From the Magazine: Behind the Scenes with the Montgomery County Police Collision Reconstruction Unit
Detectives say their work stays with them long after an investigation is over
When a Chevrolet Volt collided with a BMW on River Road in February, killing three members of a Bethesda family, detectives from the Collision Reconstruction Unit were called to the scene. Photo by April Witt
It was almost 3 a.m. when a Chevy TrailBlazer, crammed with young revelers heading home from a New Year’s Eve party, hurtled west on Jones Bridge Road toward downtown Bethesda. The 20-year-old driver was drunk and going too fast to negotiate the curve of the road even if he had been sober. If the young man felt his rear wheels kick out sideways as he lost control and struck a curb, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Pure physics were in control as the 4,500-pound SUV careened off the road, crossed a sidewalk, ripped out sections of chain-link fence and slammed into two large trees. It was over in less than half a second—370 milliseconds, according to data recorded on the Chevy’s air bag control module.
A few miles away, a ringing phone awoke Montgomery County police Detective Alex Power in his Wheaton home. His own holiday celebration had been quiet, an alcohol-free evening spent with loved ones. He knew he could be called into work and wanted to be ready. He dressed quickly in the dark, trying not to wake his wife and young son.
Less than an hour after the crash, Power walked along Jones Bridge Road, studying evidence in the red glow of flashing lights. The force of the wreck had left telling debris scattered along the roadway: empty cans of Natural Light, chunks of tree bark, branches. On the dry asphalt of the roadway, a long, distinctive set of curving, parallel tire marks showed Power where the driver had lost control. The detective knew from experience that he’d be able to use the length and shape of those marks to calculate how fast the driver had been going. (Eighty-two in a 35 mph zone, it turned out.)
Detective Alex Power has been investigating fatal collisions for a decade. Photo by April Witt
To the right of the road, down in a gully, sat the white 2007 TrailBlazer, still smashed against two trees. It was covered with a sheet out of respect for the dead.
Dawn hadn’t yet broken on Jan. 1, 2012. Yet Power and his colleagues in the Montgomery County Police Department’s Collision Reconstruction Unit (CRU) were already investigating the first traffic fatalities of the year. To explain how and why this wreck happened, Power would perform a series of mathematical equations derived from physics. That part of the job would be simple—it was, unfortunately, routine for him. But the tally of lives lost and forever changed here would be incalculable.
The seriously injured driver, Roderick Brice of Clarksburg, then 22, had been airlifted to the University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma unit in Baltimore. A 19-year-old from Chevy Chase and an 18-year-old from Rockville—both of whom had been wearing seat belts—were taken to Suburban Hospital with minor injuries. Two other young passengers who hadn’t been wearing seat belts, a male and a female, had died in the crash. Rescue workers eventually had to cut the TrailBlazer apart to extricate them. The young man, who’d been sitting in the front passenger seat, was still holding a beer can in one hand. In his vest pockets, investigators found more beer cans, flattened by the force of the impact.
The young woman found dead in the backseat did not have identification on her, so Power didn’t know her name. He did know that somewhere, perhaps not far from there, her parents might be awake, panicked that their daughter hadn’t come home yet—and that CRU detectives would have to find them, knock on their door, and tell them that she was dead. They couldn’t do that until they knew who she was. So Power did what he had to do: He gently lifted one of her hands and rolled her fingertips onto an ink pad one by one so he could get her prints.
CRU detectives never refer to the tragedies they investigate as “accidents.” They call them collisions, crashes or wrecks. “By definition, an accident is not preventable,” says Detective Cpl. David Cohen, 37. “And in 99.9 percent of our cases, the fatal collision could have been prevented if someone had just done something differently.”
It takes a special skill set to negotiate the horror of a fatal collision scene, the heartbreak of notifying loved ones, and the weeks of calculations needed to prove what happened, who, if anyone, was at fault, and whether that person’s actions were criminal.
