More than a month after Dale Earnhardt slammed his stock car into a concrete wall at the Daytona International Speedway, the detective leading the death investigation knows little more about how Earnhardt died than he did on Feb. 18.
From Day 1 of the case, according to the lead investigator, Daytona Beach police have abandoned previous procedures and blocked detectives from making routine inquiries about the death of stock-car racing's most popular driver.
The Orlando Sentinel has learned that:
- Detective Robert Walker, the lead investigator, said he was ordered by a supervisor on the night Earnhardt died not to attend the driver's autopsy or to inspect and photograph the racer's wrecked car. He would not identify the superior.
- Earnhardt's helmet and racing suit went to his family and have never been examined by police or the Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office. Experts say the helmet is a key piece of evidence to analyze in head injury cases like Earnhardt's.
- NASCAR never told Walker about the broken seat belt it later blamed for Earnhardt's fatal head injury. Since then, it has locked away the car in North Carolina and kept the findings of its own crash investigation secret from police.
- Police have done more thorough investigations of previous racing deaths at Daytona International Speedway. For example, after the 1994 death of racer Rodney Orr at Daytona, Walker attended the autopsy and examined the car.
Walker, who has investigated murders and accidental deaths in Daytona Beach since 1991, said he has no explanation for the orders he received.
I do what they tell me to do, he said. I don't know why, and I didn't ask. If left to my own devices, I would have gone to the autopsy and photographed the inside of the vehicle.
On Monday Sgt. Al Tolley, police spokesman, insisted that no one has told police how to investigate the Earnhardt death. He also said that since the death was accidental, it does not require as thorough a probe as a murder case.
You're assuming that these facts are true, Tolley said of Walker's statements. We have to try and find out about it. As far as these questions, you are assuming facts that are in controversy. We'll need more time to review that.
No consistent guidelines
Interviews with law enforcement agencies across the country indicate there is no consistency in how racing deaths are investigated. Unlike such dangerous sports as boxing, stock-car racing has spread across America since the 1940s without government regulation.
At some of the largest tracks in the nation, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Talladega Super Speedway in Alabama; and Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina, police do not work fatal crashes. They say there is nothing to investigate in an accidental death on private property in a sport with well-known risks.
More common are law enforcement agencies that rely completely or partly on NASCAR to do the work. However, officials in states that require racing death investigations say it's foolish to rely on a billion-dollar business to investigate itself, especially when its findings are not public.
When you have self-governing bodies, it's always going to be suspect that they're having the outcome go the way they want them, said Sgt. Eric Mutter, head of the New Jersey State Police Motor Vehicle Racing Control Unit.
When Walker arrived at Halifax Medical Center on Feb. 18, Dale Earnhardt had just died. An ER nurse took Walker to the trauma room where the racer's body already lay covered with a sheet on a gurney. He noticed no marks on Earnhardt's body.
By 5:45 p.m., according to a hospital property inventory sheet, Earnhardt's racing helmet, racing suit, wedding band and other personal items were released to his widow, Teresa.
Walker said he never saw or examined the helmet.
It was gone before I got there, Walker said. I don't know where it went.
About 6:40 p.m., two hours after the crash, he found Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo atop a flatbedtruck in the speedway infield. A tarp covered it. Walker said track officials worried about photographers or souvenir hunters getting near the car.
He spoke to a police superior, who told him, There is no need for you to attend the autopsy tomorrow.
And I said, OK,' recalled Walker, who would not identify the supervisor.
My superior said it was not necessary to look in the car or photograph it at this time. And I never saw the car again.
Before leaving the track that night, Walker said he talked to a NASCAR official who was planning to ship Earnhardt's car to North Carolina. Walker said he told racing officials the car needed to remain at the track until the autopsy was completed the next day.
A detective photographed the front of the car sitting in a trailer the next day. A medical examiner investigator shot interior photos of the car, but they were of poor quality.
Orders went against practice
The orders not to inspect the car surprised Walker, who said they were contrary to his practice of photographing the crime scene and the victim's autopsy. That's what he did in February 1994, when he was assigned to investigate the death of NASCAR driver Rodney Orr, who died while practicing for the Daytona 500.
According to Walker, other homicide detectives and crime scene technicians followed a similar process while investigating the death of driver Neil Bonnett, who also died while practicing during Speed Weeks in 1994.
There was a detective at Bonnett's autopsy, Walker said. In the past, we've done that. But there's no SOP (standard operating procedure) in our manual on stock car drivers' deaths at the Speedway because they're infrequent.
Dave Byron, a spokesman for the Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office, said Walker was invited to attend the autopsy, but declined. Byron said it was rather uncommon for detectives to attend an autopsy involving an accidental death.
