FAIRMONT – The widow of a man killed in a crash with a Fairmont Police Department K9 truck last July is suing the city, the police department and the two officers involved.
The lawsuit filed Monday in Marion County Circuit Court by attorney Tony O’Dell of Charleston used information from the vehicle’s Event Data Recorder – often referred as a black box – as the basis for the lawsuit.
“Defendant [Jakob] Streyle carelessly, recklessly, grossly negligently and/or negligently drove the police cruiser at speeds of at least 73 MPH in a residential area of Fairmont with a posted speed limit of 35 MPH without sounding the siren and/or the flashing blue emergency lights,” states the complaint. “Moreover, Defendant Streyle carelessly, recklessly, grossly negligently and/or negligently drove the police cruiser at excessive speeds even though there was no active emergency call requiring an emergency response from police officers.”
When the crash took place July 10, 2019, local law enforcement released little to no information to the public. It wasn’t until Aug. 4, 2019 that Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Riffle relased the victim’s name. Steven Gene Santini, 72, of Fairmont was killed on impact in the crash and was given “blunt force trauma” as the cause of death.
The Subaru Forester Santini was driving was bent almost into the shape of the letter C by the force of the double cab Dodge Ram K9 truck Streyle was driving. The suit also claims Streyle’s passenger, fellow officer Christopher Guinup, acted irresponsibly and did little or nothing to ask Streyle to slow down the vehicle. The night of the crash, Fairmont Police Chief Steve Shine posted on the department’s Facebook page that officer Streyle was going the speed limit and that Streyle was not responding to an emergency.
“The download of the black box showed that the officer was driving 73 mph – at least 73 because the Fairmont Police Department had put a larger size tires on that truck,” said O’Dell in a phone interview. “And if the police department did not take the truck back to the dealership to have the vehicle calibrated for the larger tires, he was actually driving faster than 73.
Santini sat in his Subaru Forester at the stop sign at the Bison Street intersection on Country Club Road and “waited for a period of time,” the lawsuit states, before attempting to make a lefthand turn onto Country Club Road.
“There were so many witnesses that heard the accident who said it sounded like an explosion or a bomb going off and that is indication enough that he was speeding,” O’Dell said.
Streyle’s police vehicle struck Santini’s Forester broadside in the driver’s side door, “causing the Forester to be flipped on its side and be propelled several yards from the point of impact where it secondarily crashed into a telephone pole and gas pipeline near the roadway,” states the suit. “In addition, the police cruiser spun around and came to rest against Mr. Santini’s Forester. The crash sequence and the damage to the vehicles involved left no doubt to even casual observers that the police cruiser was travelling a very high rate of speed when the crash happened.”
O’Dell criticized the work of law enforcement in the case as well as the behavior of Streyle and Guinup to a point that he said the case should be turned over to the prosecuting attorney’s office as a criminal case.
“The sheriff’s department has known the truth for a long time,” O’Dell said. “This is egregious and it should be turned over to the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
In the Marion County Sheriff’s Office accident investigation report, O’Dell said, investigators included comments from someone who claimed Santini never stopped at the stop sign but ran the sign on his own.
“The family was led to believe that the police cruiser was driving the speed limit and that Mr. Santini just pulled out in front of the cruiser without stopping for the stop sign. None of which was true,” O’Dell said. “They left his family thinking that he killed himself and it wasn’t until his insurance company provided them with the accident reconstruction report until they knew otherwise.”
Meanwhile, Riffle – who is not named in the suit – declined to discuss the case.
“All our office did was the accident investigation,” Riffle said Tuesday. “I really have no comment on it.”
“Based on eyewitnesses, Mr. Santini stopped at the stop sign at the intersection,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell said in preparing to file the suit, he requested a copy of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office traffic crash report. He said the report failed to include a statement from an eyewitness who saw the crash – a witness he interviewed – and who saw Santini sitting at the stop sign waiting for traffic to let up.
“It’s very undetailed for a typical traffic crash report,” O’Dell said. “What was missing was any statement from this witness or her daughter, but what was included was a statement from a witness coming from the other lane of traffic.”
O’Dell said the suit does not seek a specific monetary judgment in the case because there are certain caps for damages under state law. He said it will be up to a Marion County jury to determine the family’s compensation.
“The one thing that cannot be disputed is the download in the black box from the police cruiser. It’s indisputable what the speed was,” O’Dell said. “It was just a tremendous amount of damage and the intrusion into that Subaru Forrester, which is one of the safest vehicles in the world.”
The suit also claims the City of Fairmont is negligent in the case because it failed to provide Streyle and Guinup with appropriate and adequate training on how to operate police cruisers in a safe manner.
“The City of Fairmont is liable for Steven Santini’s injuries and death which was caused by the carelessness, gross negliglence, recklessness and/or neglignce of Officers Streyle and Guinup as described herein,” states the suit. “As a direct and proximate result of the actions or inactions of Defendants as alleged herein, Steven Santini suffered extreme pain, suffering and death.”
Fairmont Police Chief Steve Shine declined to comment on the lawsuit.