“Every fatal crash scene is a violent death,” says Capt. Tom Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department’s traffic division, which includes CRU. The captain knows that all too well—his 15-year-old son, Ryan, died in a car crash in Damascus nearly eight years ago. Ryan and four other teens had just left a church youth-group meeting; the driver was speeding and struck a tree. “[The investigation] is very long, laborious, slow and tedious because it has to be done right,” Didone says. “It has to be checked and rechecked. In this unit, it is necessary. We expect perfection.”
Detective Sgt. Nick Picerno, CRU supervisor, keeps a board in his office that lists the number of fatal crashes by year. Photo by April Witt
Eight detectives are assigned full time to CRU to investigate fatal accidents; they also handle collisions in which a driver or passenger is so badly injured that he or she may die. Some of the detectives have a background in engineering. One has an accounting degree. Detective Alexa Briscoe, 30, who grew up in Bethesda, got into medical school at 17 but decided she preferred doing police work. She recently graduated from Georgetown Law. CRU’s supervisor, Detective Sgt. Nick Picerno, 35, who will graduate from law school this spring, has a master’s degree in human science with a focus on bereavement.
Veteran CRU investigators have spent 700 to 800 hours in specialized classes on collision reconstruction, where they’ve learned things such as how to determine a vehicle’s speed at impact by assessing how badly it was crushed in the crash. Detectives say they are drawn to the work in part because it is intellectually challenging. “Most investigators decide early in their careers this is what they want to do and start taking collision reconstruction classes long before they are selected for CRU,” Picerno says. “Because you can’t just jump into this from scratch.”
Power, 44, has investigated fatal collisions for a decade. As a young patrol officer he happened upon a deadly crash and the memory proved lasting; he ended up spending his own money to take collision reconstruction classes. Like other veteran CRU detectives, he can’t drive on any major county road now without picturing fatal crash scenes his unit has worked. “I remember the names and faces” of the dead, Power says.
“I’ve learned not to look at the faces,” says Cohen.
CRU investigators, including Det. Elijah "Eli" Kinser (left), Det. Cpl. David Cohen (center) and Det. Barry Robinson (right), supervise a crash scene on River Road as the shell of a Chevrolet Volt is loaded onto a truck bed to be taken to a police lot. Photo by April Witt
On a Saturday in late February, just after dinnertime, CRU detectives fan out across a stretch of River Road in Bethesda where three members of one family lay dead inside a 2016 Chevrolet Volt. The car is so new that it still has temporary license plates. The roadway is littered with shards of shattered windshield glass, which glitter in the rhythmic blink of emergency lights.
Michael Buarque De Macedo, 52, a lawyer and Web developer, was driving his wife, Alessandra, and their two teenage children to a play at Walt Whitman High School, where both kids were students. When he tried turning onto Pyle Road from River Road to access the school’s back entrance, his Volt collided with a 2016 BMW M235 driven by 20-year-old Ogulcan Atakoglu of Rockville. Rescue workers declared Buarque De Macedo, his wife and their 18-year-old son, Thomas, dead at the scene. They rushed Helena, a sophomore, 15, to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. The other driver sustained minor injuries.
Several feet from the Volt sits a white box truck that is CRU’s roadway central command post. Inside, Picerno is on his laptop searching public records to locate relatives of the Buarque De Macedos. When he finds someone, he’ll dispatch two CRU detectives to knock on that person’s door. Then the investigators become consolers, waiting with grieving family members until a friend or neighbor arrives to help. “It’s the toughest part of this job,” Picerno says of death notifications. “You really are inserting yourself into someone’s life and changing it forever in a nanosecond. You are telling them something terrible that they had no idea was coming.”
While investigating the death of a day care worker
struck by a Ride On bus in Bethesda earlier this year,
Detective Alex Power used these calculations to help
determine factors such as how fast the driver was
going at the time of impact. Photos by April Witt
Outside the CRU truck, detectives comb River Road for clues. The road will be closed to traffic for several hours as the investigators find, mark and document evidence. They spray-paint the road to highlight tire marks that will help them understand and explain what happened and who is at fault. They photograph every element of the crash scene: tire marks, damage to both cars, where the cars sit on the road, and the victims inside the Volt.
