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Sunbather’s Death Puts Focus on SUV Patrols

Times Staff Writer

After celebrating her son’s wedding, Cindy Conolly wanted to soak up a little more California sun before heading back home to Iowa.

So she stayed by the Oxnard surf Monday afternoon when fiance Bob Pierson walked back to their beachfront hotel.

She didn’t return to the hotel, and it would be an agonizing six hours before Pierson learned what had happened.

Oxnard police officers patrolling the beach in a sport utility vehicle had run over and killed the 49-year-old Sioux City woman as she sunbathed.

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The day after Conolly’s death, her family remained in seclusion at the hotel and were not talking.

Neither were the officers involved in the accident.

Meanwhile, local officials, who described the SUV’s driver as distraught, began investigations and discussed the safety of vehicle patrols on beaches.

On Sunday, along with extended family from Iowa, Conolly attended her son’s wedding at the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach Resort, Ventura County authorities said.

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Now her son is “devastated, just devastated,” said Mike Feiler, a senior deputy medical examiner in the coroner’s office. “The whole family was.”

An autopsy showed that Conolly was killed by injuries to her head and chest, Feiler said.

She probably died immediately, he added.

Feiler, who had met with the family, gave the account of Conolly’s actions before her death.

On Tuesday, Oxnard Police Chief John Crombach met with the woman’s family to answer questions and offer condolences, Police Cmdr. Tom Chronister said.

“This is a tragic, tragic event,” Chronister said. “We’ve been patrolling beaches for at least 30 years, since the mid-1970s, and nothing like this has ever happened.”

Police officials said they were still trying to piece together what happened. The two officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative leave pending investigations by the Police Department and the Ventura County district attorney’s office.

In order to give the officers time to “catch their breath, visit a psychiatrist and talk with their families,” their names are being withheld, police spokesman David Keith said.

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He said the driver was a nine-year veteran of the department and “one of the nicest guys around.” The other officer has been with the department for 20 years, Keith said.

Initial reports indicate that the officers were on patrol about 2 p.m. when they ran over Conolly. Clad in a light blue swimsuit, she was lying near the shoreline, just below a 2-foot-high berm carved by the waves.

The officers told investigators they were looking at someone in the water and didn’t see Conolly as they rolled the Chevy Tahoe down the gentle slope and turned right.

Unaware that they had hit anything, the officers continued driving north along the shoreline and had reached nearby city streets, which they also patrol, when they got a call a few minutes later about a woman bleeding on the beach, Chronister said.

He said it wasn’t until they returned to the site that they realized what had happened. By then, Conolly was dead.

Patty Arthur said she and her husband were body-boarding when the accident occurred. Both of them tried to help Conolly and were still there when the officers arrived.

“The officer, I know he is accountable,” she said of the driver. “But he was a mess. He had his head in his hands and was sobbing.”

Louie Federico was sunbathing about 50 feet away when he noticed Arthur, in a wetsuit, running toward him.

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“She was frantic. She was yelling, ‘Is anybody a doctor or a nurse?’ ” said Federico, 52, a Tujunga repairman.

“I asked why and she said a woman had been run over by a police truck.”

A man performed CPR on Conolly, Federico said, but gave up when he got no response. The severity of her injuries was apparent.

Feiler said Conolly appeared to have been lying face down when she was struck. She probably never knew the truck was coming, he said.

“You’ve got the combination of the crashing surf and the ocean breeze to muffle sounds,” he said. “Maybe she was using the berm to break the wind.”

The family wasn’t immediately notified because Conolly had no identification on her, Chronister said. Police and coroner’s officials surmised she was staying at the Embassy Suites hotel because she had two small white hotel-style towels with her, he said.

They informed the desk clerk about what had happened and asked him to tell anyone looking for a missing woman to call police, Chronister said.

Conolly’s fiance and other family members finally checked with the hotel’s desk sometime after 8 p.m., Chronister said. Other family members may have learned the news from the reporters they met as they searched the beach for Conolly, he said.

“They were looking around for her and a KABC reporter connected the dots,” Chronister said.

Early Tuesday, several family members laid flowers near a small wooden cross erected where Conolly died. They declined to talk to reporters.

Relatives in Iowa described the mother of two grown children as reserved but happy. Conolly had weathered two divorces and was living in Sioux City with her fiance, said Dolores Conolly, her former mother-in-law.

“Even though she and my son split up, I always had a soft spot in my heart for her,” Conolly said. “She was a good housekeeper and loved to cook.”

Julie Conolly, a former sister-in-law, said Cindy was “an incredible person. She cared for everybody.” The wedding was in Oxnard because the bride’s family is from Southern California, she added.

Witnesses said the Chevy Tahoe was going between 5 and 10 miles per hour when it struck Conolly. The Oxnard Police Department does not have a policy regulating how fast vehicles should travel on the sand, Chronister said.

“At this point, the civilian witnesses said speed was not a factor,” he said.

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department patrols beaches in the unincorporated communities of Hollywood Beach and Silver Strand, but doesn’t send a car out unless called, Undersheriff Craig Husband said.

For special events, such as the Fourth of July, the department will patrol the beaches on all-terrain vehicles or horses, Husband said. The department does not have protocols for driving vehicles over the sand, he said.

Unlike the Oxnard police, Ventura County lifeguards and maintenance crews are required to follow strict protocols, said Lyn Krieger, the county’s harbor director. Drivers are trained to look around their trucks before starting them, she said.

If they stop for any reason, they must exit their vehicles and look again before driving away, Krieger said. In addition, drivers are asked to go no faster than 5 mph, even when responding to an emergency, she said.

“It might take a little longer, but it’s worth the safety,” she said.

At Zuma Beach in Los Angeles County, sheriff’s deputies use only all-terrain vehicles to patrol, said Lt. John Benedict of the sheriff’s Malibu Station. If it gets really crowded, they patrol on foot, he said.

Deputies also take a course in beach driving before hitting the sand, Benedict said. Vehicles generally are not used at all because there are too many people, he said.

In Huntington Beach, lifeguards drive pickup trucks, said Matt Karl, the city’s marine safety officer. But they are trained extensively -- up to six years -- before they are given the keys, he said.

Most of the time, they crawl along at 5 mph but are permitted to go as fast as 15 mph in an emergency, Karl said.

“Kids are darting out, people are digging holes and you can come up on something all of a sudden,” he said. “It’s better to just be going slow.”

Vehicle accidents on Southern California beaches are rare. In 1979, a Paris engineer was killed on the beach in Santa Monica when a maintenance truck ran over his head while he was napping.

And in 1986, a Lawndale woman was critically injured when a 4-ton beach tractor rammed into her on Redondo Beach. Catherine Ford survived injuries to her ribs and a lung and later collected a $120,000 settlement.

Times staff writer Gregory W. Griggs contributed to this report.


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