Questions remain in death of man hit by police crusier

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(Host) There are many questions surrounding the death of a 22-year-old man who was run over by two state police cruisers in Dover early Sunday morning.

State Police Director James Baker answered some of the questions at a news briefing late yesterday.

He identified the trooper who was driving the car that struck and killed the man.

Baker said the death is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. But he said that based on what he knows now, the death was a tragic accident.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Police don’t know why Gerald Peterson was lying on Route 100 early Sunday morning. They don’t know if he was injured or intoxicated at the time.

And they’re trying to reconstruct exactly what happened when two state police troopers ran over him in the pre-dawn darkness.

Colonel Baker said police have concluded – based on autopsy evidence and damage to the vehicles — that the car driven by Trooper John Waitekus killed Gerald Peterson.

Baker said Waitekus had just finished a traffic stop and was driving south on Route 100 when he saw something in the road.

(Baker) "He attempted to avoid the object, but was unable to maneuver around it, and at that moment realized it was a person lying in the roadway."

(Dillon) A second state trooper, Frank LeBombard, was following about 100 yards behind and also struck Peterson.

But Baker says the autopsy showed that Petersen was already dead when he was hit by LaBombard’s car.

Both officers are on administrative leave while the investigation continues.

(Baker) "This is not the first time that someone in the United States was laying in the middle of the highway and was run over and killed by someone. It’s a tragic accident. It’s being treated as a suspicious death. We are covering all bases."

(Dillon) Baker says Peterson was wearing dark clothing and he was hit in an area without street lights.

He said Peterson did have something to drink that night, but police won’t know how much until toxicology tests come back in about 6 to 8 weeks.

(Baker) "We are reasonably assured based upon that autopsy that the injuries are consistent with an individual that would have been lying prone."

(Dillon) But police did not test either trooper following the accident for drug or alcohol use.

(Baker) "What I will tell you is that as part of this investigation, as in any fatal accident, we are in the process right now of tracing back the activity of the two troopers 48 hours prior to the accident."

(Dillon) Baker said police didn’t have a reason to test to see if the drivers were impaired.

(Baker) "There was no sign. And I’ll say it again for the record. It’s offensive to me that anyone would think that a Vermont state trooper on duty would be using alcohol. It isn’t that we didn’t pay attention to that. It didn’t become an issue because there was no apparent use of any substance that would impair their ability to operate their vehicles."

(Dillon) Attorney General William Sorrell said that while Vermont does not require drug or alcohol testing in a fatal accident, it is common police procedure.

(Sorrel) “There’s no law and I don’t know that there’s a written protocol on that as far as the state police is concerned. The reality is that when an average citizen is involved in a fatality then the typical protocol is to have a Breathalyzer test to determine the presence of alcohol or blood test to look at alcohol or drugs in the system.”

(Dillon) Baker said police are trying to learn why Peterson was lying in the road. And they want to know if he was injured or hit by another car prior to being struck by police cruisers.

He said police have identified a third car that was in the area at the time. They have questioned the driver of that vehicle, and Baker said that car and driver are also the focus of the investigation.

Baker also drove to the Albany New York area to personally extend his condolences to Peterson’s family.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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