Few things are more intricate than trying to reconstruct a fatal accident.
Just ask the Richmond County Serious Traffic Accident Response unit, also known as the STAR team.
“We have to look at every single factor,” said Sgt. Danny Whitehead, who is a supervisor on the DUI task force and the STAR team. “Accidents are complicated.”
The STAR team was assembled in the beginning of 2011 because the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office felt they needed to put more effort into fatal accident investigations, Capt. Scott Gay said. Before 2011, there was one person assigned to fatalities at the department.
“It’s a lot for one person,” he said.
There are 10 officers on the STAR team, working in two teams of five. The teams consist of DUI task force and traffic deputies who work regular shifts each week and are on call for STAR every other week.
As soon as an accident occurs that causes death or serious injury, the STAR team is called to the scene. The Georgia State Patrol is not involved in Richmond County accidents, though it does investigate wrecks elsewhere.
The STAR team got its first conviction March 15 in the Christopher Roberts case.
Roberts, 37, was driving under the influence when his vehicle struck a guardrail on Bobby Jones Expressway, killing Whitney Revis, of Clearwater, S.C., in June.
After pleading guilty to vehicular homicide, Roberts received the maximum sentence of 15 years, along with a 12-month sentence for failure to maintain lane.
“It was a long sentence for a vehicular homicide case,” Whitehead said, noting that Roberts had two previous DUIs. “Justice was definitely served in this case.”
Whitehead said the STAR team’s attention to detail and teamwork are what led to such an open-and-shut case. The steps they take in each case are the result of many advanced traffic classes and high-tech equipment.
When they get to a scene, the first step is to render assistance if needed, Whitehead said. The officers assess the situation to see if they need to help anyone.
The next step is to protect the evidence, which means blocking traffic and any other factor that could interfere with the scene.
“The scene is really important,” Whitehead said. “It can help us determine exactly what happened.”
After everything is protected, the team uses all-weather paint to mark the important points, including skid marks and debris.
The officers also assess all the vehicles involved. They look for a number of things, including brake pads, tire pressure and seat belts.
“We look at everything,” he said. “Is it an unsafe vehicle? Could this have been avoided? Was there negligence?”
They speak to witnesses and work the investigation.
Later, they return with their total station, a machine which surveys the scene, and later allows the team to recreate it to scale.
After they have the recreation, they all sit down and talk about the entire investigation and what, if any, charges should be brought or any next steps.
In 2011, the STAR team worked about 45 cases, 37 of which were fatalities.
The team has a few cases in the court system now, and others that will not include any charges, like the one officers surveyed at Peach Orchard Road recently.
On March 15, Gloria Jenkins, 27, was traveling northbound on Peach Orchard Road in the left lane when she crossed the center line, striking a tractor-trailer that was traveling southbound in the left lane near Brown Road. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
The STAR team investigated and found Jenkins at fault. Since she was the only one harmed, the STAR team’s findings will most likely be used by insurance companies.
In other cases , like the Roberts accident, the STAR team is responsible for putting a dangerous driver behind bars.
“It was a big win for us,” Whitehead said.