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Hawaii News

Hawaii island officer cleared in crash that killed teen

KELSEY WALLING / TRIBUNE-HERALD
                                A memorial with flowers, photos, mementos and personal belongings was on display Tuesday to honor Sam Mwarey on Kapiolani Street in Hilo. Friends and family have often gathered at the memorial to remember and honor him.
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KELSEY WALLING / TRIBUNE-HERALD

A memorial with flowers, photos, mementos and personal belongings was on display Tuesday to honor Sam Mwarey on Kapiolani Street in Hilo. Friends and family have often gathered at the memorial to remember and honor him.

An 18-year Hawaii Police Department veteran who was behind the wheel of a police cruiser when it struck and killed a 16-year-old pedestrian in January is back on duty.

According to Hawaii island Police Chief Benjamin Moszkowicz, the officer — who had been placed on paid administrative leave following the Jan. 5 crash that killed Hilo High School junior Samuel Mwarey — has been cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation of the crash conducted by a third-party consultant, as well as an administrative investigation conducted by the Office of Professional Standards, the department’s internal affairs unit.

“The officer was out on administrative leave for several weeks, until she got the treatment that she needed to be cleared to come back,” Moszkowicz said. “Before anybody comes back from a critical incident, we make sure that they are mentally, physically and emotionally prepared to do their job fully.”

Police say Mwarey was on the roadway, not in a pedestrian crosswalk, wearing dark clothing on a rainy night in a poorly lit area of Kapiolani Street in Hilo between the YMCA and Hawaii Care Choices when he was struck at about 10:24 p.m. by the blue-and-white, a 2008 Ford Crown Victoria sedan.

Mwarey died at 12:16 a.m. Jan. 8 at Hilo Medical Center.

Moszkowicz said the East Hawaii Traffic Enforcement Unit performed a preliminary investigation into the crash “to give us a baseline of what they think happened.”

According to Moszkowicz, a mainland contractor, Mills Consulting, was brought in to do an “independent crash reconstruction.”

“There are a lot of factors that made it very difficult for the vehicle operator to see,” Moszkowicz said. “For me it boils down to what the consultant said in their report — which is based on all these factors, the composition of the roadway and the condition of the vehicle and all these things. With the vehicle’s headlights on and the dark situation, the average recognition distance for someone traveling at the speed limit would be 75 feet for them to see the person. And the average distance for them to avoid something they saw would be 97.5 feet.”

The chief said there are surveillance cameras in the area, but none covering the part of the street where the fatal collision occurred. He said the officer had her body-worn camera activated, as well, but it provided only a view of the police cruiser’s steering wheel when the accident occurred. It didn’t provide a view of the instrument panel, nor was the crash data recorder — also known as the “black box” — activated by the impact of the crash, so investigators did what is known as a “time-over distance calculation” of the sedan’s speed using surveillance videos of the cruiser, Moszkowicz said.

“The speed limit in the area is 35 miles per hour,” he said. “And (according to) the time-over-distance calculation from the closest camera to where the crash happened immediately before the crash, the police car was going 25 miles per hour. So, we don’t believe speed to be a factor. And the calculations, based on the vehicle’s speed, is that the vehicle driver could not have seen and been able to reasonably avoid” the collision.

The officer, who was not publicly identified by police, wasn’t under the influence of any intoxicants, according to Moszkowicz.

“Her blood-alcohol content was zero.”

A toxicology report for Mwarey found he had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19%, almost 2.5 times the legal threshold for intoxication, Moszkowicz said.

The teen pedestrian also had cannabinoids in his system, according to the chief, indicating prior use of cannabis or a concentrate of it.

Video examined by investigators contain another possible contributing factor in the collision, Moszkowicz said.

“A couple of minutes before the crash, we have surveillance footage in the area of multiple young people, riding skateboards up and down Kapiolani Street,” he said. “It’s dark and it’s raining, and they’re all wearing dark clothes. We have several witnesses who said it looked like they were jumping their skateboards on and off the curb. We also have a report from a person who happened to be driving through the area several minutes before the crash.

“The witness observed these kids and described it as they were playing chicken with cars. Whether that’s what happened in the crash or not, I don’t know.”

Moszkowicz said that the officer “does the right thing” following the collision.

“She stops at the scene. She renders first aid,” he said. “She calls her supervisor, she immediately contacts dispatch, says where she is and she needs an ambulance because she’s been involved in a collision. When the patrol officers get there, the scene is preserved.

“Regardless of the factors, it’s a tragedy. It’s horrible anytime somebody dies for any of our officers to be involved. And for the victim to be so young with a full life ahead of him — nobody wins.”

Friends and family have erected a memorial to Mwarey, who was a popular student and aspiring footballer at Hilo High, and numerous social media posts refer to seeking “Justice4Sam” and “Justice for Sammy,” with at least one alleging a police cover- up regarding his death.

Mwarey’s father, Wilfred “Waion” Prens, on June 2 posted a video on Facebook of someone driving on Kapiolani Street after dark.

“I can still see. They said is dark,” he wrote. “Where is the dark. Get lights you can see clear. It’s very narrow road. I’m driving back and (forth) try to understand that nite. Nothing make any sense. You can see everything. How can you not see my son. I miss my son so much.”

A GoFundMe page, which can be found on the site by searching for “Mwarey,” has raised $10,600 of a $25,000 goal to help with medical and funeral expenses. Mwarey’s older brother, Stan Mwarey, is the beneficiary.

“I ask from anyone reading this that you share anything you can for his medical expenses. Also please share and repost this and spread this to everyone, pray and support Sam,” he wrote.

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