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Crash victims: Cruiser struck our cars

Shawn Foucher • Aug 27, 2014 at 3:04 PM

Authorities on Monday provided more information on a fatal crash in which a Wakeman police cruiser slammed into the wreckage minutes later.

But the documents and other materials raise more questions than answers.

Video footage from the Wakeman police cruiser’s dash cam, released Monday and posted below, shows the cruiser sliding on the icy roadway into at least one of two cars involved in the initial crash.

And despite numerous statements and documentation from authorities indicating the police cruiser only struck one vehicle involved, statements from victims in both vehicles indicate the cruiser struck both vehicles.

When later asked if his police cruiser struck both vehicles involved, the Wakeman officer provided this written statement to troopers: “Yes, my patrol hit both vehicles.” Highway Patrol reports said a review of the dash-cam video and the vehicles, however, indicates this was not the case; the cruiser did not strike both vehicles.

It’s unclear from viewing the video if the cruiser struck both disabled vehicles, which were only feet apart on the roadway.

When contacted about the video late last week, Wakeman police Chief Tim Hunker deferred to his law director, Randy Strickler.

When reached by phone, Strickler told the Register the officer involved had immunity in the case, and he deferred to Norwalk law director Stuart O’Hara, who said the same.

Neither Strickler or O’Hara would immediately provide the officer’s name, and the Norwalk post of the Ohio State Highway Patrol — the agency that handled the crash — did not return a message Friday seeking information on the case.

On Monday, all parties involved began to provide new information.

Lt. Anne Ralston, the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s spokeswoman, said a trooper cited the Wakeman police officer — David Hardy, 25, of Wakeman — with assured clear distance.

Hunker then emailed the Register late Monday and stated Hardy paid a fine for the citation. The fine, levied in January, was about $95.

A press release the Highway Patrol sent out to the media Dec. 26, shortly after the crash, made no mention that a police cruiser also became involved in the crash. Ralston could not immediately explain on Monday why that information was withheld from the news release, other than saying the Highway Patrol considered it a two-car crash, and troopers handled the Wakeman officer’s involvement as a separate crash because it happened six minutes later. Ralston then suggested the Register clearly does not understand how law enforcement works.

The crash

Officer Hardy’s cruiser slammed into the wreckage about six minutes after the initial two-car crash, according to reports the Patrol provided Monday. Almost all of the victims were still in the vehicles when the officer’s cruiser crashed into at least one of the cars. An occupant in that vehicle later told investigators the impact from the police cruiser knocked her out of the car.

Officer Hardy said he was traveling at about 20 mph, according to the reports.

The fatal crash occurred at about 12:30 a.m. Dec. 26, when Jordan Zartman, 20, of Tiffin, was driving a 2006 Chevy Malibu west on U.S. 20. His vehicle slid on the ice-covered road and crossed the center line, striking an oncoming Chrysler Concorde head-on, according to the Highway Patrol’s release.

In the Chrysler was a family from Canfield: The driver, Richard Yager, 53; front-seat passenger Carol Yager, 57; left-rear passenger Matthew Yager, 23; and right-rear passenger Caitlin Yager, 19. Caitlin died from her injuries.

Earlier this month, O’Hara charged Zartman with vehicular manslaughter, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

None of the investigators could specify the exact time of Caitlin’s death.

Huron County coroner Jeff Harwood on Monday told the Register he doesn’t think the Wakeman cruiser caused Caitlin’s death.

“I think she was dead or dying (before the cruiser arrived at the scene)” Harwood said. “Those events were already set in motion.

“I don’t have any information that had to do with Caitlin Yager or her death” Harwood said. “She died as a result of the head-on collision with (Zartman’s vehicle). That’s all the information and knowledge I have about it.”

Harwood did not order an autopsy.

The Highway Patrol’s Dec. 26 press release, meanwhile, stated Caitlin “received fatal injuries and was transported to Fisher Titus Hospital.” The release does not specify at what point she was pronounced dead. Harwood said she was pronounced dead at the scene.

Harwood, who responded to the crash scene that night, said he was told by law enforcement that the Wakeman cruiser “came in and bumped” into one of the other cars. Statements in the reports released Monday, however, indicate the impact of the second crash threw one surviving passenger from the disabled vehicle she was in when it was struck by the police cruiser.

A trooper’s report on the two-car collision — the police cruiser’s role is detailed in a separate report — states that when the trooper arrived, firefighters were trying to get Richard and Carol Yager out of the Chrysler, and Matthew Yager had already gotten out of the vehicle. Richard was pinned inside the vehicle by the steering wheel.

“Their daughter, Caitlin Yager, was sitting on the right rear floor board, her back towards the door” the trooper’s report stated. “She had several lacerations to the right side of her head and she was unconscious”

In a written statement about the crash, Richard Yager told troopers the Wakeman police cruiser responded to the scene and “slid and side-swiped our car”

The report shows Richard was asked: “What makes you believe you were struck by (the) Wakeman police cruiser also?”

His answer: “I saw it coming and felt the impact”

A witness also provided a written statement saying, “(the Wakeman cruiser) struck the rear of (one) vehicle, bouncing into the rear of the second”

Local officials could not explain the inaccurate information they previously provided.

The Highway Patrol’s crash reports said damage was found mainly on the rightfront side of the police cruiser, which is the side Zartman’s car was on. The report also indicates there was a small dent on the cruiser’s left side — the side Yager’s vehicle was on — but it carefully states how this was “from a separate incident”

In a written statement, Breanna Zartman, 24, of Tiffin, said she was in the back seat of Jordan’s Chevy Malibu, trapped by debris from the initial collision. The Wakeman cruiser came along and struck Jordan’s car while she was still stuck inside.

Breanna described the impact from the police cruiser as much more than a “bump”

“I remember there being a (hole) that was (where) the door would have been,” she wrote. The collision from the cruiser knocked her out of the car. “It was like the car was pulled out from underneath me and I fell to the ground”

The Patrol’s reports said a trooper examined the police cruiser at a body shop on Jan. 9 — more than a week after the crash — and determined Hardy’s cruiser did not strike the Yagers’ vehicle.

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