Oh god! The gas tank's in back -- I'm gonna burn to death!
Although the tank had been ruptured, and her ancient car totaled, Sterling, then 41, was not about to become a crispy critter that late afternoon of June 23, 1997.
Instead, over the next two years, she would find herself doing a slow but increasingly intense emotional burn as this seemingly simple traffic accident subsequently revealed layer after layer of corruption, incompetence and bureaucratic impotence in the Tucson Police Department.
While her car was insured at the time of the accident, her policy didn't include uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage. Although an Arizona native, Sterling had been living in California, where the law requires all drivers to carry such insurance. She says she had merely assumed it was part of her policy.
It turned out to be a very expensive mistake. As a result, Sterling's subsequent medical expenses were not covered. More recently, however, the law has been changed to require those who buy auto insurance to sign a waiver when they decline uninsured motorist protection.
Furthermore, Sterling was not aware, as a legislative aide would later inform her, that nearly 60 percent of those behind the wheel on Arizona's streets and highways are without insurance.
And in the end, she would be left with little more than the ashes of her former life and a bitter aftertaste of disgust for the Tucson Police Department, from whom she had initially expected -- quite reasonably, one would think -- a competent follow-up investigation.
While Sterling certainly wasn't expecting a police investigation to produce windfall profits for her, she was assuming she could use the facts of such an impartial investigation in a civil lawsuit against the driver of the truck.
As she was to discover, however, that assumption was dead wrong.
"I have a copy of a magazine article where [TPD] Chief [Richard] Miranda says he wants people to feel that Tucson is a quality place to live. I was born here. And you know something? This is no longer a quality place to live -- as long as we've got Nazis holding down the police force."
Sterling's words are harsh. But they're amplified by a severe critique of TPD's handling of her case, which was recently issued by the City of Tucson's Citizen Police Advisory Review Board (CPARB). In a letter sent to Police Chief Richard Miranda, CPARB states:
"We have difficulty understanding how a simple car accident, where the victim is rear ended, but is able to give the officer at the scene a license number, description of the vehicle she was hit by and a description of the occupants of the car, becomes a complicated case."
And the tale of Sterling's sorry treatment at the hands of "Tucson's finest" seems to highlight these key points, which critics have made in the past:
· The Tucson Police Department appears to be increasingly ineffective and unable to cope with the most mundane tasks commonly assigned to its officers.
· TPD officers, whose morale is chronically low anyway, comprise an emotionally isolated, occasionally self-serving, and therefore potentially dangerous, subgroup in our democratic society.
· A lack of real and effective checks and balances on TPD's personnel, procedures and powers has created a bullying municipal bureaucracy that is borderline ungovernable.
BUT CERTAINLY none of those alarming thoughts had yet occurred to Sterling as she sat, momentarily stunned, behind the wheel of her car during the first few seconds after the accident.
Suddenly, a woman -- whom Sterling says she'd seen driving the truck moments before -- appeared at her driver's-side window.
"I was less than a foot away from her, face to face," Sterling recalls. "But I didn't know who she was. I had no way of knowing who she was."
Nor, at that moment, did she have any way of knowing who the other three people in the truck were. Sterling says she saw another woman, a man and a boy.
The driver asked if she was all right. Sterling said she thought so. Although the Buick's trunk had been popped, Sterling was able to drive it off the road to an adjacent dirt lot, where she got out and inspected the damage.
The car's rear end had been shoved toward the front about 18 inches; Sterling wouldn't discover until later that the gas tank was ruptured. As she inspected the damage, she also noted the license number of the truck, which had followed her over to the lot, and wrote it down.
The truck driver and her female passenger announced they were walking across the street to call police from a convenience store's pay phone. After a few minutes, the male passenger got behind the wheel of the truck, drove it over to the store and picked up the women.
Then they all drove off.
"They fled the scene," Sterling says. Phone records would subsequently reveal the women did not call the police. At Sterling's request, they had placed a call to her mother, who recalls answering the phone but hearing only silence.
A resident of a nearby RV park witnessed the collision and came across the dirt lot where Sterling had beached her Buick. He called the police and Sterling's mother on his cellular phone. The witness also handed her a piece of paper on which he'd written the truck's license number.
A police dispatcher prioritized the man's call to 911 so that, although a patrol car passed the accident site three times, it was about 30 minutes before the dispatcher relayed the call. About an hour after the accident, Officer Joseph Patterson finally stopped and took Sterling's report.
Patterson wouldn't allow her to drive the car home, so she parked it in a nearby police substation lot.