Walker said he attends autopsies of all homicides and unusual accidental deaths. Dr. Ronald Reeves, Volusia medical examiner from 1991 to 1998, said he believed that detectives attended autopsies of both NASCAR drivers in 1994.
He said he urged detectives to attend autopsies of homicide and accident victims and to shoot their own photographs as back-up documentation.
All of a sudden, we have a celebrity (die), big ownership and influence in Volusia County by NASCAR and politicians that don't want to upset them, said Reeves, who resigned in 1998 over a dispute about drug doses given to Hospice patients.
'Checks and balances'
Former Chief Paul Crow, who ran the police department from 1988 through 1995, said his detectives attended all autopsies of racing deaths at the Speedway.
We did that to make sure all the bases were touched, Crow said of how his agency shadowed NASCAR inquiries. There has to be checks and balances.
Crow said he never had a problem with NASCAR, but he wanted to make sure the police department's handling of racing deaths did not come back to embarrass it.
Five days after the crash, Walker said he learned from media and Internet accounts of a NASCAR press conference in Rockingham, N.C., that a broken seat belt had been found in Earnhardt's car. NASCAR officials announced that they had discovered the problem with the belt the night of the accident.
Nobody mentioned a broken seat belt to me, Walker said. I have not had any contact with any NASCAR officials since that night.
NASCAR has said it sent the seat belt to a company for testing. Spokesman John Griffin said he was unaware of any restrictions on police photographing or inspecting Earnhardt's car. Griffin also said he does not know when NASCAR last talked to Daytona police about its findings.
Tolley questioned whether examining Earnhardt's helmet was necessary for the police probe. He noted that since two NASCAR drivers died in 1994, a new medical examiner and police chief have come into office, with different policies and procedures.
Police Chief Kenneth Small was heading out of town but would be able to discuss the matter in the next week or so, Tolley said Monday.
Walker, 39, said he thinks his department was caught in a Catch-22 situation common to investigation of racing deaths nationwide. The fatalities are not really a mystery because they occur at high speed in front of thousands of witnesses.
Also, police may not be equipped to handle some technical aspects of the investigation because the race cars and the track are much different from ordinary passenger vehicles and public roadways.
What happens if a driver dies on Lap 4 of the Daytona 500? Walker asked. Do you stop the race so police can take measurements? I don't see how it would be practical, especially with 167,000 fans watching.
But that's exactly what would happen in New Jersey, Connecticut, and now in New Hampshire.
Loudon, N.H., is where fourth-generation racer Adam Petty and veteran driver Kenny Irwin died in separate crashes last year at New Hampshire International Speedway. Track officials did not notify police until hours after the wreckage was cleared away, effectively destroying clues to the deaths.
Loudon Police Chief Bob Fiske then announced his agency would investigate all Speedway crashes. Citing a law that makes him responsible for investigating all deaths in the town, he convinced track owners and NASCAR president Mike Helton to draft an agreement on race-death inquiries.
Not even Daytona Beach, the home of NASCAR, has such an agreement.
It isn't something we want to do. It's something we have to do under state law, Fiske said. I would think everybody would want it investigated so nobody could point fingers. . .
After the October 1999 death of Greg Moore in an open-cockpit, Indianapolis-style race car, police officials in Fontana, Calif., met with track officials, the medical examiner and emergency staffers to forge an agreement under which police and Championship Auto Racing Teams, another racing group, cooperate on investigating racing deaths.
Prior to that, there had never been any discussion on that, said Lt. Larry Brown of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, who works as liaison with the track. The track was still fairly new. After that, we decided to do a game plan.
The only states that have investigated all fatal racing crashes are New Jersey and Connecticut, neither of which has major NASCAR/Winston Cup tracks.
The tail doesn't wag the dog. It's a crime scene, said Connecticut State Police spokesman Sgt. Paul Vance. We would literally take control of everything, and nothing would be released until our investigation was completed.
Helmets often not examined
Because of controversy over what caused Earnhardt's skull fracture, experts say his racing helmet should have been examined for marks and impact.
If it was a head injury, that's the first thing you look at to make sure it was up to standards, said Mutter of the New Jersey State Police.
Crash and autopsy records show that NASCAR does not consistently turn over helmets for investigations.
When Petty died May 12, his helmet was given to New Hampshire's chief medical examiner. When Irwin died July 7, no helmet was sent to the morgue for study.
In another case, a driver's helmet disappeared.
John Nemechek died of fatal head injuries after a March 16, 1997 in a crash at Metro-Dade's Homestead Motorsports Complex. Dr. Ray Fernandez of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office wanted to inspect the helmet, but it was never found.
According to a police report, a NASCAR official told Metro-Dade police that the helmet was sent to its manufacturer, but the company said it was never received.