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Errors amplify tragedy for Holwegner family
Yakima Herald-Republic June 19, 2006 | Philip Ferolito By PHIL FEROLITO YAKIMA HERALD-REPUBLIC If nothing else, Lana Holwegner’s lawsuit against four people involved in her husband’s death has exposed major flaws in the way authorities handled the case.
Fifty-four-year-old Bill Holwegner of White Swan died in July after his motorcycle was struck by a car on Fort Road.
Accounts collected as part of a lawsuit his widow and family filed against the car’s four occupants reveal significant failures in the Yakama Nation tribal police department’s investigation.
“I just thought that there would be policies and procedures that need to be followed, and they didn’t follow any,” said Lana Holwegner. “It’s a total shock, because you really wonder about the system we have these days.” To date, no charges have been filed. Nearly a year after the accident, it remains unclear who was driving the car that day.
Crucial evidence, including a beer can taken from the car, was lost. And statements from the accident’s only witness were left out of the lead investigator’s report.
In depositions for the family’s lawsuit, two former tribal police officers testified that tribal police have no written procedures for conducting criminal traffic investigations.
One of those men, Robert Schuster, was fired in August for mishandling the investigation. The other, former tribal police Chief Elliot Lewis, also was fired that month for reasons unrelated to the accident.
“It was botched from the very get-go it seems. We’re hoping that the right charges will be filed,” said Christopher Childress, a Yakima attorney representing Holwegner’s family.
Jurisdictional confusion Bill Holwegner was riding his 2001 Harley-Davidson east on Fort Road the morning of July 31 when he was struck by a westbound 2001 Ford Focus turning left onto Lateral B.
He suffered a broken pelvis and a severed thigh artery, and was eventually taken to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center, where he died later that night of internal bleeding.
First on the scene were tribal officers. A Yakima County sheriff’s deputy also arrived, but because the accident was on the reservation and the car’s occupants were tribal members, Schuster assumed jurisdiction. Holwegner, however, was not a tribal member.
Typically, serious accidents on county roads and highways are turned over to the Washington State Patrol, who are generally considered best trained and equipped to conduct such investigations.
But the state patrol wasn’t told about the accident until the next day.
Part of the jurisdictional confusion may stem from orders given by a tribal official. this web site 2001 ford focus
In his deposition, former police Chief Lewis said a June 2005 memo from then-tribal prosecutor Toni Whitegrass ordered tribal police to stop letting county and state authorities take over drunken driving cases and other criminal traffic offenses committed by tribal members.
In conflict with the prosecutor’s orders, Lewis said he instructed his officers to turn over serious accident cases to county and state authorities, according to his deposition.
But he noted that Schuster had been reprimanded earlier for allowing a Yakima County deputy to take jurisdiction in a drunken driving case involving a tribal member. His deposition did not spell out who had ordered the reprimand.
Contacted at his home, Lewis said he couldn’t comment on an ongoing case. Schuster didn’t return phone calls.
Whitegrass, who left in October to become an associate judge with the Puyallup tribe, said the order was intended to ensure tribal officers handled cases in their jurisdiction.
“The intent was to make sure we were doing our job,” she said in a telephone interview from her Puyallup office. “And our job was to make sure we were carrying out the mandates of tribal jurisdiction and sovereignty.” In his deposition, Lewis said he disagreed with the order. He said it didn’t clearly specify how to handle cases involving both tribal and non-tribal members.
Current tribal police Chief Davis Washines calls the case “a terrible tragedy.” While saying he couldn’t comment on pending litigation, Washines said that under his watch public safety comes before jurisdictional issues.
No field sobriety test given On the day of the accident, Schuster was the lead investigator.
Using a portable alcohol breath analyzer, he tested a woman who claimed to be driving. The results registered more than twice the legal limit, he said in the deposition.
Because the analyzer is not accepted in tribal court, the next step would have been to administer a field sobriety test or a further blood-alcohol test.
But Schuster said he was not convinced she was the driver. Her statements created doubt in his mind and a witness said someone else had been behind the wheel, he said.
Schuster said the confusion meant there wasn’t probable cause to administer the type of alcohol tests accepted by court.
Childress takes issue with the way the case was handled.
“The way I see this, is we’ve got an undertrained tribal police officer and he’s got confusing directions,” Childress said.
In his deposition, Lewis said tribal police haven’t had a working policy or procedures manual since the 1980s.
That’s one reason the tribal jail has been closed since January 2005, when it was shut down for safety reasons by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, Lewis said in his deposition.
Lewis also criticized Schuster, who now works for the Granger Police Department, for not investigating the accident scene and gathering evidence.
Both the car and motorcycle were towed before an investigation was conducted by the state patrol the next day. here 2001 ford focus
Occupants were allowed to take items from the car before it was towed, Schuster said in his deposition. Nor was an inventory of those items taken, he said.
Questioned in his deposition, Schuster said he didn’t know what happened to an empty beer can taken from the car, and admitted he forgot to include in his report statements of a neighbor who claimed to have witnessed the accident.That witness’s account of who was driving differed from those in the car.
Occupants in the car were Tennille Eyle, 20; Samantha Eyle, 23; Alan Byrd, 23; and Kai Marcellay, 24. (Those were their ages at the time of the accident.) All were subpoenaed, but none showed up to the deposition nor have they responded to the lawsuit, Childress said.
When it learned of the death, the state patrol began its own investigation the day after the accident. But with the scene largely cleared and problems in interviewing the car’s occupants, progress has been slow.
Yakima County Deputy Prosecutor Howard Hanson said the patrol has made some recent gains in its investigation, but couldn’t say whether charges would be filed.
Meanwhile, Lana Holwegner hopes the driver of the car will take responsibility.
“I just wish that these kids would get what’s coming to them or have to go through what we’ve had to go through because it hasn’t been easy these past 10 months,” she said.
Phil Ferolito can be reached at 837-6111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.