"I won't say he did a bad job," Sterling says of Patterson, "but he didn't get it completely right. In the accident report, he said they fled eastbound on Prince Road, when they'd actually fled westbound. These officers don't listen to what you tell them, or it just doesn't matter to them. They tend to put down what they think they know."
As it turned out, the dispatch delay and the unintentional bit of misinformation were merely minor portents of what was about to unfold for Sterling in the weeks and months ahead.
EXPERIENCING NECK AND shoulder pain, she went to her family physician the following day.
Since the X-rays he'd ordered showed no real damage, he assumed she was suffering from a strain and prescribed the appropriate muscle relaxant. Sterling picked up the bill -- the first of many more to come.
She also picked up her car and drove it home. It was making funny noises. Her mechanic told her it wasn't worth fixing.
"And it was at that point," she says, "that I felt like if I don't do something with this, to find out what it is I'm supposed to do, then I'll probably end up not doing anything at all."
So she called TPD and was told it would take five to seven days for her case to be assigned to a detective for investigation.
It went to Det. Christopher Ilderton.
"I finally got a hold of him," she recalls, "and his attitude was, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, you've been in an accident. Big deal -- you're not dead, you're not seriously injured, so what's your problem?'"
Besides the pain, which wasn't going away, her problem was that she had no car, couldn't afford another one, and her document preparation and delivery business was already beginning to suffer.
Because of the constant pain she was experiencing, she says she was unable to sit at her computer for any length of time; and at any rate, the medication made it difficult for her to concentrate.
The deal she had with a California mortgage company fell apart because she was unable to take documents to the firm's local customers for signing and notarizing.
Sterling, a divorced mother of three teenagers then under age 18, would eventually lose her mobile home on four acres of land and be forced to move into a succession of smaller and cheaper apartments during the next year and a half.
In the meantime, she says, "I'm continuing to get doctor bills here. And if they hit me, their insurance should be covering this. And nothing happened."
Fearing -- rightly, as it turned out -- that Ilderton would put her case on the back burner, Sterling began nosing around herself. She contacted the state Department of Motor Vehicles and gave them the license number of the alleged hit-and-run truck.
DMV officials told her she'd personally have to bring in the police accident report and other paperwork before they could reveal the truck's owner.
"So my daughter drove me down to the DMV office, and they gave me the registered owner's name, Juan Figueroa, and his address. And they said there doesn't appear to be any insurance on the vehicle, and I'm going, great.
"Well, I called Det. Ilderton and I gave him the information, because I didn't know if he had done anything with the case or not. And at the same time, DMV gave me the lien holder on the vehicle as being Arizona Bank."
She called the bank, "and the only thing they would really do is confirm that the address I had was for the registered owner."
Sterling says she passed on the information to Ilderton, and asked him if there were other things she needed to do. He said no, and she recalls his attitude seemed to be that she was "making a big deal out of nothing."
CHANCE HAD DICTATED that Sterling's car was rear-ended; and, oddly, chance once again intervened roughly two weeks after the accident.
By then, her pain had gotten worse.
"It felt like the back of my head was going to blow off," she recalls. "It felt like a real, real strong pressure. It was bad, and the doctor had already started upping the medication. So at that point it wasn't just muscle relaxant, it was muscle relaxants and Tylenol III."
She says some friends asked for help picking out a new apartment, and Sterling, despite her constant pain, agreed to go along.
She soon became tired, however, and when her friends pulled up at a southside complex, she asked to wait in the car while they inspected the apartment.
"They went inside the office," Sterling says, "and when they came back out, they were with the same woman I had seen behind the wheel of the truck, and the same one who had shown up at my driver's side window! It just totally shocked me."
The woman didn't notice her, so Sterling went into the office to do a bit of amateur detective work.
"I asked who had just walked out with my friends, and the clerk told me it was the apartment manager. I asked for her name. 'Oh, that's Patricia Garcia, we call her Patsy.'"
Sterling didn't confront the woman. "She may not have known that I was ever there." But when she got home, she called Ilderton to tell him the news.
"He goes, 'How do you know?' I said she was standing at my driver's side window right after the accident. She was right there, less than a foot away from me. He says, 'Well, we can't take a physical ID more than 48 hours after the accident. You'll have to do a photo ID lineup.' I was like, what? And I still didn't know, at this point, the connections with all this, but I figured, OK, I don't know everything, so maybe he's right."
(In a meeting much later, TPD's Chief Miranda would tell her there is no such 48-hour rule, Sterling says.)
