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DA calls for state investigation of deputies who failed to stop DUI driver

Updated July 22, 2022 - 3:57 pm

The Nye County district attorney has asked the state to investigate whether deputies involved in a high-profile fatal crash should face criminal charges for their failure to stop the driver and whether the sheriff’s department withheld evidence from prosecutors, the Review-Journal has learned.

Chris Arabia sent a letter to the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Investigation Division on Tuesday asking for an independent investigation into the deputies’ actions during the March 27, 2021, questioning of Tyler Kennedy at a rest stop an hour before the crash killed three members of an Idaho family on U.S. Highway 95.

Arabia also is seeking a probe into whether the sheriff’s department provided all the relevant evidence to prosecutors during Kennedy’s criminal case after reading the Review-Journal’s reports of the deputies’ actions and the agency’s initial refusal to release a key portion of the police bodycam video.

“We need a full account of what happened for transparency and if it is appropriate, for charges against the officers,” Arabia said Wednesday.

The sheriff’s office has come under scrutiny for the decisions deputies made that day and the disciplinary action they faced after the crash. It took five months to obtain the video from the agency, which blurred officers’ faces and removed sound from a key piece of audio.

The news organization’s initial investigation, largely based on the bodycam video, showed deputies failed to follow the department’s DUI policy by not administering a sobriety test when they uncovered evidence of Kennedy’s drug use. In a second story, the key audio segment showed a deputy returned Kennedy’s keys even after he told her he needed to continue using drugs to avoid withdrawal while driving to rehab in Oregon.

Arabia said he was surprised to learn significant new facts in the investigative report.

“I knew (deputies) had contact with him and let him go,” he said. “But it’s true the (Review-Journal) reporting certainly alerted me … that there might be other angles to the story beside prosecuting Tyler Kennedy.”

A DPS spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview, but Arabia said it will likely take weeks or a month to get a response from the agency. He was not sure how long an investigation would take.

DA hopeful wants investigation

Arabia, who lost the Republican primary to attorney Brian Kunzi in June, will likely not be in office when the investigation is completed. But Kunzi also said he supports a formal, outside investigation.

“It definitely needs to be looked at,” he said. “I’m not going to prejudge it, but if there was willful neglect of their duties and total disregard for safety, it could rise to that level.”

In March 2021, Kennedy crashed into an SUV near Beatty, killing three members of an Idaho family: Michael Durmeier, his fiancée, Lauren Starcevich, and Michael’s 12-year-old daughter, Georgia. A judge sentenced Kennedy to 24 to 60 years in prison Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI resulting in death.

Arabia said he wanted to conclude Kennedy’s prosecution before looking into whether there was any culpability on the part of deputies or the sheriff’s department.

Nye Sheriff Sharon Wehrly on Wednesday said she previously discussed the possibility of criminal charges against the officers with Arabia but never received his opinion on the matter.

“At this point, I don’t think there is any reason (to bring in the state),” she said Wednesday. “But I don’t have a feeling about it one way or another.”

Kunzi said criminal charges would be difficult to prove, and he could not think of another case where officers were prosecuted for failing to act. But he said an independent investigation is needed.

“There is enough there to suggest criminal charges are a possibility without question,” he said.

Family wants action taken

Georgia’s mother and Michael’s ex-wife, Chelsea Roberts, said she is pleased that Arabia is asking for an investigation that could lead to criminal charges against the deputies.

“It is clear that the sheriffs who stopped Kennedy prior to the accident knew he (was) intoxicated and against their own protocols and procedures, they allowed him to drive,” she said in an email exchange. “They are just as culpable for the deaths of Georgia, Michael, and Lauren. The complete lack of duty for their job is reprehensible.”

Michael’s mother, Gina Durmeier, agreed.

“I’m very pleased that he is doing that,” Gina wrote in an email exchange. “The sheriff’s department needs a total overhaul. … The officers granted (Kennedy) a license to kill as soon as they gave him the keys to drive.”

The Review-Journal obtained body camera video and documents earlier this year that showed officers found drugs in Kennedy’s truck and repeatedly speculated that he was high. The sheriff’s department initially withheld 23 seconds of audio where Kennedy admits he has to use opioids to avoid drug withdrawal. The sheriff’s office claimed they withheld the audio to protect Kennedy’s right to a fair trial and avoid hindering the prosecution.

Arabia and Kennedy’s defense attorney, Jason Earnest, both said that they were not consulted on withholding the video and believe the sheriff’s office was trying to hide the deputies’ culpability.

“They unilaterally decided what facts I should get or the prosecutor should get and what facts we shouldn’t get,” Earnest said during Kennedy’s sentencing hearing Tuesday. “They’re trying to protect Deputy (Breanna) Nelson, Lieutenant (Alan) Schrimpf, Detective Daniel Fisher, Detective Brooke Gentry.”

After the crash, Wehrly and her staff investigated whether the officers violated any policies, issuing only written reprimands to Nelson, Schrimpf, Gentry and Fischer for failing to follow the department’s evidence- handling policies. She did not explain why officers were not found to have violated a policy that requires them to stop DUI suspects from driving.

The officers involved either couldn’t be reached for comment or directed questions to Brian Hardy, a private attorney defending them in Roberts’ civil lawsuit. Hardy did not respond to calls and emails left at his office.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.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.

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