No misconduct in failed search

A motorist spent the night in a freezing creek bed after his wreck Nov. 28.
Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:21 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Columbia police have found no wrongdoing by the officers who failed to locate two accident victims on Nov. 28 but have only limited explanations for why the victims were not found.

The accident happened a little before 8:30 p.m. that Friday night, when Jerad Miller, 21, ran his 1993 Chevy Lumina off the east side of a ramp from Broadway to southbound U.S. 63. Miller and passenger Joseph Stenger, 23, were going home to Jefferson City after shopping at Columbia Mall.

After a search by police failed that night, Miller and Stenger laid in the creek bed for more than 11 hours in freezing temperatures. Stenger died at the scene. Miller regained consciousness the next morning and climbed up the embankment to find help at about 8 a.m.

Columbia Police Capt. Zim Schwartze said six officers on foot walked down the embankment to shine their flashlights into the creek bed.

No officer walked all the way down into the creek bed, Schwartze said.

“They thought they were able to see everything,” Schwartze said. “Obviously if we had walked down there we would have found the wreck.”

Police did not conduct a formal review of the incident because there

was no indication of officer error, Schwartze said. Instead, Schwartze and the department reviewed 911 tapes and talked to involved officers in an “inquiry” to determine what happened.

The Columbia Fire Department did not respond to help the search because its policy is not to respond to accidents with unknown injuries unless there is a fire, leaking fluid or indications that drivers are either crushed or not emerging from their car, Columbia Fire Chief William Markgraf said.

The Nov. 28 call to 911 by a passing motorist indicated that Miller’s car went off the bridge.

“It’s on the southbound. It’s at the bridge between Stadium and Broadway. And what happened was the car just went off the road and just went down into that bridge,” the caller said.

But the initial information given to police placed the accident at U.S. 63 and Stadium Boulevard, instead of U.S. 63 and Broadway, where the accident happened.

Dispatchers were not breaking with regulations when first indicating Stadium Boulevard and U.S. 63, said Joe Piper, administrative services coordinator at Public Safety Joint Communications, which operates the 911 dispatches. Piper said that when dispatchers are entering information into a computer they must enter an intersection. Because the call indicated the accident was between Stadium Boulevard and Broadway, they could have chosen either street and happened to choose Stadium Boulevard.

Piper said this should not have been important because it was later explained by the dispatcher specifically where the accident happened.

After failing to find the victims under the bridge, police expanded their search to the entire area, Schwartze said. They were dispatched at 8:31 p.m. and called off the search after 20 minutes, at 8:51 p.m., according to joint communications records.

Schwartze said she did not know when the investigation would be complete because of the lengthy process for obtaining a warrant for medical records. She said accident investigations typically take two to three weeks.

The investigation might result in charges against Miller for driving with a suspended license. On Nov. 4, 2002, Miller’s license was suspended for child-support enforcement, according to his Missouri driver record.

Miller pleaded guilty to two traffic misdemeanors in September 2001 and was assessed a total of $86 in fines for speeding and failing to stop at a designated line, according to Cole County court records.

Schwartze said the department would not recommend any charges against Miller until its official investigation into the accident is complete.

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