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Tuesday, May 02, 2006
On this day:

Another Fairfax County Police Coverup?

The WP reports the facts:

Jatinder Baboota was on his way to one of the five gas stations he owns Jan. 23, making a left turn off Columbia Pike, when a Fairfax County police cruiser slammed into the right side of his Honda Accord. After falling into a coma, the longtime Vienna resident died 13 days later.

Police said Baboota, 61, was at fault for turning in front of a police car with its lights and sirens on. But now, more than three months after the crash, Baboota's family is questioning the police version of the incident and wondering whether authorities are telling the truth.

Among other concerns, the family questions whether the officer, Michael D. Weinhaus, had his emergency equipment turned on and whether he was really going only 45 mph -- 10 miles over the speed limit -- as police have estimated.

Family members say police have given them conflicting versions of the crash, including early claims that Weinhaus was involved in a high-speed chase, and two witnesses said they believe the officer did not have his lights and sirens on. Police say four witnesses told them the lights and siren were on.

Fairfax police did not disclose the crash, or Baboota's death, to the public. It came to light when Baboota's family sent an e-mail in early February to the Dr. Gridlock column in The Washington Post. Police said they did not intentionally withhold the news of the first fatal crash involving an officer since 1993, only that an internal communication breakdown occurred.

"I've been very disappointed with the way they've acted in this case," Deepa Sinha, Baboota's daughter, said of Fairfax police. "I feel like they should have been a little bit more forthcoming, not changing their story three times. He's a member of the county, a member of the community. Tell us the truth. Tell us what happened."

The family notified police Feb. 6 that Baboota had died from his injuries the day before. Police said the nearly two weeks between the crash and Baboota's death led to a lack of communication between the department's traffic division and its public information office, so no news release was issued.

"In retrospect, we should have put out a release on this," said Lt. Richard Perez, a Fairfax police spokesman.

Fairfax police said it was the county's first fatal crash involving an officer in 13 years. That crash, in which a man also pulled out in front of an officer, was disclosed the next day by police.

Police said Baboota was at fault for failing to yield to the officer. Deputy Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said he reviewed the case last month and agreed that the officer should not be cited. He said he would have ruled the same way if a private citizen instead of an officer had been driving and that police had investigated the crash thoroughly.

Although the criminal investigation has been completed, Perez said an internal police investigation is ongoing.

At the time of the crash, Baboota was on his way to the Baileys Crossroads BP on Leesburg Pike that he had owned for 24 years. He took the back way, turning left off Columbia Pike onto Courtland Drive, rather than navigate the busy intersection at Leesburg Pike.

The police car, a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria, was heading south on Columbia Pike when the cruiser struck Baboota's Accord. Weinhaus veered into a signpost and was not seriously hurt.

Police believe Baboota's Accord spun 180 degrees and then shot over a concrete median, across three traffic lanes, over a curb and down an embankment into the front yard of Fares Alnajjar, who was standing nearby.

Based on crash calculations, police said the officer was driving no faster than 45 mph -- or 10 miles over the speed limit.

Officers in emergency situations are allowed to ignore speed limits and traffic signals. Perez said Weinhaus had been dispatched to a fight in which five or six people reportedly were beating one person, so the officer chose to activate his lights and siren and hurry to the incident.

Capt. Jesse Bowman, head of the police traffic unit, said no police official would have told the family that the officer was involved in a chase at the time of the crash because investigators knew from the start that Weinhaus was not pursuing anyone. Sinha and others were adamant that they were told the officer was in a chase.

Bowman could not say definitively how Baboota's Accord traveled over a median and a curb and perhaps 50 yards after the impact but said it wasn't unusual. "I've seen this," he said. "They just do." He theorized that Baboota, who was trying to drive through an intersection when he was hit, may have stepped on the accelerator on impact.

Police declined to make their witnesses available or allow a reporter to listen to a tape of Weinhaus's transmissions to confirm the siren was on, because of the internal investigation.

If Weinhaus did not have his lights and siren on, "that would be a problem," Bowman said.

"It's an absolute tragedy," Bowman said. In addition to Baboota's death, Weinhaus was deeply affected, Bowman said. "It's going to be with him for the rest of his life, not just for the rest of his career." Weinhaus declined to comment.

But Alnajjar said in an interview that Weinhaus did not have his siren on. Alnajjar said he was in his front yard with his back to the intersection, which is directly in front of his house. He did not see the crash.

"If I heard a siren, I have to look," Alnajjar said. "I would have seen the accident."

Enrique Osorio, who was driving on Columbia Pike, also said in an interview that he did not see the impact, but "suddenly I heard kind of an explosion on my left side." He saw the police cruiser strike the signpost and Baboota's car traveling slowly across Columbia Pike. Osorio said he was "90 percent sure" the officer did not have his lights or siren on, both because he didn't hear it and because he said "traffic was fluid" and not stopping on Columbia Pike.

Police said they were told Baboota's injuries were not life-threatening. Bowman said that when an officer went to Inova Fairfax Hospital several days later, Baboota was in stable condition.

Sinha said that her father was placed under forced sedation because of swelling in the brain and that doctors were hopeful it would recede. After 11 days, his condition began deteriorating, and he died two days after that, on Feb. 5.

Fairfax police are involved in about 350 crashes a year, Perez said, from fender-benders to serious collisions. But large police departments such as Fairfax, with roughly 1,300 officers, drive millions of miles in a year. Perez said the Fairfax police crash rate for every 100,000 miles was 2.18 last year and 2.58 the year before.

More than 400 of Baboota's friends and relatives packed a funeral two days after his death. "It's been more than two months since my dad died," his daughter Kavita Baboota said. "Not a day goes by that we don't get a condolence card from people that knew him for 30 years."

Baboota was born in the Punjab region of India and came to this country in 1967. He married his wife, Shashi, in 1970 and raised their two daughters in Vienna. In addition to the Baileys Crossroads BP where he spent most of his time, Baboota owned the Fair Oaks Amoco, Columbia Pike Amoco in Arlington, the Chesterbrook Amoco in McLean and the Lincolnia Gulf.

"He was a very kind man," said Robert Varma, his brother-in-law. "He helped a lot of people in his community. He helped people get their green cards. He helped people fix their cars" and often forgave debts of those who couldn't pay, Varma said.