Ex-Torrance Officer Denies Cover-Up in '84 Fatal Crash

Times Staff Writer

Former Torrance Police Officer Timothy Thornton on Wednesday denied allegations made earlier this week that he and other officers concealed a police sergeant's drunkenness on the night of a fatal 1984 traffic accident.

Thornton testified in Los Angeles Superior Court that he never admitted being part of a cover-up to protect Sgt. Rollo Green, contradicting testimony Monday by Timothy Pappas, another former officer.

The conflicting testimony grows out of a lawsuit filed in 1984 by John and Geraldine Rastello of San Pedro, whose son Kelly, 19, died in the traffic collision with Green. The suit alleges that nine members of the Torrance Police Department covered up Green's drunken driving as part of a pattern of whitewashing police misconduct.

Crash Reconstruction Expert

Jurors also heard Wednesday from another defense witness, a crash reconstruction expert who said Rastello caused the late-night crash by speeding on his motorcycle and not applying his brakes properly.

Thornton, 30, told jurors that he smelled alcohol on Green's breath after the crash but that the off-duty sergeant did not appear to be drunk.

Defense attorney Casey Yim then asked Thornton if he had made the admissions that Pappas described: that he had covered up, admitted lying in a pretrial deposition and said that others lied, too. "No sir," a stone-faced Thornton answered repeatedly.

Lawyers for the Rastello family attacked Thornton's credibility, asking him about two incidents in which he allegedly lied. The first allegation led to Thornton's suspension and the second to his firing, he testified.

In the first case, Thornton said he was accused of falsifying a report to make it look as if he had proper cause to make a marijuana arrest. Although he continued to deny the allegation Wednesday, Thornton acknowledged that his superiors sustained the accusation and suspended him.

Limited Discussion

Only limited details of the second incident were discussed in court because of an order by Judge Abby Soven. But because of criminal charges involving other officers, many of the facts have previously been made public.

Thornton was a witness to the incident in May, 1988, when Pappas shot an unarmed man, Patrick J. Coyle, whom he had pulled over during routine patrol. Coyle was partially paralyzed as a result.

Police reports about the incident say that the three officers at the scene--Pappas, Thornton and Mark Holden--all said that Pappas fired his gun after Coyle moved suddenly, as if to reach for a weapon. All three officers were fired later when Thornton told police supervisors that the story was a lie and that Pappas fired his gun without provocation. According to Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden, the shooting appears to have been accidental.

Darden subsequently offered Thornton immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony against Pappas and Holden. The two officers are scheduled for a preliminary hearing Sept. 12 in Los Angeles Municipal Court on two felony charges--conspiracy to obstruct justice and conspiracy to falsely charge another with a crime.

Pappas and Holden have pleaded not guilty.

Speeding Cited

Earlier in the day, crash reconstruction expert Harry Hurt told the jury that his study of the crash showed that Kelly Rastello was speeding at 57 m.p.h. and applied only one of his two brakes before he crashed into the side of Green's pickup truck.

The motorcycle had just stopped at a light, Hurt testified, and "was not just going fast, it was going almost as fast as it could go."

Skid marks at the crash scene, the intersection of Rolling Hills Road and Whiffletree Lane, show that Rastello only applied his rear-wheel brake, Hurt testified. He said that if Rastello had used his front brake, too, he would have had plenty of time to avoid the collision with Green.

Hurt told the jury that test stops at the scene of the crash proved that a motorcycle like Rastello's can stop in time when it is not speeding and, even when traveling too fast, when both brakes are applied.

Apparent Inexperience

Hurt said that Rastello's apparent inexperience may have led to his failure to apply both brakes.

Plaintiffs' attorney Browne Greene said during intense cross-examination that Hurt failed to consider all the factors in the crash. He said Hurt neglected to account for the fact that Green admitted he had been drinking; could not explain how Green failed to see the motorcycle until the last second, and drew inaccurate conclusions because his reconstruction was based on incorrect assumptions about the accident.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World