Torrance Police Conspired to Protect Sergeant, Lawsuit Alleges

Times Staff Writer

A San Pedro couple have filed suit against the Torrance Police Department and a police sergeant, claiming that the department conspired to protect the sergeant after he was involved in a traffic accident that killed their son.

In the lawsuit, the parents say investigating officers waited at least an hour to give Sgt. Rollo Green a sobriety test and did not give him a chemical test that would establish his blood-alcohol level. A sworn statement taken for the lawsuit from another Torrance officer said Green had alcohol on his breath and that the department knew Green had a drinking problem.

The officer also testified that he thought Green was at fault. The official report, signed by another officer, blamed the victim, Kelly Rastello, 19.

In an unrelated incident four months after the accident, Green, 40, was found to have liquor on his breath, slurred speech and unsteadiness on his feet at a Torrance service station, according to an investigating officer and two witnesses. Green, an 18-year veteran of the Torrance department, was not charged with drunk driving.

'Properly Carried Out'

Green and top police officials declined to be interviewed. City Manager LeRoy Jackson said, "We believe the investigation (of the accident) was properly carried out." He said he did not think the city will be found liable for any damages. In a hearing this week on the lawsuit, filed late last year by John and Gerrie Rastello, the couple's attorney agreed to make technical amendments to the suit. The attorney, Donna Evans, said it could be as much as five years before the case is settled or goes to trial.

However, sworn statements, called depositions, made available to The Times this week outline elements of the Rastellos' case.

Kelly Rastello was killed when his Kawasaki 400 motorcycle ran into Green's pickup, as it was turning left from Rolling Hills Road to Whiffletree Lane at 10 minutes before midnight on Aug. 30, 1984.

Police gave Green a coordination test for alcohol influence and determined that the sergeant was not drunk. The test was given an hour to an hour and 15 minutes after the accident and consisted of an officer watching him walk 40 to 50 feet and then having him follow a light with his eyes, Green said in a sworn statement.

Green said he thought he had sufficient time to complete his turn safely before oncoming traffic drew near and saw the motorcycle only at the last second.

The Rastellos' claim that Green was at fault in the accident found support in a sworn statement by Officer Richard Silagy, one of the officers called to the scene.

Motorcycle Speed

Silagy said the speed of the motorcycle contributed to the accident but in his deposition he assigned most of the blame to Green:

"It is my opinion the left-hand turn was made in front of the motorcycle which caused the accident. Based on the California vehicle code, I would say that the left-hand turn was made in an illegal manner, number one, being the motorcycle was traveling in an opposite direction posed a hazard; number two, that the left-hand turn was not made in the position of the roadway as required by law."

Silagy said the motorcycle driver would have been able to see Green if the sergeant had made his turn properly.

Green conceded in his deposition that he had cut short his turn, crossing lanes slantwise instead of using a right angle as required. He was not cited for any such violation.

Silagy also testified that Green had a reputation in the department as a man with a drinking problem. In his deposition, Green said he attended one meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous two months before the accident at the suggestion of Lt. David Marsden, an employee assistance counselor at the police department.

Marsden urged Green to go after the sergeant described an argument with his wife.

"It was just something crazy and stupid," Green testified.

"I was probably drinking about my third drink when she came in," Green said in the deposition, and he described himself as "probably on my way, if not intoxicated."

He went to the AA meeting--"just a matter of sitting around in a circle listening to everybody. I did say something, something along the lines of having been involved with an argument with my wife with drinking having been involved."

Meetings 'Unnecessary'

Marsden invited Green to go to other AA meetings but he refused. "I thought they were absolutely unnecessary," he said in the deposition.

"I don't have a habit," Green testified. He said he might drink a six-pack of beer during the week and two on the weekend. "That is not an average. Sometimes, I won't have anything to drink for a couple of months," he said.

In his deposition, Green gave the following account of the hours preceding the fatal accident:

He arrived home from work before 4 p.m. and fixed himself a whiskey and water. He made two ham sandwiches and ate them. He began cleaning up his garage. By 6 p.m., he had finished--and finished his second whiskey and water.

His wife came home. He chatted with her, then went upstairs to read a newspaper and watch TV. His wife went out shopping. Green took his dog out for a nightly romp with a Frisbee.

About 8 p.m. he returned home and then shortly before 9 p.m. decided to visit Earl Stiles, a disabled friend. He drank two 12-ounce beers during his visit, finishing the second at 11:30 as he left to return home.

Kelly Rastello, 19, was on his way home after visiting his girlfriend when the accident occurred.

He had graduated from Mary Star of the Sea High School in June, 1983, and worked as a short-order cook, construction helper and assistant to an apartment manager after graduating.

Citation for Bravery

An average student, his chief distinction came in March, 1983, when he was awarded a citation for bravery after coming to the aid of a 70-year-old neighbor who was "being choked by a drug-crazed assailant," according to the plaque issued by the Los Angeles chief of police.

His father said Kelly's life had been settling into a more directed pattern during the summer of 1984. He had decided to go to college and become an accountant.

In the aftermath of his death, the Rastellos are bitter that the police department told them at the hospital only that their son was speeding and omitted mention of alcohol on Green's breath or his left turn.

Depositions have been taken in the lawsuit, but motions by defense counsel so far have resulted in four amended complaints and this week, attorney Donna Evans agreed to submit another amended complaint within 30 days. Evans, who said it could be five years before the case goes to trial, questioned whether the Torrance Superior Court, where Green's wife works as a court reporter, is the proper place for the trial. A motion to move the case to Los Angeles was denied.

Evans stumbled across the later incident at the Chevron station, which happened four months after the motorcycle accident, when taking a deposition from Officer Jeffrey Woods, who was at the scene of the fatal accident.

Attendant's Report

Rob Ralph, 18, an attendant at the station, told a reporter he saw Green drive into the Hillside Chevron station at Hawthorne Boulevard and Newton Street about 9:30 p.m. Jan. 11.

"I could tell he had been drinking," Ralph said.

Cashier Denise Hayward, 23, of Lawndale, also believed Green was drunk and called Torrance police, she said. She and Ralph took turns stalling Green. She let air out of one tire. Ralph took air out of another and checked under the hood.

Ralph said he saw Green drive to one side of the station lot after refilling the tires. Hayward said she went over and got into the truck and talked to him.

When Woods arrived, Hayward got out and Green turned on his lights and engine but did not drive off, Ralph said.

Woods testified that he smelled alcohol on Green's breath and observed slurred speech. Green failed to stand without wobbling on one leg, had difficulty reciting the alphabet and trouble touching his finger to his nose, Woods said in his deposition.

"I never observed him driving," Woods said when asked why Green was not charged with driving while drunk. Ralph said he did not recall Woods asking if he had seen Green drive. Woods escorted Green home.

Torrance Police Chief Donald E. Nash, who did not respond to calls from The Times, wrote Hayward shortly after the incident.

Efforts Praised

"The personal interest and initiative you took in keeping the subject from driving his vehicle is very worthy and may have prevented a serious accident from occurring," Nash wrote.

Neither Nash, nor the investigating officers, informed Hayward or Ralph that Green was a policeman. The two learned of his rank this week from a reporter.

Because records of police discipline normally are not public under California law it is not known whether Green faced any disciplinary action as a result of the incident. City Manager Jackson said there is no record of a suspension.

Green, who supervised 10 detectives before the suspension, now works the graveyard shift of the patrol division, a transfer that he requested, patrol commander Capt. James Weyant said.

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