“We only get one shot at a scene,” Picerno says later. If they wait until the light of day to investigate a fatal crash, conditions will have changed, confusing or eradicating the trail of evidence. Snow could melt. Rain could wash away blood or engine fluids. Other drivers’ tires could mark the road.
Detectives use a piece of equipment called a drag sled to quantify the amount of friction the asphalt road surface exerted on each driver’s tires. That will be crucial information later, when investigators use these data points to try to calculate how fast each driver was going. The investigators also use specialized surveying equipment to forensically map this stretch of roadway. The lead detective moves across the roadway inch by inch, marking key points by sending laser signals to a colleague who enters the information into a handheld computer. The process will allow the primary investigator to create a scaled diagram of the scene and generate accurate measurements. The investigators will need those back in their Gaithersburg office as they study the crash and compare the physical evidence with statements by the driver of the BMW and witnesses.
On this night, they have one more task that must be done. They lift the father, mother and son from the car, one at a time, and prepare to turn over their bodies to a representative of the medical examiner’s office. It is intimate work, and the officers perform it as tenderly as possible. They say nothing as they search pockets for personal items to bag, tag and give to loved ones.
“You have to know how to shut it off,” Picerno says later. “If you don’t have the ability to separate the emotions from the work you are required to do, then this job will eat you alive.”
CRU detectives use a piece of equipment called a drag sled to quantify the amount of friction the asphalt road surface exerted on each driver’s tires. That information helps them calculate speed. Photo by April Witt
For all the terrible drama of fatal crashes, collision reconstruction is based on calculations derived from Newtonian Physics, which describes how objects move through time and space. Every high school physics student learns, for example, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the context of collision reconstruction, that means that a pedestrian struck by a car will likely be thrown in the direction the vehicle was traveling. Once detectives determine how far a pedestrian was thrown, they usually can determine how fast the car was moving.
When any two objects collide—be they billiard balls or automobiles—energy is transferred from one to the other. How much depends on their relative speed, weight and striking angle. If a sedan rear-ends another, the momentum of the striking vehicle makes the car it hits go faster. And the mass of the first car will slow the speed of the sedan that rear-ended it. Both vehicles may be damaged, but if the drivers and passengers are wearing seat belts they may walk away relatively unscathed. If, however, those same two sedans strike head-on at high speed, then the damage to both cars and their occupants is more likely catastrophic.
Collisions—from the time of impact to when the cars separate again—typically happen in as little as one-tenth to one-quarter of a second, CRU investigators say. Depending on the facts and available evidence, there are hundreds of equations CRU investigators can use to try to understand and prove what happened and who was at fault. They also draw on standardized industry crash-testing results that document how much damage specific car makes and models can be expected to sustain when involved in crashes at certain speeds.
Sometimes the calculations are simple, sometimes they aren’t. (Among the formulas investigators use: Speed equals the square root of 30 times distance, multiplied by the coefficient of friction.) The key is knowing which formula to use based on the evidence you have, Picerno says. “That’s where the expertise comes in. In some cases there may not be one formula that applies. Then you just have to do the best you can.”
Detective Jeff Brown, who teaches collision reconstruction classes, uses a wreck he investigated on 16th Street in Silver Spring to illustrate the challenge of explaining the physics of some collisions. “A driver went partly off the road, misses a woman getting onto a Ride On bus, hits a fire hydrant, goes up in the air, spins, rotates, lands on his side, rotates sideways, hits a signboard, a telephone pole and a tree—all while he’s upside down—rotates and lands upside down on a raised manhole,” Brown says. Each time the car struck a stationary object, it lost energy and slowed down, he explains. “I can’t tell you exactly how fast he was going. But I can say that with all that damage and all the energy it took him to travel that distance he was going faster than 35 miles per hour.”
