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Lakewood cop fired for Gig Harbor drunken driving crash that destroyed police vehicle

Gig Harbor senior tells of night drunk Lakewood cop crashed outside her residence

Lakewood police officer Eric Bell has lost his job after drinking and driving and destroying his police vehicle in a crash in Gig Harbor in 2018. He was fired in February.
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Lakewood police officer Eric Bell has lost his job after drinking and driving and destroying his police vehicle in a crash in Gig Harbor in 2018. He was fired in February.

Lakewood police officer Eric Bell got drunk and crashed his police vehicle in 2018, just after dropping his son off at his ex-wife’s home in Gig Harbor. In February, he lost his job over the incident.

City Manager John Caulfield terminated Bell on Feb. 15 after an investigation and hearing, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune through a public records request. Bell’s termination letter and the internal police report on the incident were among those records.

Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro recommended the termination.

“Eric is not a bad person but made a series of very bad decisions with very serious consequences,” Zaro said in a statement to The News Tribune. “We hope Eric is able to find a second chance in law enforcement, but the best decision for the City in this case was to terminate his employment.”

Bell served 15 years in Lakewood with a distinguished police career, his attorney, Alan Harvey, said.

“Eric took ownership of the alcohol related matter immediately, and the incident doesn’t define him, but rather he has become a better person as result of it,” Harvey said.

Bell, 47, had two and one half times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood when he was tested the night of Sept. 23, records show. His unmarked, city-owned 2012 Ford Escape was totaled when he crashed outside a senior facility on Wagner Way Northwest.

Bell accepted a deferred prosecution for DUI in exchange for having an ignition interlock placed on all vehicles operated by him, according to court records. The device requires the user to blow into a sensor. If it detects the presence of alcohol at a rate greater than allowed, the vehicle will not start.

Lakewood could have signed a waiver to allow Bell to drive a city vehicle, but it chose not to, Caulfield said.

“If the State does not trust you to drive for the next year in an unimpaired state, there is no logical reason why the City should,” Caulfield wrote in a letter to Bell.

Caulfield noted Bell’s history with Lakewood police and his good performance history. But those were overshadowed by the seriousness of Bell’s crimes.

As a peace officer, Bell should have obeyed laws and been aware of the tragic consequences of drunken driving, Caulfield said.

Caulfield also took into consideration that Bell had been driving under the influence with his son in the car.

“It is fortunate that you dropped him off before you crashed the vehicle,” he said.

Caulfield also noted the publicity surrounding Bell’s arrest has compromised his ability to serve effectively in the community.

The Ford Escape’s value was placed at $12,625.

THE INVESTIGATION

On Dec. 13, investigator Lt. Chris Westby met with Bell and Harvey, records show.

Bell said Sept. 23 began early when he loaded his RV with his teenage son, Bell’s girlfriend and the girlfriend’s adult son for a trip to Seattle for a Seahawks game.

The group arrived early in the morning for the 1 p.m. game. Tailgating and drinking started around 10 a.m., Bell estimated.

He drank a couple of beers and vodka. He couldn’t estimate the quantity.

“I was not paying attention to how much I was drinking,” Bell told Westby.

The game ended around 4 p.m., but Bell and his party stayed until 7 p.m. Then, he drove back to Tacoma and dropped off the girlfriend and her son.

Then, Bell took his son to Bell’s house.

“I believe I made myself a drink when I got home,” he told Westby.

The vodka and sweet tea concoction was the last drink he had before the collision, Bell said.

Bell said he and his son spent 30-45 minutes at Bell’s house before Bell’s ex-wife began texting him, asking Bell to return their son to her home.

Bell, who worked sometimes as a school resource officer, had work the next day at a school. In his interview with Westby, Bell said he figured he would just spend the night at his girlfriend’s home, which is closer to the school. That’s why, he said, he was in his unmarked vehicle.

In December, he told Westby that when he said “home” he meant his girlfriend’s house.

Washington State Patrol trooper Matthew Rogers noted in his report on Sept. 23 that Bell was headed to his apartment just on the other side of state Route 16, about seven-tenths of a mile away.

In his report of the incident, Gig Harbor police officer Patrick Sam wrote, “Bell said that he ‘Really (expletive) up’ and that he wasn’t supposed to be using the vehicle.”

Bell also told Sam that the only other vehicle available to him was the RV, so he took his unmarked vehicle that night.

Bell had a “go” bag in the car which contained his gun and police uniform. Westby noted most officers would not store such a bag in a car left outside their home overnight.

On the night of the incident, Bell insisted that he had swerved to avoid hitting a deer, records show. He also told multiple officers that he had made a mistake and feared the incident would end his career.

During the internal investigation, Bell said that he had seen a deer but said it stayed at the edge of the road and distracted him. He failed to negotiate a curve and crashed.

A witness to the wreck, an employee of the senior facility, said she saw and heard Bell’s vehicle screech around the corner, hop the curb and crash into the greenery. She said she never saw a deer.

Bell couldn’t recall if he hit his brakes.

Data from the Ford Escape’s computer shows that the brakes were never applied in the last five seconds before the crash. The vehicle was traveling at 41 to 51 miles per hour.

“Next thing you knew I was ... I hit something and I’m at a complete stop,” Bell told Westby. “And I couldn’t get out of the car.”

