The Lost Coast Outpost was not alone in being taken aback by a press release issued by the Eureka Police Department Sunday, the day after the horrible car collision that took the life of a 13-year-old boy who was walking across the street.
That press release did several disturbing things at once: While saying that the department was still investigating the case, the writer of the press release released just enough information from a witness to suggest that the boy killed was at fault. It also signaled that the name of the driver would not be released to the public, while at the same time it asked for the public’s sympathy on the driver’s behalf.
These things were disturbing to several family friends of the deceased boy. At the time of the accident, the boy was leaving a birthday party with a number of other kids, all of whom witnessed the accident. According to at least one parent of one of these kids, all present reported that the boy was standing inside a marked crosswalk when he was struck – not outside it, as the release implied.
Several theories of these odd and inconsistent implications – the investigation is still underway, yet the boy was to blame – were put forward to me. The most charitable was that the EPD – like many cops, it was suggested – harbors a strong anti-pedestrian bias: If a kid was hit, it was because the kid didn’t get out of the way. The least charitable interpretation is very dark and sinister: Since the police aren’t going to release the driver’s name, and since they seem so quick to pin blame on the boy, they have to be covering up for someone important — a local politician, say, or another cop.
This morning, the Lost Coast Outpost had a long conversation with Officer Gary Whitmer, head of the EPD’s traffic division. This conversation leads us to believe that neither of these theories are correct, and certainly not the darker one. What appears to be the case is that because this tragedy happened on a weekend, and because it was so important, officers who probably have no business writing press releases ended up writing this press release.
First of all, Whitmer assured the Lost Coast Outpost that the driver’s name would eventually be made public. The officers at the scene made the decision to temporarily withhold the name of the driver – an “older, retired person,” in Whitmer’s words, who was apparently tremendously shaken at the scene – so that he could have a few days to adjust to whatever is coming next.
“This person’s name will eventually come out once we gather more information,” Whitmer said. “It’s just one of those things that the officer chose to do.”
Secondly, Whitmer wished to correct any impression that the investigation has been all but concluded, or that fault had been found. Why did the author or authors of the press release relay only the testimony of one witness, who seems to have seen the accident through a window in a nearby house, rather than the kids who were with the victim at the time? Why say that the boy was not standing in the crosswalk (according to the person in the house) when the boys at the scene say that he was?
Simply because the friends of the boy – the other eyewitnesses – had not been interviewed at the time the release was issued. The scene of the accident was filled with rescue personnel and shocked kids, and the cops’ first job was to deal with the emergency and secure physical evidence. The department is in the process of interviewing the other kids now.
“We don’t know whether he was in the crosswalk or not,” Whitmer said. “There’s just a lot more to be done.”
But he said that no evidence has been found that would suggest that either the victim or the driver was in any way negligent. There were no indications of drug or alcohol use on either side. The driver was not speeding. Whitmer wished to underline that to whatever degree the press release suggested that the boy was at fault, that suggestion was wrong.
“By far, that is not the case,” he said. “That is not the case at all.”
So more information should be forthcoming soon. In the meanwhile, it does appear that that the selective release of information Sunday — along with some ill-timed safety tips aimed at pedestrians, in the same breath — left the wrong impression of what the EPD is up to with this case. So it would appear.
In the meanwhile, everyone we spoke to yesterday emphasized that the deceased was a really special kid – a great athlete, but also, most notably, a truly off-the-charts student of mathematics and science. Anthony Kahn, who also spoke with Kaci Poor for this morning’s good Times-Standard story, told me: “He was headed to a full-ride scholarship at a major university, there is no doubt in my mind.”
UPDATE: The Arcata Eye has named the boy. He is David Pickart-Jain, a student at Jacoby Creek School.