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Stonington police officer disciplined for actions in March crash

Stonington — A Stonington police officer was attempting to catch up to a speeding car on Route 1 in March when he accelerated through a red light at North Main Street and struck a car that was crossing the intersection, seriously injuring a Westerly couple.

Those are among the findings of an investigation into the March 2 crash conducted by Ledyard police Sgt. Eric Bushor, supervisor of the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Traffic Unit. Immediately after the crash, the New London County State’s Attorney’s Office requested another police agency conduct the investigation due to the seriousness of the injuries and the fact that a Stonington officer was involved.

While Scott Camassar, attorney for the injured couple, Claire and Laurence Vesyoly, has filed a notice of intent to commence legal action against the town shortly after the crash, no formal lawsuit has yet been filed.

Claire Vesyoly, 29, suffered a concussion, cervical vertebra and facial bone fractures, broken ribs and was transferred from Lawrence + Memorial Hospital to Yale New Haven Hospital for surgery to repair a broken wrist and torn tendons. Laurence Vesyoly, 27, suffered a concussion. Both were knocked unconscious in the crash and Laurence Vesyoly, who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown upside-down into the back seat of the car. Officer Christopher Murray, who was driving the cruiser and also not wearing a seat belt, was treated at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital for abrasions to his right hand and left forearm. Both vehicles were destroyed in the accident.

Immediately after the crash, Stonington police opened an internal affairs investigation and placed Murray on paid administrative leave. The department was able to conclude its investigation after it received the results of Bushor’s accident investigation about three weeks ago.

The police department and town’s labor attorney then held a disciplinary hearing with Murray and his union representative, in which Murray agreed to accept a 10-day unpaid suspension, the loss of five vacation days and undergo driver retraining.

Murray also received a so-called “last chance agreement” which states he can be fired if he violates any department policy involving the use of a cruiser or commits any on-duty traffic offenses over the next two years.

Asked about that agreement, police Capt. Todd Olson explained Friday that several years ago Murray was involved in an incident in which he failed to radio headquarters that he was trying to stop a group of speeding motorcycles. At the time, Olson said supervisors instructed Murray that he needed to alert headquarters that he was trying to make the stop so a supervisor could gather information about the reason he was trying to stop them, possible charges and the speed they were traveling. He said this allows a supervisor to decide whether to call off the pursuit or alert other officers who might be in a better position to make the stop.

In the case of the March crash, Murray failed to radio headquarters with information that he was trying to stop the car he was following, which was heading in the direction of the police department.

The crash report

Murray reported that he was driving west on Route 1 in the late afternoon when he spotted a red Dodge Challenger going east at 74 miles per hour in the 50-mph zone. Murray made a U-turn, activated his overhead lights and began to try to catch the car traveling at 70 mph. He manually activated his siren and horn because he told Bushor he had found this was the most effective way to get the attention of other vehicles.

Murray stated he believed he could see the Challenger as he drove past Collins Road and it appeared to be passing the intersection with North Water Street. As he approached the same intersection, Murray said he had a green light but slowed down and then accelerated again once he passed through the intersection.

As Murray approached North Water Street 4.5 seconds before impact, data from the cruiser’s airbag module shows he was traveling 68 mph. Murray told Bushor he believed he could still see the Challenger about a quarter-mile ahead and believed he was gaining ground on the car and that the driver was not trying to lose him.

Because he had a red light at the intersection of North Main, Murray said he slowed down as he approached the intersection, with data showing he had slowed to 50 miles per hour 1.5 seconds before impact.

Murray said he looked both left and right onto North Main Street and did not see any vehicles approaching the intersection.

Meanwhile, Claire Vesyoly had picked up her husband at his job at the Zuckerman Harpsichord factory at the south end of North Main Street and they were heading toward Interstate 95 when they reached the green light at the intersection with Route 1 and began to cross it. She said she did not see or hear anything that would have made her slow down. She said something then hit her car and she lost consciousness.

That was when Murray's cruiser, now traveling 54 miles per hour and the accelerator at full throttle, struck the Vesyolys' red Lexus sedan. Murray said he felt an impact and began spinning. When he came to rest an estimated 130 feet away. He said he was unsure of what he had struck. When he saw the Vesyolys' car, he got out and began to help the couple.

A Milford man who had been driving south on North Main Street said he saw the cruiser with its lights on as he approached the intersection across Route 1 from the Vesyolys. He said the cruiser was traveling extremely fast but he could not hear a siren. He said he had a green light and saw the cruiser go through the intersection without stopping and hit the Vesyolys' red sedan.

Two months after the crash, Bushor and a member of the state police accident reconstruction team recreated the position of both vehicles at various times leading up to the crash using the airbag data and a small red sedan and a police SUV. They took numerous photos to show what Murray would have seen while driving down Route 1.

Bushor found that the “biggest visual impediment” to Murray at the time of the crash was a stone wall that runs along the west side of North Main Street and only allowed the windows and roofline of the Vesyolys' car to be visible to Murray, “and that was not easily visible.” Bushor wrote that he had the luxury of being stationary and purposely looking for the red car during his recreation while Murray was trying to catch and stop a vehicle.

Bushor found that factors contributing to the crash were Murray’s failure to obey the red light, not using a steadily audible siren, the speed of his cruiser, visibility and the fact it was dusk.

The day after the crash, Olson said police stopped and identified the driver of the Challenger. He said the driver admitted to speeding in the area the previous day but said he did not know Murray was trying to stop him. Police issued a speeding infraction to the driver.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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