OCSD unit that investigates major traffic collisions is one of the agency’s busiest
On Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 4, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies who make up the Major Accident Reconstruction Team (MART) had an especially busy day.
At 9 a.m., they arrested a motorist suspected of seriously injuring a bicyclist a year prior on Super Bowl Sunday 2017 and fleeing the scene.
MART Sgt. Brian Sims said hit-and-run suspect Timothy Anthony Cronin, 53, of Laguna Niguel, a die-hard New England Patriots fan, has a history of drinking on Super Bowl Sunday and authorities wanted to keep him off the streets.
Later that day, when the Patriots were in the process of losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, MART deputies rolled to the scene of a fatal traffic collision in San Clemente.
At around 5 p.m., they began a full investigation into the head-on collision on North El Camino Real between Camino San Clemente and Avenida Pico.
Although Sunday, Feb. 4, may have been a particularly hectic day for MART, the deputies are used to it.
The 13-person team — five full-time deputies, five patrol deputies who are on call, a sergeant and two administrative assistants — is one of the busiest units within the OCSD, with a huge caseload and with deputies being called to scenes of carnage all hours of the day and night.
The team, which last year logged 38 callouts to major accidents, devotes tons of hours into investigating all fatal, major injury and other collisions in unincorporated county areas and 13 contract cities. It also assists other local law enforcement agencies in reconstructing traffic collisions.
In addition, MART members work daily with the Orange County District Attorney’s office in issuing citations and preparing cases for criminal filings related to traffic collisions, including felony driving under the influence and vehicular manslaughter cases.
It’s not unusual, as in the Cronin case, for MART members to spend a year or more putting together a case while criminal charges are pending.
In typical probes, for example, MART deputies — who conduct full criminal investigations, from beginning to end — have to write search warrants for a suspect’s medical and other records, comb through social media and other electronic devices to secure possible evidence, and wait several months for toxicology reports to come in.
The goal, said Sims, is to present the DA with airtight cases to make sure drivers who deserve it are convicted and serve the maximum sentences.
“We don’t want any of our reports to get kicked back to us,” Sims said.
Recently, MART logged three notable successes: two murder convictions against drunk drivers and the filing of a murder charge against a suspected drunk driver.
In the latter case, MART members in mid-January arrested Jacie Cornish, 24, of Foothill Ranch on suspicion of second-degree murder stemming from an Oct. 1, 2016 collision that killed a 40-year-old man from Santa Ana. Cornish is accused of being drunk and driving more than 100 miles an hour when she rear-ended his Ford pickup in Foothill Ranch.
Because Cornish had received a prior DUI conviction in 2015 and had been warned if she drove under the influence again and killed someone she could face murder charges, prosecutors were able to charge her with second-degree murder under what is known as a Watson enhancement to a vehicular manslaughter charge.
If convicted, Cornish, who as of Feb. 7 remained in custody at Women’s Central Jail on $1 million-plus bail, faces 15 years-to-life in prison.
And the work of MART members led to the sentencing on Feb. 10, 2017 of a Mission Viejo man to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder. Kourosh Kesmiri was convicted of driving drunk, speeding and crashing into a Mission Viejo home on Dec. 29, 2013, killing a sleeping Kenneth Jackson, 60.
Like Cornish, Kesmiri had a prior DUI conviction and had been warned about the dangers of impaired driving.
Last year, the MART team’s work also helped secure a conviction against William Joseph Carroll for driving drunk into oncoming traffic and killing a mother of three in her minivan in Mission Viejo on May 7, 2013.
Carroll, 51, was sentenced Jan. 19 to 15 years-to-life in prison.
“The quality of work they’re doing speaks for itself,” Sims said of his team. “They’re yielding a high volume of criminal convictions. Recently, our unit has been responsible for more homicide filings than most other police agencies in Orange County.”
To give a sense of how busy MART members are, in November 2017 alone more than 335 cases were assigned to them.
There were six felony filings and 52 misdemeanor filings, and MART deputies wrote four search warrants. On top of that, they also filed some so-called McNeely search warrants, which are required before blood can be drawn from certain DUI suspects.
Based on MART’s investigation, Cornish’s blood alcohol level was .17 percent, more than double the legal limit of .08 percent, when she slammed into a truck driven by Jose Barraza-Soto, 40, according to the criminal charges.
Along with alcohol, traceable amounts of marijuana were in her system at the time of her blood draw, according to the OCSD.
Barraza-Soto’s spouse, who was in the passenger seat, was injured.
To investigate major traffic collisions, MART deputies use several tools of the trade, from humble tape measures to sophisticated computer software that allows them to recreate 3D simulations of crashes.
Each MART member undergoes a minimum of 200 hours of specialty traffic training.
The senior member on the team, Deputy Shane Stewart, who joined MART in 2009, has undergone more than 1,000 hours of training.
Sims started running MART, the Traffic Unit and the OCSD’s auto theft detail in April 2017.
“He’s the rookie,” Stewart quipped during a recent interview, in which most MART members joined him and Sims in the Traffic Unit office at the OCSD’s substation in Aliso Viejo.
“I absolutely love it,” Sims said of his job.
“(Because of) us,” said Stewart.
Because of the nature of their work — seeing human carnage up close is routine for MART members — the team enjoys an especially strong bond and engages in black humor as a necessary outlet. The deputies also frequently avail themselves to peer-support services.
“I talk to Heather Williams a lot,” said Sims, referring to the Regional Peer Support Coordinator for the OCSD. “She checks in with the team a lot to see how they’re doing.”
Stewart recalled one of his first calls on MART.
“It was a 7-year-old girl in a car seat, and at the time, I had a kid who was around 5,” Stewart said.
The car the girl was in got clipped. It spun around and hit a telephone pole. Her car seat was closest to the door that took the worst impact.
“I attended the autopsy, and no fragment of her skull was bigger than a dime,” Stewart said. “After you see something like that, nothing really can compare.”
MART members typically are on the scene of a collision for four to six hours, with deputies splitting duties — for example, one will take the lead as the case agent, one will inspect the involved vehicle or vehicles, two will map the scene, etc.
On Father’s Day 2017, MART deputies spent 12 hours at the scene of a Yorba Linda home after a truck went airborne and crashed into the home. The two adults inside the truck died.
In addition to taking in gruesome scenes on a regular basis, MART deputies make big sacrifices when it comes to family.
Because they can get called out at any time, they miss a lot of birthdays, anniversaries, school events and the like.
But when they score a conviction or sentence on a case they helped build, it’s worth it, the deputies say.
“When you’re getting woken up in the middle of night…when you get criminal filings and convictions and sentencings (like the Carroll case), it’s definitely rewarding,” said MART Deputy Kyle Ishii.
“It’s justification for all of the things we miss.”