The "connections," as Sterling describes it, were simple and direct. Juan Figueroa, the truck's registered owner, and Patsy Garcia, whom Sterling claims was the driver at the time of the accident, are brother and sister.
They're also the children of Tucson Police Sgt. John Figueroa.
DESPITE HER PERSISTENCE, luck and amateur detective skills, Sterling wouldn't learn of that key fact for some time -- long after, according to TPD records, Sgt. Figueroa had inserted himself into the hit-and-run investigation in which his children were possible suspects.
The records indicate Ilderton went out and interviewed Patsy Garcia, who denied any involvement with the accident.
The records also indicate Sgt. Figueroa called Lt. Terry Rozema, Ilderton's boss in TPD's traffic division, immediately after the interview to complain that his daughter had been treated rudely.
Sgt. Figueroa's action was questionable on several levels, Sterling notes:
· First, since when does the father of a 27-year-old woman call the police -- or any government office, for that matter -- when it's the woman herself who has the bone to pick with officials?
· Second, and more importantly, by interfering in the process, Sgt. Figueroa thoughtlessly tainted the investigators -- indeed, the entire police department -- with the appearance of impropriety and special dealing.
But at this point, that bit of news had yet to reach Sterling.
"It was 11 or 12 weeks after the accident that they finally brought out the photo ID lineup," Sterling recalls. "Det. Ilderton and Sgt. Ed Schlitz came out to my home. And they brought me this scanned, Xeroxed, grainy photo lineup. It was horrible. Plus, there was so much medication in my system I couldn't have picked out my own mom."
Sterling failed to ID Garcia from the hard-to-view photos. A subsequent investigation by Liana Perez, the city's independent police auditor, found that although Ilderton had used a 3-year-old DMV photo of Garcia, there was "no indication that Ilderton intentionally [attempted] to diminish the quality of the lineup."
"And at that point they basically closed the case," Sterling says. "They didn't tell me they did that -- I found out a few weeks later."
In other words, TPD turned off its dim-bulb investigation despite the fact that detectives already knew the registration of the alleged hit-and-run truck had expired and the owner -- a fellow officer's son -- had no insurance at the time of the accident.
It's a fact that undoubtedly brightens the hearts of scofflaws all over this poorly policed town. With 11,000 or so traffic accidents each year in Tucson, the message is clear: If you hit someone, drive off quickly; the chance that TPD will bring you to justice is practically nil.
While the two cops were at her home, Sterling says she took the opportunity to grill them.
"I said, what's the problem here? Come on, I gave you the license plate number of the vehicle, I gave you the description of the vehicle, I gave you a description of the people. What is it that you can't find these people?
"And they said, 'Well, we have better things to do with our time than to look for every one-by-one-and-a-half inch registration sticker on the road.' That one I will remember until the day I die, and Ilderton was the one who said it. Det. Ilderton sat in my living room and told me that. And I'm sitting there thinking, you've got a vehicle out there with no registration, with no insurance, a vehicle that's been involved in a hit-and-run accident with injuries, and you can't find it? I'm going, wait a minute, you're the cops. I thought you could do this stuff.
"Basically they explained that there are so many traffic accidents and they're so short staffed. 'You know, we've got traffic fatalities out there that we have to spend our time on because we're already understaffed, and there are so many like yours.' In other words, I said, my accident was nothing? And they said, 'We have to prioritize.' And I said, so you just prioritized me down to nothing?
"And I was really upset, because I felt they were not even attempting to do this. I couldn't figure out why. And my brain was so befuddled with the drugs that I wasn't doing well at all. I was literally yelling at them in my living room, because I was so frustrated."
Sterling says neither Ilderton nor Schlitz mentioned that day that Juan Figueroa and Patsy Garcia were the children of a police sergeant.
It's a fact of which the two investigators were well aware -- that is, if one can believe the cops' own records.
And, of course, Sterling didn't find out that her case had been closed until a few weeks later, when she called Ilderton, but got another officer instead. He informed her.
HER NEXT MOVE was to file a civil case against Juan Figueroa, the truck's registered owner, in small claims court.
"And using that action, I filed a subpoena to get the police records, figuring, OK, fine, maybe there's something there I can use if this guy fights the case in court."
Among the records she obtained was the detective's log, which lists what investigators have done, as well as dates and times.
"On this log they have TPD Sgt. John Figueroa written in before they ever went and talked to Patricia Garcia," Sterling says. "And I'm thinking, who the heck is this Sgt. John Figueroa? The connection didn't snap for me, because Patricia Garcia and Figueroa are two different last names. My connection was that maybe TPD Sgt. John Figueroa is Juan Figueroa's brother or father or whoever. But I didn't know."
