talking about. I'm not talking about riding an illegal motorcycle without a license. I'm talking about driving the wrong way, which is what everyone apparently stipulates to, even the young man's lawyer. Just riding a motorcycle without a license doesn't contribute to the accident. Riding the wrong way down the street does. So, if this case is proceeding on a negligence theory, it has a slim chance of winning.

  11. #11

    @ROB-LOVE THE WAY YOU SPRUCED IT UP! I HEAR YA BUT THE COP WAS WRONG AND SHOULD BE LOCKED UP. SLIM A SPEED BUMP ON A STREET THAT I'M SURE HE HAS RIDDEN ON NUMEROUS TIMES CAUSED HIM TO GO HEAD FIRST INTO PARKED VEHICLE? YEAH RIGHT!!!

    I'VE SEEN THEM RIDE ON FIELDS, RUN LIGHTS AFTER THEY DEEMED INTERSECTION SAFE TO CROSS BUT NEVER HAVE I SEEN THEM RIDE DOWN A HEAVILY USED ONE WAY AND/OR TWO WAY STREET ON THE WRONG SIDE. IT DOESN'T MAKE SINCE BECAUSE THE LAST THING THEY WANT TO DO IS GET KILLED.

    THEY ARE TRYING TO SAVE THE DEPARTMENT AND COP FROM GETTING THEIR ASS HANDED TO THEM. THIS IS NOTHING MORE THAN A COVER UP.

    PAY THE MOM ASAP!!!
    LOCK HIS ASS UP.
    THE OFFICER WHO CHANGED HER STORY SHOULD BE REPRIMANDED AS WELL BECAUSE SHE SHOULDN'T HAVE CHANGED HER STORY.

  12. #12

    A point of clarification. The author apparently, in an effort to be fair to the police and to create a sense of suspense wrote "Robinson, headed the wrong way down the block". Then comes the next paragraph. And the paragraph after that follows the refutation that it is actually a two way street. MPD's Pepperman hit Robinson head on in Robinson's lane of travel on a two way street. But you don't read it that way if you just read the 2nd para. of the article alone by itself. In an effort to clarify the facts, the deposition statement of the officer writing the police report is helpful.

    The real point of the one way vs. two way fact is that the officer, Sgt. Chumbley, who wrote the police report knew it was a two way street when he drew it as a one way street. Here is his portion of the deposition as it appears in the record where he knew it was two ways but wrote it as a one way street.

    7 Q. Do you know if the 400 block of O Street
    8 is one way or two way?
    9 A. It's two ways.
    10 Q. And how do you know that?
    11 A. Because it's a two-way street.
    12 Q. But how do you know that it's a two-way
    13 street?
    14 A. Because I've been to the 400 block of
    15 O Street.
    16 Q. Okay. Let's take a look at -- where's
    17 my PD 10?
    18 Okay. Would you look on the narrative
    19 diagram?
    20 MS. DeMARCO: What's the exhibit number,
    21 Counsel?
    22 MR. SHURTZ: It's Number 8.
    171
    1 BY MR. SHURTZ:
    2 Q. Did you draw that diagram?
    3 A. Yes.
    4 Q. And isn't it true that there are five
    5 arrows pointed east?
    6 A. That's correct.
    7 Q. And isn't it true that when you have an
    8 arrow pointed that way, it's usually the front of the
    9 car?
    10 A. That's correct.
    11 Q. And doesn't this then indicate that you
    12 wrote (the police report) a one-way street?
    13 A. It does

    If you've been knocked off a bike by a cop, call me at (202) 617-9141. David Shurtz

  13. #13

    Shurtz taking ambulance chassing to a new low. Scumbag

  14. #14

    At what point do we as a society quit accepting and awarding illegal behavior? There is no amount of spin that will justify the fact that what caused and perhaps led to this young man's untimely death was the fact that he was operating an illegal vehicle on a city street.

    I am in N-O way supporting the actions of the officer, but when and where do we draw the line? The law is the law. If we do not like this law, we do have recourse. The truth of the matter is some of our young folk, and older ones too, I might add, are out of control. We need to quit blaming E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E, and lay the blame squarely where it needs to be! And just in case you might be at a lost, that blame, as the late Michael Jackson stated is "The Man Woman) In The Mirror."

  15. #15

    If the police officer lied in his report about the one-way street -- which is easy to check by Google -- then they are done.

    Pay the mom, it is the only right thing to do. I only wish it could bring the boy back.

  16. #16

    Can someone explain to me how the officer knew the bike the young man was riding was illegal without pulling him over and inspecting the bike?

    There are SEVERAL dirt bikes and adventure bikes on the market that are street legal (i.e. turn signals, break lights, headlights installed, etc), that appear very similar to their non-street legal counterparts.

    And take this from an experienced, and licensed, motorcycle rider who has been on riding on DMV streets for 7 years. I have seen MPD, and other local cops, take extreme (and illegal) tactics to pull over bikers. For example instead of turning on their lights and sirens cops have been known to swerve in front of bike and slam on the breaks to box them in. So if the biker crashes or runs into the cops bumper they immediately get ticketed (or go to jail) when a simple flash of the sirens and lights could have worked just as well.

  17. #17

    After reading some of these comments. It makes wonder if people even read the whole article. It was kind of long. I'm just saying illegal bike riding or not, does not give anyone the right to kill a rider or cause him/harm harm in any way. I know for sure the if you are doing an investigation after the fact. It is not hard to figure out if a street is one or two way. Discrepancies in reporting, recanting first hand accounts
    To many questionable actions by DC finest....but since this boy was riding illegally, he deserved it? That frame of thought is the reason the world (DC) is so @#$%&¥ up.

  18. #18

    Just to be clear, It was my understanding that the young man in question was riding his motorbike in the lane for oncoming traffic on a two-way street. That is what my legal analysis of the negligence case is based upon.

  19. #19

    To Rob W: Just to be clear Rob W, Arnell Robinson was driving in his correct lane of westbound traffic on the 400 block of O Street the entire distance of O Street prior to the collision on this two way street. This has been verified by a video specialist who is the video consultant for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Grant Fredericks. Pepperman was heading eastbound on the 400 block of O Street. Pepperman swerved out of his eastbound lane of travel into Robinson's westbound lane of traffic. Pepperman claimed that there were cars on both sides of his vehicle on a narrow street. Notwithstanding this false statement, there were no cars parked on the south side of O Street next to Pepperman's vehicle. As a result of Pepperman swerving into Robinson's lane of travel, Pepperman hit Robinson head on severing Robinson's aorta. Pepperman did not honk before the collision according to his deposition but laughed/giggled before the collision according to Officer Leveque. There was no valid reason for Pepperman to drive out of his lane of travel. Had he remained in his lane of travel, the collision would not have occurred. The reason that this case is so strong is that the facts are clear and provable.

  20. #20

    Its unlawful stuff like this that happens all the time and no punishment is served .

  21. #21

    Hey out-of-town clowns: that stretch of O St NW is TWO WAY traffic! Stop shooting your mouths off about stuff you know nothing about. It's fairly damn wide too. Seems to me like a big bad DC cop with proper training should know how to avoid collisions.
    Another MPD cover up. A huge police force that looks after the interests of the city's elite, never its vulnerable.

  22. #22

    A bunch of you seem damn close to gleeful about a cop killing a teenager on a motorbike. What on earth is wrong with you?

    "I'm not saying that..."

    "I'm just talking about the legal aspects..."

    "Well, ya know those kids are kinds scary..."

    So let's have cops KILL THEM?

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