2006-09-01 / Front Page
Rinehart says CHP report of '94 crash is inaccurate
Former Simi Valley police officer Rick Rinehart says he was going "nowhere near" 67 mph at the time of his 1994 collision with Margaret "Peggy" Spahr's car outside the Los Angeles Avenue Metrolink Station, despite an investigation by the California Highway Patrol's Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team at the time which determined exactly that.
The crash, which left Spahr, who was not wearing a seat belt at the time, in a coma, was investigated by the Simi Valley Police Department and the CHP.
Both independent reports concluded the primary reason for the crash was Spahr's having illegally pulled out in front of the officer. The CHP also put Rinehart's pre-impact speed at 67 mph, which would mean the officer was traveling at 22 mph over the posted speed limit on Los Angeles Avenue. It's this estimation that is contained in the final police report, and it's this estimation, the former officer said, that has been troubling him for the past 12 years.
Rinehart, who retired from law enforcement in 2001 because of persistent back and wrist injuries related to the crash, is now coming forward to say those MAIT estimations are "flat out wrong."
"I wasn't speeding," he said. "Not unless speeding is going 50 mph in a 45."
Rinehart, who served for 20 years with the Simi Valley Police Department and now makes his home in the Antelope Valley, said he decided to end his decade-long silence on the issue after hearing about the Acorn's Aug. 11 story on the long-comatose Spahr's death.
In that article, Lt. John McGinty reported from the department's file on the case, a file which still puts Rinehart's speed at 67 mph.
Rinehart said that number was determined mathematically by MAIT based upon a 1 to 2 second braking estimation included in the initial police report written by Officer Brian Chandler. In that report, Chandler, who interviewed Rinehart, writes that Rinehart "estimated that he braked for approximately 1 to 2 seconds prior to impact."
Rinehart contends he never said that.
"I never made that statement. It's an erroneous, false statement in a police report," Rinehart said. "Just check the tape recording of the interview."
Rinehart said it was actually his lawyer, Sylvia Kellison, who gave Chandler the estimation that made it into the police report. As proof, he provided the Acorn a copy of a letter written to SVPD Sgt. Jeff Malgren by Kellison-dated May 10, 1994-stating "At no time did my client ever state in his interview to me or any one else that he braked for 1 to 2 seconds."
Yet, said Rinehart, it was that estimation which was used by MAIT for its speed calculations, which in turn made him out to be "rogue, speeding officer rushing out to join in a pursuit."
"Now I'm the bad guy," Rinehart said. "I feel horrible for what happened to Ms. Spahr, but I wasn't speeding. . . . The only way I was going to avoid her was not coming into work that day."
Rinehart insists his braking time was more like a quarter second to a half a second, numbers that would have put his speed under 50 mph.
"I don't blame the CHP, I blame the police department for not coming forward and telling the public that, 'Wait a minute, we made an error.' It's a political move. They'd rather hang an officer out to dry than tell the truth and say they made an error," Rinehart said.
McGinty would not respond to Rinehart's accusations, instead referring to the final police reports.
"According to the MAIT report, he was going 67 mph. If (Rinehart) has a different take on it, that's fine. I'm just giving what's in the report," he said.
Questioned about the 1 to 2 second braking time and the letter from Rinehart's lawyer, McGinty said, "This is the final report. Anything submitted would have been taken into account."
According to McGinty, this is a case Rinehart ought to be taking up with the CHP and the MAIT team, because they determined his rate of speed, not the Simi department. In fact, a SVPD collision review board made up of three officers cleared Rinehart of any wrong-doing in May 1994, calling the accident "nonpreventable" and calling into question "the estimated braking time" included in the CHP report.
A memorandum of that board's findings states: "The opinion of the board is that the estimated braking time of Officer Rinehart most likely included his reaction time as well as elapsed time during impact with other vehicle."
Rinehart also points to the fact that none of the six eyewitnesses to the crash ever put his speed at any higher than 50 mph.
"Even a kid can tell if a person is speeding," he said.
When asked why he waited 12 years to come forward to defend himself and his actions that day, Rinehart, who still has family and many friends in Simi, said that was a complicated issue.
"At the time I was still working with (SVPD) and the city was still handling a lawsuit. I was advised by legal counsel to keep my mouth shut," Rinehart said. "I had to sit there while I was taking a pretty bad beating in the press in the same city I dedicated my life to serve. It wasn't easy, but life went on."
After reading the recent article in the Acorn, though, Rinehart said he felt the time had come to "set the record straight."
"I feel very bad for what happened, and for Ms. Spahr's family and children, but I'm not going to go my entire life feeling guilty about a situation where I feel I did nothing wrong," he said. "It was Ms. Spahr who failed to stop at the stop sign. It was Ms. Spahr who was not wearing a seatbelt. It was Ms. Spahr who pulled out in front on an oncoming car doing the speed limit and she paid for it. It was a horrible mistake, but to blame me isn't right."