So she paid a visit to Tucson Police Department headquarters, a cold, impersonal fortress of a building at 270 S. Stone Ave.
"I literally pitched a fit in the police department lobby," Sterling says. "Because through this whole detective's log, while there are these little glaring things going on, the one thing they have not done -- ever -- is made contact with the registered owner. They never once made contact to ask him one simple question: If you weren't in charge of your vehicle on this date at this time, who was?"
The worthless Internal Affairs schmuck on lobby duty that day tried to argue with her.
"'Well how do you know they didn't?'" she recalls him asking. "I said I'm assuming it would be important enough that if they had made contact it would be in the log, right? 'Well, probably.' Guess what -- it's not."
BY NOW IT'S four-and-a-half months after her accident. Sterling's little outburst at the cop shop wins her the predictable booby prize -- an audience with Assistant Chief of Police Collier Hill and Lt. Rozema.
It's a typical TPD ploy to let the disgruntled citizen vent to an upper echelon mucky-muck or two. In the end, of course, nothing ever seems to come of such PR sessions. But Sterling isn't yet entirely wise to the ways of this self-serving boy's club, although she does have an inkling:
"I'm still in massive amounts of pain and I'm taking medication to the point where I can't drive," she says. "So my daughter and my mom are pretty much having to drive me everywhere. I take them to the meeting, because I know if I go in by myself, they're gonna try to say this or that or the other did or did not happen, and I want somebody else there as a witness."
Sterling describes Hill as "absolutely arrogant in his behavior, he's got this why-am-I-bothering-him attitude. Rozema is just bluntly rude.
"Rozema says, 'Look, we finally did make contact with the registered owner. He says he bought the vehicle, but he's not really the owner, that it's just in his name because he bought the vehicle for a friend who couldn't afford to buy it for himself.'
"OK, this man bought a $20,000 vehicle for a friend?" she says. "I want a friend like this really bad. Rozema goes, 'Well, he says that he doesn't know where his friend lives.' And I'm thinking, I can't believe this crap!
"And he kept talking and talking, and I finally blurt out, Does it ever dawn on you that he's lying? Rozema says, 'We know that he's not telling the truth, but we can't make him do anything. We can't compel him to tell us the truth.' And I'm just sitting there incredulous. I can't believe this is happening. This is a nightmare that I can't wake up from.
"And Rozema's whole attitude is that I should be thankful that TPD is doing what they're doing."
Which, as any fool not wearing a shiny tin badge can see, is precisely nothing.
Sterling says Hill and Rozema finally get down to the idea that they're going to try to interview this "friend," someone supposedly named James Estrada, for whom Juan Figueroa had reportedly bought the truck. For some reason, detectives just hadn't been able to do that yet.
Roughly two weeks later, according to police records, Sgt. Schlitz is sent out to Juan Figueroa's house. And get this:
TPD's crack investigators know that this is the registered owner of a vehicle that's allegedly been in a hit-and-run accident. They know for a fact that the truck has no registration and no insurance. Yet, in his own subsequent report, Schlitz notes that he failed to take a citation book with him.
Furthermore, "when asked where Estrada lived," Schlitz writes in his report, "he [Juan Figueroa] could only say that he lived near Old Tucson, possibly on Montana. I also asked where Estrada worked, and Figueroa replied that he worked for some unknown mechanical engineering firm."
As Sterling sarcastically notes, not just any man would buy a $20,000 vehicle for a person when he doesn't know where the lucky recipient works or lives.
But then, as city court records indicate, Juan Figueroa, son of TPD Sgt. John Figueroa, isn't just "any man." The Tucson Police Department itself has recognized the younger Figueroa for, among other things, two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, possession of marijuana, and urinating in public. All such charges, however, appear to have been quashed by an indulgent City Court.
Schlitz's report also includes this literary gem:
"I asked him if he recalled Det. Ilderdton attempting to contact him by leaving a business card at his home. He said it's been so long ago that he really doesn't remember. I advised him that Det. Ilderton was the case detective and that he needed to meet with him to receive a citation for stopping by his residence and leaving business cards for expired registration and no proof of insurance."
Aside from the syntactical smash-up that would appear to have a police officer citing someone because the police officer left business cards at that person's residence, this passage indicates to Sterling that "if Figueroa didn't come in to get the citation, they wouldn't have pushed it.
"They wouldn't have even gone after him again. Because TPD claims to be so 'understaffed and overworked' that they couldn't be bothered."