Every fatal collision is a puzzle for CRU detectives to solve. On a rainy winter night in 2013, Marlyn Eres Ali, a 53-year-old nanny heading home after working in the District, got off a bus in Kensington. As she walked across Connecticut Avenue, a driver struck her, then drove away. Ali died at Suburban Hospital.
Before reopening a roadway, detectives spray-paint
the road surface to highlight and preserve the tire marks.
Hit-and-runs are the “whodunits” of collision reconstruction, says Cohen, the lead detective in the case. Evidence found at the scene included pieces of a plastic lens from a car’s headlight. Detectives reassembled those pieces and determined that they came from a Toyota Corolla manufactured between 1998 and 2000. But there were more than 4,000 Corollas of that vintage registered in Maryland alone. Detectives searched exhaustively for a Corolla with front-end damage or recent repairs at a body shop, but came up empty.
The driver could have replaced the broken lens “for $12 on eBay,” Cohen says. Cohen grew up in Rockville, the son of a doctor. He’s known since he was 4 years old that he wanted to be a firefighter or police officer. “It’s the childhood dream I never outgrew,” he says. He loves his job, yet three years after Ali's death, it gnaws at him that they haven’t found her killer.
“You always wonder what else you could have done,” he says.
Investigators’ efforts to understand a fatal collision are a lot like constructing a virtual movie of the last seconds of someone’s life—frame by frame—then playing it backward and forward until it makes sense.
In March 2015, CRU detectives were puzzled after a man was found dying on Goshen Road in Gaithersburg just after 1 a.m. on a Saturday. When a car strikes a pedestrian with enough force to kill, the victim’s legs typically are broken at about the height of the bumper, they say. This victim’s legs weren’t broken, which didn’t make sense to the detectives until they discovered that the man, Osmin de Jesus Montano Carrillo, 35, had been walking home from a night of heavy drinking, passed out in the street and was prone when a teenage driver ran over him, says Detective Michael Polcsa, who led the investigation.
The driver—who had also been drinking—fled. But police quickly identified her as Helen Rommel, then 18, of Laytonsville. Rommel told investigators that she’d spotted the man passed out in the road at the last instant, too late to avoid hitting him. As part of their reconstruction, investigators towed Rommel’s 2015 Volkswagen Jetta back to Goshen Road one night, closed the street and placed the deceased man’s clothing over boxes approximating his length and girth. A CRU detective drove the Jetta along the route Rommel took in order to determine if the teen could have spotted Montano Carrillo lying in the dark street in time to have avoided hitting him. Polcsa’s conclusion: The victim “was an unavoidable hazard.” Still, Rommel pleaded guilty last year to driving while impaired by alcohol and failure to immediately return and remain at the scene of an accident involving death. She received a suspended sentence and two years of probation.
Increasingly, with the proliferation of surveillance cameras, CRU investigators are able to find video footage of fatal collisions. A security camera at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville was recording the street below as two young men, 26-year-old lifelong friends, got off the Metro at White Flint and were walking across Rockville Pike just after 3 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2010. Alejandro Roman, 25, of Rockville was drunk and speeding north on the Pike in a 2010 Acura TXS, when he struck and killed them, says Detective Barry Robinson, lead investigator in the case.
Robinson, now 54, studied the video to see how long it took the two men to walk between fixed landmarks, such as streetlights, that were visible in the footage. He measured the distance between those landmarks to help him calculate how fast the two men were walking. Using the same process, “We were able to determine that the driver went from one line to the other line across the intersection in one second,” Robinson says. “That distance between those two is 112 feet. Then we convert that to miles per hour and he was going about 76.”
Knowing the speed that both the pedestrians and the Acura were traveling allowed Robinson to determine whether their paths would have crossed had Roman been obeying the posted speed limit of 40 mph.
