Durham family vows to get political after crash
DURHAM—Bruised all over and battling a relentless headache from the 20 staples in the top of her head, 19-year-old Crystal Pettit tried to study for her Butte College classes Friday.
The Durham teen remembers nothing of the crash that put her in the hospital Aug. 27.
That night she'd been at her boyfriend's house on Broadway in Chico. After 11 p.m., she drove a few blocks to Sierra Market, at 17th Street and Park Avenue, to get a soda.
In an interview Friday, Crystal said she remembered being in the store, then getting in her car and driving back toward her boyfriend's house.
The next thing she knew, she was being pulled out of the back seat of her car, and then she was on the ground, "surrounded by a bunch of police and lights," and a neck brace was being put on her.
"I remember being in a lot of pain," she said. "I didn't know what was happening."
What had happened, according to Chico police, was that a 28-year-old Oroville man, Samuel Eugene Allen, who had been causing trouble at a fraternity party, raced down Broadway, fleeing police, and crashed nearly head-on into Crystal's car. Allen died in the wreck.
Police said they followed Allen for about 20 seconds with their sirens on, then called off the chase and turned off their sirens. The accident occurred about 10 seconds later, according to police.
Crystal said her boyfriend heard the sound of the crash and rushed outside. He told her later that she seemed to be having convulsions in the back seat of the car, where the impact had thrown her. An officer told her she was unconscious for a time, she said.
Her most obvious injury was a deep wound on the top of her head. She also had a concussion and many bruises and abrasions.
When news of what happened spread, it was hard on the parents of Durham teenagers, said Crystal's mother, Sierra Pettit.
Last fall, two girls from Crystal's senior class at Durham High died in separate auto crashes on the Midway. One was among Crystal's best friends and the other was an acquaintance. And two years ago, another of her best friends and a fellow member of the small class of 2004 at the school died in a car accident.
"When I got the phone call last Friday night saying Crystal had just been hit, my mind went right away to the thought No! Not mine! I've been through enough," Sierra said. One officer told Crystal that "she must have had a guardian angel" because she easily could have been killed.
Sierra Pettit said she has very mixed feelings about Chico police in relation to the incident.
On the one hand, she said, "police officers were so incredibly nice and generous."
For example, Capt. John Rucker made two trips from the hospital back to the crash scene to retrieve Crystal's car keys and then her purse.
But the pursuit itself raises questions, she said. Originally, police told her speeds reached 75 to 100 mph, but the information that officers provided news media made it sound like the chase was much slower. And an Enterprise-Record reporter was told Crystal had been released from the hospital Saturday morning when actually she didn't get out until Tuesday morning.
"I feel like the facts that were released really minimized what happened," she said. "I could be wrong. That's my feeling."
Sierra and her sister, Stephana Femino, both said they're aware of state Sen. Sam Aanestad's efforts to limit pursuits to only those cases where suspects pose a serious, immediate threat to the public.
The crash on Broadway has convinced them, and Crystal, too, to actively support Aanestad's bill when it comes up again next year. Opposed by police groups, SB1403 failed to get out of the Senate this year.
The bill's impetus was the death of 15-year-old Kristie Priano of Chico in January 2002. She was riding in her family's van when it was struck by an SUV Chico police were chasing because another 15-year-old had taken it from her mother to go for a drive.
Sierra said it's hard to understand why police pursued the suspects in the Priano case and in her daughter's.
"Why would you be chasing a 15-year-old when you know they're not an experienced driver?" she asked. And why chase someone, at high speed, down a street like Broadway, "unless he shot someone or raped someone?"
Allen was being pursued, apparently, "just for starting a fight," she said. On any Friday night, "how many drunk guys are out there starting a fight?"
Mark and Candy Priano, Kristie's parents, have asked the Chico City Council to review the Police Department's policy on pursuits.
Chief Bruce Hagerty has said all police policies are being reviewed by a consultant and that the pursuit policy would be studied first.
The Enterprise-Record tried to reach Hagerty to ask about the status of that review. He had not responded by the holiday weekend deadline.
Sierra Pettit and Femino, her sister, both said they understood "police have a tough job to do" and that Allen deserves the bulk of the blame for Crystal's injuries.
Yet, both said they also felt sorry for the young man, especially after reading in his obituary that he leaves behind two children, one 6 years old and the other just 3 weeks old.
"I'm just sad that his kids are going to be without a father," Femino said.