Six months ago Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis was speeding to a suspected hostage situation when he sideswiped another car. He did not stop.
Rumors began to circulate in some corners of the community. KMUD public radio in Garberville aired a story March 6. But the accident continued to be ignored by Humboldt's daily media until March 20 when The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa ran an article suggesting a possible law enforcement cover up.
But, in fact, the Times-Standard newspaper and Channel 3 news learned of the incident in October but did not report it, according to the California Highway Patrol.
"We didn't consider it a big deal," said CHP Capt. Mike Vertar. "A few people from the media inquired and they weren't interested in putting a story together which further confirmed my belief that it wasn't newsworthy."
No press release was written until the CHP issued a statement March 20 -- the same day The Press Democrat story was published.
A front page Times-Standard story March 24 said a Santa Rosa "newspaper article last week said local law enforcement authorities kept the incident 'under wraps' for months."
"In fact," the Times-Standard report continued, "a few weeks after the accident several local reporters were tipped by an anonymous caller. Both Lewis and the CHP were questioned at that time about the circumstances of the accident and the extent of damage to the other car."
The article does not say why the reporters chose not to write about the accident. Times-Standard representatives refused public comment. Channel 3 News Director Samuel Lewin said a station reporter decided the story wasn't newsworthy.
Lewis was at fault, the highway patrol concluded.
The sheriff was driving an estimated 80 to 90 mph about 10:45 p.m. Sept. 30 on southbound Highway 101 near 12th Street in Fortuna when he apparently drifted into the adjacent lane. His unmarked sheriff's unit grazed a 1993 Hyundai Elantra driven by Misty Jolley, 18, of Eureka, causing about $1,000 in damage.
Jolley told the CHP she tried to move to the right when the emergency vehicle began traveling past her, but could not avoid contact. Jolley and several witnesses could not be reached for comment.
In a claim for damages filed with the county Risk Management Division Jolley wrote, "The officer moved into my lane twice going approximately 90 mph." She described the damage as "bumper lower scratched and damage to side mirror. Also front end damage."
In a space for additional comments that might be helpful in considering the claim she wrote: "The rudeness of everyone for me being the victim."
Lewis said he was unaware at the time that he had sideswiped the car. "It was a very minor accident. At the time I didn't know it even happened," he said.
How could the sheriff not have known he made contact with another vehicle?
"That's what we wondered too because we started the investigation originally with the thought it was a hit and run," Vertar said.
Investigators concluded that considering the siren was whaling and Lewis said he was fidgeting with a spotlight, "that type of contact could well not be noticed."
Alcohol was not found to be a factor in the accident, although the sheriff was never tested. Vertar said the CHP's Garberville area commander was in "close contact" with Lewis later that evening and saw no evidence of alcohol use or impairment "whatsoever."
Lewis was not cited because certain exemptions apply to law enforcement officers responding to emergency situations.
"We found him at fault for failing to drive with due regard. In other words his attention was diverted," Vertar said.
The county paid Jolley's car repair bill. The vehicle had a damaged mirror and molding on the left front wheel well was grazed, according to the CHP.
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