Crash victims’ family: Officers’ minor punishment ‘adds insult to injury’
Details of an internal probe and discipline of Nye County officers who did not arrest an impaired driver in 2021 before a triple-fatal crash were released this week.
The Nye County Sheriff’s deputies who failed to stop an impaired driver before a triple-fatal crash were found to have violated one policy for evidence procedure after a department review — and received only a written reprimand, new records show.
A Review-Journal investigation in March included bodycam footage showing officers were aware Tyler Kennedy was impaired while questioning him about a gun complaint at a rest stop in Amargosa Valley in early 2021. An April story further revealed Kennedy telling Deputy Breanna Nelson that he had to use opioids to avoid drug withdrawal minutes before his truck keys were returned to him.
Deputies released Kennedy and he hit an SUV, killing three, an hour later.
After months of refusals to disclose the internal probe findings, the sheriff’s office released a letter Tuesday showing Nelson, Detectives Brooke Gentry and Daniel Fischer and Lt. Alan Schrimpf were reprimanded but retained their jobs.
Chelsea Roberts, whose 12-year-old daughter, Georgia, died and son, Jackson, was injured in the crash, said officers only facing minor punishment “adds insult to injury.”
“Choosing to allow Tyler Kennedy to drive away is obviously against the law — one that has seemingly gone unpunished,” she wrote in an email exchange after reviewing the county’s letters. “It is incredibly difficult to know that my daughter would be alive had these officers done their simple duty, their job, and protected the innocent like their job entails.”
In April, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly and her staff released a letter that said the officers violated two policies — one that required them to protect people and apprehend criminals and a second about handling evidence. But on May 3 Wehrly backtracked, saying the officers only violated the evidence policy.
“Although previously Nye County Sheriff’s Office staff stated that the officers were disciplined for two policies, after further review it was determined that the officers were disciplined for one policy,” Wehrly wrote. “I feel that the release of the above information will answer the public’s interest and will not be releasing any further information in the interest of privacy and protection from retaliation for the officers involved.”
The evidence policy covers responsibility for the handling, processing, safe storage and disposition of all seized, found or surrendered property coming into the possession of the sheriff’s office. Officers found fentanyl and burnt foil in Kennedy’s truck but threw away the evidence.
Wehrly did not answer questions about officers failing to follow the department’s DUI policy that required them to prevent an intoxicated person from driving.
Police release impaired driver
On March 27, 2021, the four officers, along with then-Deputy Michael Mokeski, were called to the Area 51 Alien Travel Center about a man with a gun but found evidence of drug use. Fischer told Schrimpf he thought Kennedy was “under the influence,” bodycam video shows.
The officers failed to conduct field sobriety tests and released him. An hour later on U.S. Highway 95, Kennedy crashed into another vehicle, killing Idaho residents Michael Durmeier, his fiancee, Lauren Starcevich, and Michael’s daughter, Georgia. Drug paraphernalia was found near Kennedy’s truck at the crash site.
Las Vegas attorney Peter M. Angulo, who represented Fischer and Gentry before the disciplinary hearing, said the detectives had no authority or duty to conduct field sobriety tests on Kennedy.
“It wasn’t their scene,” he said. “They’re not the controlling officers on scene. It was a gun call and once that was cleared under department policy the first responding officer and senior responding officer are responsible for the investigation.”
Roberts’ attorney Greyson Goody, who is representing her in a lawsuit against Nye County and the officers, said the county probably didn’t want to admit that the officers failed to protect the public because it will hurt their legal case. He said the sheriff’s department also seems to have trouble fulfilling its basic responsibilities to the public.
“They’re trying to hide things,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s hard to cover up your lies with lies.”
Tennessee Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Ray, who is president of the National Internal Affairs Investigators Association, said the county should have a neglect-of-duty policy that would cover the failure to take action during such a stop.
“The public would expect the department to have a policy on employee conduct and a review in place where leadership can determine if the policy was followed in each incident,” he said.
Deputies won’t comment
The deputies involved in the incident have not responded to repeated emails and calls seeking comment.
Brent Huntley, an attorney who represented Mokeski, said his client was a witness in the case and was not disciplined because he left the travel center before the drugs were discovered and admissions of drug use were made. Mokeski recently joined the Nye County District Attorney’s office as an investigator.
Adam Levine, a Las Vegas attorney who represented Nelson and Schrimpf in the county’s internal affairs investigation, said the deputies cannot comment because of Roberts’ pending legal case. He declined to discuss the discipline because of attorney-client privilege.
In Roberts’ civil case, which was moved to federal court, attorneys for the defendants have asked that most of the claims be dismissed and both sides have filed motions on that issue. After the judge resolves that issue, Goody said he expects they will be able to start discovery and depositions that will let them uncover further details in the case.
Goody also scoffed at Wehrly’s statement that the officers are in danger of harassment by releasing information about the internal investigation.
“There’s no harassment going on,” he said. “The public knows their names, seen their faces and I would like her to cite one instance of harassment… They’re trying to protect their own skins.”
Goody said he hopes any payments in the case will come out of the money the county received from the opioid settlement and not from taxpayers. He also said the family, as part of any settlement, will push for changes to prevent similar failures.
“The family is interested in … holding the officers accountable,” he said. “There actually have to be consequences for their actions.”
Union criticizes Wehrly
Wehrly is also facing criticism from the deputy’s union for failing to discipline Nye Sheriff’s Capt. David Boruchowitz, whose years of questionable conduct were the subject of a Review-Journal investigation in February.
“You even admitted that you let Captain Boruchowitz write his own discipline,” Nye County Law Enforcement Association board wrote to Wehrly on April 14, 2022, in a letter obtained by the Review-Journal. You “simply deny Captain Boruchowitz’s misdeeds.”
Boruchowitz, whose career took off after Wehrly became sheriff, headed the union during Wehrly’s first campaign for sheriff in 2014 and endorsed her run, records show.
The union board also took exception to an email Wehrly sent to county officials saying she fought for pay increases for deputies. “If you actually cared about getting more money in the pockets of our members, your actions as Sheriff would have reflected that,” the letter said. “They do not.”
Huntley, who also represents the union, declined to comment on the letter’s Boruchowitz and pay controversy allegations.
“I think it speaks for itself,” he said.
Contact Arthur Kane at email@example.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.