When Gig Harbor police got the first 911 call, a witness reported that Bell was spinning his tires to the point that smoke started to rise. One witness fled the scene because she was afraid the vehicle might free itself and careen out of control, records show.

Bell recalled trying to get his vehicle unstuck because he couldn’t get out of the driver’s side door. Two of his wheels were hanging off a 3-foot high retaining wall. He gave up and exited through the passenger side.

It was about that time that Bell encountered “The German Lady” — Irmi McKinstry.

McKinstry, a senior with a German accent, lived in the apartment the Ford Escape nearly crashed into. Moments after the crash she opened a window in her apartment and asked Bell if she should call the police.

Her window is 12 feet from the retaining wall.

“I said, ‘Yes, please do,’ and I’m looking for my phone,” Bell told Westby. By that time, he had exited the car, he said.

In a statement, McKinstry told Westby the opposite occurred — that Bell told her not to call the police.

“He said ‘no,’ really loud,” McKinstry told The News Tribune last fall. “But I called anyhow.”

Bell said he yelled “no” in response to an earlier question when McKinstry asked if anyone had been hurt.

McKinstry is adamant that Bell told her not to call the police.

“I told (investigators) the whole story,” McKinstry said in an interview earlier this month with The News Tribune. “Now, they’re still not believing me?”

McKinstry recalled the sequence of events on the night of the wreck.

“I opened the window and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he goes ‘I can’t get out.’ I said, ‘I will call the cops’ He said ‘No’,” she said.

Assistant chief John Unfred wrote in a memo to Zaro that he believed Bell’s version of the story and thought McKinstry misheard Bell due to multiple questions and responses given in short order and the hindrance of a vehicle window between them.

Bell said his first call after the crash was to Lakewood Police spokesman Lt. Chris Lawler. Lawler was also Bell’s indirect supervisor.

After the call, Lawler was concerned, according to the records, that Bell sounded like he was under the influence. Lawler noted the time and immediately called other supervisors.

Bell told Westby that on the night of the wreck he would not have considered himself impaired.

“Now, I obviously recognize I drank way too much and I was way too impaired to even be going anywhere near a car and touching a set of keys.”

Bell called Lawler and not 911 after the wreck because that was police procedure when an accident doesn’t have injuries, attorney Harvey told The News Tribune in a recent interview.

“He didn’t call 911 because he didn’t have to,” Harvey said. “He did what he is supposed to do.”

Lawler told The News Tribune that procedure following any accident involving a police vehicle is to notify dispatch, either via police radio or by calling 911. Then, he would need to contact a supervisor.

Officers also are not allowed to move vehicles, according to procedure, Lawler said.

Gig Harbor officers were notified of the wreck at 8:47 p.m. Bell called Lawler at approximately 9 p.m., records show.

In his interview with Westby, Bell could not account for the time difference.

When Gig Harbor officers showed up on scene they could smell alcohol coming from Bell, records show. When they examined the vehicle, they could see police equipment. That’s when they learned Bell was a Lakewood police officer.

Because the incident involved a police vehicle, Sam called in the Washington State Patrol to investigate.

At first, Bell refused to cooperate with trooper Rogers and questioned his procedures, records show.

In his interview with The News Tribune, Harvey disputed that Bell was uncooperative.

Bell wouldn’t tell Rogers how much he had drunk because it could be used against him, the attorney said.

“He’s just doing what is in line with his training,” Harvey said.

Rogers said in his report that Bell’s eyes were bloodshot. Bell disputed that at the time because it was dark.

“I interrupted Bell and told him that I have a flashlight and I just saw his eyes,” Rogers told Bell.

Bell refused a field sobriety test. Harvey said Bell was just being smart.

Eventually, Bell gave in and let Rogers do his job.

Rogers arrested Bell for DUI.

Bell argued that taking his son to this ex-wife’s in his department car was within department guidelines because he was next headed to his girlfriend’s house for the night and then work the next morning.

He admitted to Westby, though, that using the vehicle while impaired was not within guidelines.

NO EXCUSES

The report addressed allegations of deception or interference on Bell’s part following the wreck: Telling McKinstry not to call the police, a deer jumping into the road, telling officers he was headed to his house rather than his girlfriend’s and others.

The investigation cleared Bell on all allegations.

If it hadn’t, Bell might have ended up on the Brady List and severely limited his chance of future employment as a law enforcement officer in Washington state. The Brady List is a roster of police officers who have lied in an official capacity. It’s used to discredit an officer’s testimony in court.

Lawler said the list and Bell’s future employment weren’t factors in the findings of the investigation.

“We didn’t have any (evidence) that he was lying,” Lawler said.

In a letter to Zaro pleading for a second chance, Bell didn’t dispute the internal investigation’s findings.

“I make no excuse for my actions that day,” he said. He took full responsibility and apologized.

But Bell said he wasn’t trying to flee the scene of the wreck that night, despite what witnesses thought. He said he couldn’t get out the driver’s side door and was trying to move his vehicle so that he could.

He denied trying to use his position as a police officer to influence the other officers on the scene that evening.

The accident, he said, was a turning point for him. He finally admitted that he was an alcoholic to his family, friends and co-workers.

“I had to be honest with myself and recognized that I had unresolved mental health issues and an alcohol problem,” Bell said.

In the letter, Bell said he’s maintained his sobriety since Sept. 23.

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Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.


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