CRU detectives Elijah "Eli" Kinser (left) and Michael Polcsa used surveying equipment to help forensically map a stretch of roadway where a pedestrian was struck and seriously injured in February. Photo by April Witt
“We backed them up,” he says. “We put his car where the pedestrians would first have been able to see him. Then we say, ‘OK, if he is doing 40 miles per hour here instead of 76, where is he by the time the pedestrians are crossing the street? I figured out that the pedestrians would have been over the median and on the second southbound lane had he been obeying the law.” In 2011, Roman pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter by automobile and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In some fatal collisions, the culprit isn’t a reckless driver. Sometimes it’s bad traffic engineering: ill-timed lights, dangerous intersections, poorly-placed or marked crosswalks. CRU detectives once investigated a fatal crash at a Montgomery County intersection less than 90 minutes after two other vehicles had collided at the same spot. To sort out which tire tracks and engine fluid trails came from which crash, a CRU investigator climbed into a fire truck bucket to view the scene from above.
Just before 6 a.m. one morning in October 2015, two girlfriends were walking across Columbia Pike in Silver Spring. They made it as far as the median. One of the young women, surveying traffic, decided it wasn’t yet safe to continue. Her friend, an 18-year-old Rockville woman, made a different choice. A Silver Spring man driving a 2011 Toyota Camry and talking on his cellphone with a hands-free device struck her. The driver stopped, called 911 and began CPR. The young woman died on the way to the hospital.
Surveying the aftermath, Detective Elijah "Eli" Kinser, 33, noticed that there were no signs or markings to warn approaching drivers that pedestrians would be crossing there. He eventually concluded that the mid-block crosswalk—marked only by slight ramp-like cuts in the cement curbs—was the “most significant factor” in the woman’s death. “It’s just a really messed up crosswalk that shouldn’t be where [it] is,” Kinser says. “I take great satisfaction knowing that come spring, when the weather is better, somebody is going to be out there with a jackhammer taking it out.”
Any car involved in a fatal wreck is towed to a locked police lot and preserved as evidence. Photos by April Witt
Once a lead detective completes an investigation, he or she presents the findings to the entire CRU team for “peer review.” CRU investigators then meet with prosecutors from the office of the Montgomery County state’s attorney. They review each traffic fatality and discuss what criminal charges, if any, should be brought.
Many CRU investigations don’t end with an arrest. In about 60 percent of the cases, the person responsible for the crash died in it, Picerno says. Detectives charge a surviving driver with a crime in 20 percent of their cases. Sometimes they determine that a driver is at fault, but there isn’t any chargeable crime under Maryland law—only traffic violations. In some cases, the investigators’ only option is to write a traffic ticket, which the driver can pay by mail.
Early one morning last August, 64-year-old retired U.S. Navy Capt. Timothy Holden of Bethesda, a highly decorated SEAL, was wearing a helmet and following the rules of the road as he bicycled on the right shoulder of Massachusetts Avenue. The sun had not risen fully. Ricardo Freeman, a 22-year-old contractor who was driving east in a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, didn’t see the cyclist, he later told police. Freeman drifted onto the shoulder and struck the rear tire of Holden’s bike—throwing and killing him.
The contractor hadn’t been drinking, investigators determined. Freeman ultimately received three traffic citations for failure to exercise care to avoid collision with a bicyclist, failure to pass safely at a distance of at least 3 feet when overtaking a bicycle, and negligent driving. The Montgomery County Police Department supports legislation that would require a driver responsible for a fatal collision to appear in court and face the victim’s loved ones.
In late January, CRU detectives gathered in an office at police headquarters to discuss Montgomery County’s first pedestrian fatality of 2016. Power handed out copies of the scaled diagram he’d made of the scene, along with two pages of mathematical equations he’d done as part of his investigation.
