Loved Ones Still Reeling From Sunbather's Death

Times Staff Writer

Bob Pierson is haunted by the question. If he had just stayed with his fiancee, Cindy, for a few minutes more as she sunbathed, "Could I have saved her?"

The two police officers didn't see Cindy Conolly as they patrolled Oxnard's Mandalay State Beach in a 5,500-pound Chevy Tahoe. When the SUV ran over her, they didn't even realize they had hit something.

Surely, Pierson thinks, they wouldn't have been able to miss him -- with his 6-foot-1 frame and shock of red hair.

Conolly, 49, died on the beach June 12, the day after her son Ronnie's wedding on that same sand.

Ronnie Bassett now wonders whether he should get an annulment to keep from always associating his vows with his mother's death.

Conolly's brother, Randy Hudson, wants to know when the officers involved will be held accountable and why one of them is already back on the job.

And with a season of beach outings beckoning, Conolly's family and many others are wondering what changes the Oxnard Police Department will make to prevent another tragic accident -- and whether it can ever be safe to allow sport utility vehicles on beaches where people are sunbathing.

Public agencies' policies for driving vehicles on the beach vary from detailed regulations and mandatory training, as in the California State Parks system, to no specific rules, as in Oxnard.

Bassett wondered why the Oxnard police beach patrols don't use all-terrain vehicles. "I'd like to know why they feel like they have to drive SUVs on the beach," he said. "There is no reason for it."

Some counties and cities have banned vehicles on the beach. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department doesn't allow street vehicles of any kind on the county's most popular beaches.

In Florida, Miami Beach police adopted strict codes after two tourists were run over by a police SUV in 2003. They were sisters visiting from France; one was killed and the other was seriously injured.

Now, Miami Beach vehicles are prohibited from patrolling beaches unless responding to a call for service.

Policies vary widely, in part because accidents are so rare, officials say.

Until Conolly's death, only five accidents involving public vehicles had occurred on California state beaches since 1987, none of them fatal, said Alex Peabody, aquatics specialist for the state parks system. All of them occurred before 1992, when the state adopted a policy requiring parks employees to undergo mandatory beach driving training, Peabody said.

Conolly's death was the first in the 35-year history of Oxnard beach patrols, officials there have said.

The patrols were suspended after the accident but will resume Tuesday, Oxnard Police Cmdr. Tom Chronister said.

The SUV involved in the accident has been impounded, but officers will use four-wheel-drive pickup trucks to look for illegal fireworks on the beach, Chronister said.

Last week, 10 Oxnard officers were trained in the same beach driving guidelines followed by state parks employees -- and other changes may come after an internal investigation into the accident is complete, Chronister said.

The Ventura County district attorney's office is also reviewing the case for potential criminal violations, officials said.

Meanwhile, Officer Martin Polo, 42, who was a passenger in the police SUV, has returned to regular patrol duties, Oxnard Police spokesman David Keith said.

Officer Frank Brisslinger, 39, who was driving, is still on paid administrative leave, Keith said. The decision on when an officer returns to work is made jointly by the officer and the department, he added.

"Polo wanted to come back to work and he was cleared to come back," Keith said. "The other officer is not ready."

Hudson, Conolly's brother, said he is furious that Polo is back at work so soon. Hudson believes Polo and Brisslinger should face punishment for what they did, even though it was an accident.

"They were negligent and didn't use any common sense," Hudson said. "For them to kill my sister and not have to pay some consequence is not right."

Police have given conflicting versions of what happened in the early afternoon of June 12.

Conolly was sunbathing near the water, just below a 2-foot berm made by waves. She was wearing a light-blue bathing suit.

In the hours immediately after the tragedy, police said the officers had briefly stopped the SUV at the top of the berm to look at a swimmer in the water before rolling down a shallow grade and over Conolly's body.

But the next day, Chronister said that account was incorrect and that the officers had told investigators that they did not stop before driving down the berm. Witnesses said they were traveling between 5 mph and 10 mph.

A Ventura County medical examiner said Conolly's injuries indicated that she was lying on her stomach parallel to the berm when struck. She died immediately from crushing injuries to her head and chest.

Bassett said the tragedy turned what had been the happiest weekend of his life into the saddest. Just before the wedding ceremony, his mother had pulled him aside to share a private moment.

"She said, 'Ronnie, I thought I'd never see you get married and I'm so happy for you,' " said Bassett, 31. "She told me she loved me, and I told her I loved her."

He and his wife, Cara, didn't go on a planned honeymoon to Hawaii. Instead, they returned to their Minneapolis home to plan Conolly's funeral.

"We talked about annulling our marriage," he said. "But even if we do that, that weekend will always be in our heads."

Bassett has hired an Oxnard attorney, Mark Hiepler, to file a lawsuit against the city. The family also would like to have a bench with Conolly's name on it placed close to where she died, he said.

He said he and other relatives intend to fight for changes in policies concerning driving on the sand. Bassett did not offer specifics but said the rules adopted by the state parks system would be a "good start."

Those protocols require a driver to get out and inspect all sides of a vehicle before proceeding down the beach, said Peabody of the state parks system. Drivers are told to be especially vigilant when approaching berms because people often use them as a comfortable backrest while sunning, he said.

Using cones to indicate a driving path can be helpful, Peabody said, but drivers must still be on the lookout for sunbathers who don't notice them.

During mandatory training, state parks employees learn where the blind spots are on each vehicle, Peabody said. They are also encouraged to avoid making right turns.

"That's the greatest blind spot area from the driver's side," he said. "If they are making a regular patrol, do it in a way so that you make left-hand turns."

Peabody said a state analysis showed that most accidents occur when beaches are lightly populated.

"That shows that you can never relax while driving on the beach," he said. "You have to be constantly vigilant."

The Florida accident occurred in February 2003 as Stephanie and Sandrine Tunc were sunbathing in Miami Beach. A Miami Beach police officer driving an SUV was looking for a robbery suspect when he drove over both women. Stephanie, 28, was killed and Sandrine, 27, suffered major damage to her internal organs.

Besides banning routine patrols on the beach, Miami Beach also instituted a rule that all vehicles on the beach must use flashing lights.

The French family settled a lawsuit for $1.5 million. An investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney's office concluded that the officer was negligent in failing to observe the sunbathers, but no criminal charges were filed.

Back in Sioux City, Iowa, Pierson is struggling to resume a life that no longer includes the woman he intended to marry later this summer.

"We wanted to wait until after Ronnie and Cara's marriage -- we didn't want to take away any of their excitement," Pierson said.

The couple's California vacation was nearing an end that morning when they took a walk on the beach. They saw dolphins jumping in the ocean and a persistent June gloom suddenly lifted, Pierson said.

Conolly decided to take in a little sun before returning home the next day, he said. Pierson sunned with her for 90 minutes, until his skin began getting red. Then he headed back to their hotel near the beach.

His last image was of Cindy "lying there soaking up the rays, looking as content as any mother of a groom could be."

"She looked so beautiful," he said.

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