An on-duty Pinal County deputy was involved in a fatal crash. Now there's a threat of a lawsuit and new concerns that the deputy is not being held accountable.
The crash happened August 30, 2012, about 10 p.m. on U.S. 60 near Gold Canyon Ranch, east of the valley.
Pinal County Deputy Robert Steele was trapped in his burning patrol car, and Jeffrey Sorenson, 57, a retired Army officer and former Department of Defense executive, was thrown from his vehicle.
No one saw the cars collide.
Sorenson was thrown from his truck and pronounced dead at the scene. Steele was seriously injured and airlifted to the hospital.
Six days later, Department of Public Safety detectives interviewed Steele at the hospital. He had no reported memory and there were no witnesses, so DPS had to rely on technology and science to reconstruct the crash.
The exhaustive investigation determined Sorenson was turning left into his subdivision and pulled out in front of the on-duty deputy, who was westbound on U.S. 60. The deputy "T-boned" Sorenson's vehicle.
An autopsy revealed Sorenson's alcohol level was .21, more than twice the legal limit. He also was not wearing a seatbelt.
Steele was found to be speeding, and evidence indicates a possibility of inattentive driving. The patrol car's GPS system recorded Steele going 97 mph at the time of the crash. Other on-board computers indicate the deputy never applied his brakes before impact. Records show the deputy was not responding to a call, and witnesses who saw him speed past them say he did not have his police lights on or siren activated.
Despite Sorenson's alcohol level, DPS investigators determined Steele's driving was so reckless that a manslaughter charge was appropriate. They turned the report over to newly elected Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles.
"We didn't see a criminal offense on the part of Deputy Steele," Voyles told CBS 5 News.
And Voyles said although Steele was speeding, he is allowed as an officer to do so.
Longtime Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley disagrees.
"He's wrong. He's just wrong on the law," Romley said.
Voyles refused to charge Steele because he said the deputy was involved in normal patrol activity. Voyles describes that activity as speeding up to a vehicle, running the plate to see if it is stolen, then speeding up to catch up with any other vehicle on the road and doing the same thing. CBS 5 News' check of the logs shows in the 10 minutes prior to the crash, Steele sped up and slowed down anywhere between 48 and 113 miles an hour.
"I refuse to criminalize police conduct that is within the laws," Voyles said.
Arizona traffic laws do allow officers to drive over the speed limit, but they must use lights and sirens. The law clearly states that the officer is not relieved from consequences of driving with reckless disregard for public safety.
"I think he broke the criminal laws, and I would have brought charges on this case," Romley said.
Sorenson's family would not talk on camera, but they, too, question why the deputy is not being charged. They have filed a $4-million notice of claim with Pinal County as the first step in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Voyles' decision not to file charges raises another question for Romley. Last election, Voyles ran on the same ticket and is closely tied to Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
Romley thinks another county attorney should have reviewed the case.
"If the implication is here somehow because sheriff (Babeu) and I ran on the campaign together that now I can't be fair and just in making a decision, that would be an absolutely false assumption to make," Voyles said.
Babeu and Steele declined CBS 5 News' request to comment.
Steele is fully recovered and currently assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of an internal review.
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
Thursday, September 11 2014 5:21 AM EDT2014-09-11 09:21:40 GMT
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