On Jan. 5, Devika Gunasekere, 67, was crossing Old Georgetown Road in downtown Bethesda, on the way to the day care center where she worked, when a Ride On bus struck her. She later died of her injuries. The bus driver was so distraught that he was taken from the crash scene to Suburban Hospital to be evaluated. Based on how far the force of the impact threw the woman—23.55 feet—Power calculated that the bus was doing between 18 mph and 21.5 mph. Video from the bus’ security camera revealed that the woman was at fault for crossing against the light and stepping between a car and the bus, both of which were making left turns, Power says.
“So she’s literally stepping off the curb as a car is turning in front of her, which should be an indicator not to step off the curb,” Power said during the meeting. “She enters the roadway 3.74 seconds before impact. She’s doing an average speed of 5.8 feet per second.”
Once the bus driver spotted the woman in his path, he hit his brakes but couldn’t stop instantly, Power said. The bus, like many large vehicles, was equipped with a kind of braking system that was slower to respond than automobile brakes. As part of his reconstruction, Power had another detective drive the bus toward that same intersection, accelerate into a left turn, and hit the brakes on command. They timed how long it took the bus to stop.
“I don’t think there would have been enough time for anyone driving that bus to have been able to stop,” Power said. “I think this wreck is happening no matter what. I don’t think it is a question of him not seeing her. He sees her, but…”
“There is nothing he can do about it,” Picerno said.
“At that point,” Power said, “it’s physics that is preventing him.”
As the meeting broke up, Kinser said that he is impressed on a day like this by the “finality” of CRU cases. “In homicide cases, you work in theories and motives and you develop an idea of what happened,” he said. “In these cases, the math is the math and the physics is the physics. You can’t escape the numbers.”
Eight detectives are assigned to the county’s Collision Reconstruction Unit full time. Standing, left to right: Det. Alex Power, Det. Barry Robinson, Det. Jeff Brown, Det. Alexa Briscoe and Det. Cpl. David Cohen. Seated, left to right: Det. Michael Polcsa, Det. Sgt. Nick Picerno and Det. Elijah “Eli” Kinser. Photo by April Witt
Until 1995, the Montgomery County police officers who investigated fatal collisions were not assigned full time to that task and didn’t work with a team. The department founded CRU—along with a specialized unit to combat drunken driving—partly in response to a fatal collision on River Road in 1994 that killed two Walt Whitman High School students.
Efforts to stop underage drinking and driving in the county worked well for several years, but that’s changed, says Didone, the department’s traffic division director. “We are now seeing a teen drinking-and-driving-related fatal collision occurring on an annual basis after years of preventing them,” he says.
Robinson has lost count of how many times he’s sat down to dinner with his own daughters, now 18 and 21, and explained to them why they should never get into a car with a driver who has been drinking. “We’ve had a lot of discussions that begin, ‘Dad, I heard you go out last night. What happened?’ ” he says. “I have to tell them that it was another drunk driver who killed someone.”
Last June, several teens from Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville partied at a classmate’s home. Samuel Ellis, a former quarterback on the football team, drove away from the party with a friend in the front passenger seat of his 2006 Acura TSX. They weren’t far away when they got a cellphone call asking them to come back; Ellis returned to the party so Alexander Murk and Calvin Jia-Xing Li, both 18, could hop into the backseat.
According to police reports, Ellis was speeding and worried about getting a ticket, but someone in the car said he could fool speed cameras if he drove even faster. Not long before midnight, Ellis lost control of the car, went airborne, struck two trees and ended up in the driveway of a North Potomac home. Murk and Li, neither of whom were wearing seat belts, were killed. Ellis, now 19, pleaded guilty in April to two counts of vehicular manslaughter. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June.
CRU detectives' files are full of similar cases involving underage drinking. Detective Briscoe, who recently graduated from Georgetown Law, was the lead investigator of a fatal crash in Olney in 2014. On Labor Day weekend, Austin Hall, then 17, drove away from an underage drinking party there with two teenage passengers in his 2011 Chrysler Sebring convertible. The Sebring was going 119 mph just before Hall lost control, police records show.
