Torrance Police on Trial in Crash Fatal to Teen-Ager
An off-duty Torrance police sergeant appeared drunk about 15 minutes after his pickup truck and a motorcycle collided, killing its rider, a witness testified Thursday in a civil trial against the Torrance Police Department.
Other witnesses in the first day of testimony said Sgt. Rollo Green was not at the scene immediately after the accident on Aug. 30, 1984, that killed 19-year-old Kelly Rastello. The testimony seemed to support contentions by his family’s lawyer that Green may have fled the crash site.
The accusations against Green are part of a Los Angeles Superior Court suit filed by Rastello’s family that seeks unspecified monetary damages from Torrance and alleges that Torrance officers covered up for their colleague.
Lawyers for the Rastello family have said they will attempt to show that Green, who was never charged, was responsible for the accident and that the cover-up was part of a pattern in which Torrance officers habitually concealed wrongdoing by fellow police.
In fact, witnesses testifying later in the trial are expected to review more than two dozen citizens complaints against police about drunkenness, sexual assault and other abuses that allegedly have been covered up, said Rastello’s lawyers.
The trial is being widely watched for the unprecedented view it is expected to offer of the police department in Torrance, a city that has long prided itself on resolving its disputes in-house.
Expected to last several weeks, the trial promises to provide an exhaustive review of alleged acts of misconduct over several years by the county’s third-largest police department. Before the proceedings, the city was forced to turn over 500,000 pages of documents, most of them police files.
Lawyers for Green and the city dispute the allegations. They have told the jury that Green was not drunk and that Rastello was speeding when he crashed into Green’s pickup truck while it was making a left turn. The city’s lawyers also say allegations of police misconduct are thoroughly reviewed.
Key testimony came Thursday from a San Pedro man who happened on the scene of the accident, at the intersection of Rolling Hills Road and Whiffletree Lane. He said he talked to Green 15 minutes after the accident, which occurred just before midnight.
‘Uneasy on His Feet’
“He seemed very uneasy on his feet,” said Tony Andrie. “I would use the word queasy. He was swaying back and forth.”
Andrie, who said he had worked as a bartender, testified: “If he was a customer at my bar, I would not have served him another drink. . . . That’s the level of sobriety he was at.”
Green’s lawyers attacked Andrie’s credibility, repeatedly asking him why he had not come forward until more than four years after the accident.
“I did not want to cause any more grief for the family,” Andrie said, adding he did not know how important his observations were until his mother had a chance meeting this year with Rastello’s grandmother, who mentioned the upcoming trial.
Andrie also testified that he helped to mop up gasoline from Rastello’s motorcycle and that he spoke to two women who had stopped at the accident site.
The women, returning home from a night of dinner and dancing, said they were the first to arrive at the crash scene. Rosalie White testified that she tried to comfort Rastello. “I told him that he shouldn’t be afraid,” she recalled. “That help was coming and that he shouldn’t worry.” Then she began to pray, she testified.
The women corroborated Andrie’s testimony that Green, who lived a block from the intersection, was not at the crash site for at least 15 minutes after the accident. They said that when Green did appear, to the rear of a group of onlookers, he did not come forward.
Green’s lawyer, Will J. Pirkey, suggested in questioning that the women might simply have overlooked Green because they were busy tending to the youth, who later died at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
In Shock, Bleeding
Green was in shock and bleeding from a cut on his face after the accident, Pirkey said during the questioning.
Torrance police officers have said they observed Green’s behavior, performed an eye-gaze test and decided that he was not under the influence and should not be arrested. The Police Department never sampled Green’s breath, blood or urine to determine the sergeant’s blood-alcohol level. Green admitted he had been drinking but said he was not drunk.
Judge Abby Soven estimated the case will go to the jury in about five weeks.
The list of potential witnesses to be called to the stand includes Police Chief Donald Nash, Mayor Katy Geissert, City Manager LeRoy Jackson and several current and former members of the City Council.