On Wednesday, November 12, 1997, nearly five full months after the accident, Juan Figueroa showed up at police headquarters downtown to meet with Ilderton, who was out sick that day. Another officer issued the citations, assigning Figueroa a court date of November 24.
The citing officer notes in his report, "I again asked him if he had any further information concerning Mr. Estrada, and he told me he had spoken with Estrada's mother, but he hadn't spoken with him directly, and he didn't know his home or work address."
Apparently TPD investigators simply couldn't be bothered with such minor details as tracking down the elusive Estrada themselves.
In fact, records indicate, after they cited Figueroa, they closed the case -- again.
"Now keep in mind," Sterling says, "this is the second time they closed the case. The first time they closed it before they ever even talked to Juan Figueroa."
AS IT TURNED out, the court dismissed the charge of failure to have registration, citing a procedural error on the part of the police.
Apparently the citing officer had conveniently -- for Figueroa, anyway -- listed the wrong statute number on the citation. Also, while Figueroa's license was suspended, he was told that if he could show proof of having six months' paid insurance, he'd be free to drive again.
Of course, the rules of evidence being what they are, the judge had no way of knowing the truck in question was allegedly involved in a hit-and-run accident. That part of the story wasn't relevant to the charges, and so it never came up at Figueroa's criminal hearing.
As for Sterling, she won a $5,000 small claims court civil judgement against Juan Figueroa for the damage to her vehicle.
"I'll never see a dime of it," she says, "because he has a lien with Arizona Bank on that vehicle that takes priority. So any money that comes out of that guy is going to pay off that vehicle first."
In the meantime, she's racked up roughly $30,000 in medical expenses -- a neurologist who ran her through a magnetic-resonance-imaging device eventually determined the "minor whiplash" had actually been severe disc damage. The physical therapy and traction she endured probably only exacerbated her original, accident-caused condition, she theorizes.
This past March, Sterling underwent surgery to fuse several vertebrae in her neck. At the time, she'd been on large amounts of painkillers for nearly nine months.
"I don't drink, I don't smoke and normally I don't do drugs," she says. "So even when they tried to get me to take medication in large quantities, I was having a great deal of difficulty doing it because I don't like drugs."
She can't abstain from food, however, and since the accident this once self-sufficient woman and her children were forced to go on welfare.
And there were three final, utterly worthless meetings with local officials. In the first, Tucson Police Chief Richard Miranda was very sympathetic. He ordered the case reopened a third time, but very little resulted from the effort.
(Although, in what is perhaps the only example of decent police work in this entire case, Det. Marty Fuentes subsequently tracked down the elusive Mr. Estrada, whose first name, Fuentes determined, was Jaime, not James. Estrada claimed he had been in Florida when the collision occurred and suggested two suspects at his trailer park who might have been driving the truck at the time of the accident. Fuentes went so far as to check out these possible suspects, only to find one didn't match the physical description Sterling had provided so many months before. The other, records indicated, may have been living in Phoenix at the time.)
Miranda also suggested Sterling seek redress from the city's Risk Management Office.
But Risk Management officials, while very sympathetic, told her the city couldn't be held responsible for the accident, nor for the way it was investigated.
Finally, at the urging of members of the Citizen's Police Advisory Board, Sterling appeared before the Tucson City Council in late August.
The Council members listened to her story and called for various probes and studies; and, of course, they were all very sympathetic.
While Sterling harbors no expectation of a financial recovery at this point, she says she believes the City of Tucson owes her a great deal. She's not talking about mere money, however:
"They owe me equal protection under the law. And for them to sit back and maintain and support a police department that is unwilling or unable to provide that equal protection -- because I'm not a family member, or the best bud of a police officer -- that's just plain wrong."
But the Tucson Police Department apparently just doesn't get this basic principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
As the Citizen's Police Advisory Board notes in its letter to Miranda:
"We also question how Ms. Sterling, the victim in the case, becomes the 'bad guy.' It is obvious throughout the case report that Ms. Sterling was thought to be a nuisance."
The letter also notes that two top police officials, Capt. Robert Lehner and Lt. Michael Garigan, had decided, without even meeting or speaking with Sterling, that she is, quoting Lehner, "someone who goes to extreme extent to force additional action."
In the final analysis then, TPD's supposedly dedicated public servants are quick to view citizens and taxpayers like Laura Sterling as the problem, rather than correcting the fault lines and fissures in their own corrupt infrastructure.
It's the way of all unresponsive, self-serving bureaucratic monsters everywhere.
Unfortunately, these bozos also have guns.