Briscoe says the crash scene was “just chaos” when she arrived. The top of Hall’s convertible had been sheared off. A teen’s backpack had been flung into a tree; an officer climbed up to retrieve it. Hall and his passengers had been rushed to area hospitals. One boy’s injuries were so serious that doctors didn’t expect him to live. CRU detectives and other officers scrambled to determine his name so they could notify his parents and help get them to the hospital in time to say goodbye.
Eventually, teens who’d been at the party gave officers a list of cellphone numbers for kids who might have gotten into Hall’s car. The first number they tried rang at the hospital, where 15-year-old Shawn Gangloff lay dying. Police worked through the cellphone carrier to find and notify his parents.
“Shawn will always be 15,” his grieving mother told a packed courtroom last September, when Hall was sentenced to 18 months in jail. He had pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and causing a life-threatening injury while driving impaired by alcohol.
“What always bothers me about these kind of cases is that they happen over and over and over again,” Briscoe says. “It’s just different kids in different locations. It’s often kids from the same high schools. So you know that they’ve seen it—and for some reason it just doesn’t sink in.
“And it’s always some small thing that could have changed, and it means someone’s life,” she continues. “Shawn hadn’t gotten a ride to the party with Hall—I don’t know why he left with him. There is some talk that maybe they were going to go get pingpong balls to play beer pong, and they were supposed to come back. We have text messages from the kid who hosted the party, saying things like, ‘Hey, where are you guys? I thought you were coming back. I’m going to lock the door if you are not here soon.’ Small decisions—sometimes they have these big consequences.”
A board in the CRU office lists the number of fatal crashes in the county by year. Last year, there were 38 fatal collisions in which 39 people died, including 13 pedestrians and three cyclists. Alcohol was a factor in nine of those collisions. On another wall, a small white board lists the names of CRU detectives, in order of whose turn it is to lead the investigation the next time someone in Montgomery County dies in a car crash.
On a sunny winter day, the detectives are having lunch together at their office, talking about their work. Death notifications haunt them, they say. Like fatal collisions, no two death notifications are exactly alike. A stunned relative once tried to punch a detective. Other family members have bolted and run through their neighborhood to find the crash site. Some relatives are quiet until the detectives leave and the front door closes behind them, Brown says, “Then you hear them start to wail.”
“They need to fall apart,” Kinser says. “They need you to be stoic. You can decompress later on.”
Robinson recalls how challenging it was to maintain his composure when he went on death notifications with an especially kind-hearted colleague who has since retired. “I could hold it together until I saw her start to tear up,” Robinson says. “Then I had to tell myself, Look away. Don’t look at her. Look at things on the wall.”
Everybody who does this work is somehow changed. Some changes seem small. CRU detectives don’t wear all black clothing when they walk their dogs at night. They never jaywalk and don’t let their loved ones. If they ride bikes, they do so on nature trails, not roads. Behind the wheel, they don’t hit the gas the second a red light turns green; they wait and look both ways to make sure they aren’t about to be blindsided. They tend to drive big, heavy trucks—the kind that give them more protection in a crash. They always wear seat belts.
Other changes are profound. When Briscoe’s father died of cancer recently, she was deeply grateful that they had time to say goodbye. “I know that not everybody gets the chance to do that,” she says quietly.
It is the rare officer who can investigate fatal collisions decade after decade. “This work has a shelf life,” Kinser says.
Power, who led the investigation into the fatal crash on New Year’s Day in 2012, wondered recently if he’d finally seen too much death and grief. He was investigating a wreck in which three members of a family, including a 4-year-old, were struck and killed by two strangers who were drag racing on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring. The tragedy hit Power particularly hard, and he considered leaving CRU. He stayed.
“Seeing that through to a successful prosecution made me think maybe this is my true calling,” Power says. “Not that I’m the perfect investigator, but I know I can do this job and help others get through it. I can’t always give families the answers they want to hear, but I can tell them what happened. I like the clarity of that. We have the ability to make sense out of what seems like a completely senseless loss.”
April Witt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Washington Post writer.