Deputies let an impaired driver go. An hour later, 3 members of a Driggs family were dead - East Idaho News

Deputies let an impaired driver go. An hour later, 3 members of a Driggs family were dead

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(Las Vegas Review-Journal) – Tyler Kennedy sat in his Ford truck, smoking fentanyl outside the Area 51 Alien Center store, as Nye County deputies approached the pickup, looking for a gun.

A call to police at 1:20 p.m. from Larry Harvey, manager of the Fort Amargosa RV Park across U.S. Highway 95, alleged Kennedy drove into the park, started an altercation and took a shot at Harvey.

Kennedy, a 33-year-old admitted drug user with prior theft and driving citations, was on the road from Arizona to Oregon. He’d been sleeping in his 1998 truck, which was cluttered with food trash, clothing bags, drink cups, toilet paper and an open roll of aluminum foil.

But he would not make it to Oregon. An hour after the police stop, high on opiates and meth, Kennedy veered into an SUV, killing three members of an Idaho family.

During that March 27, 2021, stop, Nye Sheriff’s Deputy Breanna Nelson was the first to approach Kennedy’s pickup. “Oh s***, you scared me,” Kennedy said. “What’s going on?” Nelson asked.

Two more deputies and two Nye sheriff’s detectives arrived and questioned Kennedy. Their attention was focused on the alleged gun and altercation, according to bodycam videos obtained by the Review-Journal.

Deputies asked Kennedy to get out of his truck, and he sat on the store’s porch, vaping and complaining about being detained. He repeatedly declined to consent to a vehicle search and accused officers of ambushing him.

Once deputies determined from surveillance video that the alleged gun was Kennedy’s cellphone, and the “gunshot” was likely fireworks, their interest in him quickly waned.

“He’s probably got dope in the car, and that’s why he doesn’t want anyone going through it,” Nye Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Fischer said to his colleague, Detective Brooke Gentry.

“I don’t care about that,” Gentry responded.

Kennedy relented to a search of his truck when officers told him they weren’t interested in drugs for personal use — only the gun.

“He was an unguided missile, and they allowed it to happen.”

Nelson found pills and a piece of burnt foil used for smoking fentanyl, according to court records and police video. “He’s chasing. He’s chasing pills,” one officer said in the video. Chasing is a common term for heating foil and inhaling the drug vapors.

Gentry told Nelson an arrest was not mandatory and that it was up to her whether to write a report or throw away the drugs. “That sounds like garbage,” Nelson responded.

Fischer told Nye County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Schrimpf that there was no reason to take a report on the gun allegation.

As they walked away, Fischer remarked on Kennedy’s appearance. “Yeah, his eyes are pinpoint,” he said. “He’s probably under the influence.”

None of the five officers conducted field sobriety tests or stopped Kennedy from driving, as Nye County Sheriff’s DUI policy required.

Instead, Nelson told Kennedy she was disposing of the drugs and that his keys were on the front seat. “Yeah, bro, your pills are going in the trash,” she said.

Turning to Schrimpf, she seem annoyed. “That was a huge waste of time,” she said. “And how many f*****g cars do we have here?”

About an hour later, Kennedy was speeding and weaving through traffic north of Beatty.

He crossed the center line and, at an estimated 90 mph, careened into an SUV carrying an Idaho family traveling on spring break, records show.

Three of the family members died at the scene — two adults and a 12-year-old girl. Two other children were injured.

Kennedy survived and this month pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI causing death.

Chelsea Roberts, the mother of the child who died and another who survived the crash, said police failed her that day.

“To knowingly let a person drive away who you know is intoxicated on an illegal substance is like letting an unguided missile go wherever it wants,” she said. “He was an unguided missile, and they allowed it to happen, because they didn’t follow their … protocol of their job.”

A year after the crash, bodycam videos and preliminary hearing testimony reveal the actions of five Nye County officers who allowed a man showing signs of drug use to get back on the road. It took five months for the Review-Journal to obtain the video from the sheriff’s office, which blurred officers’ faces and refused to release an internal probe of the officers’ actions or whether any disciplinary measures were taken.

“All of those officers and their actions were investigated through the Internal Investigation process,” Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly wrote in a brief email exchange. “So in short, those investigations are not public information. I can tell you the outcome, but not the facts of the case.” Wehrly, citing personnel privacy and pending litigation, declined an interview, and department staff also refused repeated requests for the outcome.

“I find it grossly shocking.”

Schrimpf told the Review-Journal in February, “There’s more to the story than you probably know,” but directed all questions to Nye Sheriff’s Capt. David Boruchowitz.

The other officers declined to comment or didn’t return multiple calls and emails.

The crash killed Michael Durmeier, 39; his fiancee, Lauren Starcevich, 38; and his daughter with Roberts, Georgia, 12. Lauren’s 6-year-old daughter, Emerson, broke her wrist. Jackson, Michael’s son with Roberts, turned 11 a few days after the crash and has suffered brain trauma.

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‘Officers shouldn’t be on force’

A former Metropolitan Police Department training officer said there’s no question a field sobriety test should have been administered on Kennedy.

“If it was so bad that one deputy noticed he’s probably intoxicated, that’s a huge liability,” said Dale Anderson, who retired in 2019 and now runs a business teaching security measures. “They didn’t do their duty.”

Thomas Moskal, a former chief deputy district attorney in Clark County’s DUI unit who now defends people accused of DUI, said the officers could be prosecuted on misconduct charges. At the very least, they should lose their jobs, he said.

“I find it grossly shocking,” Moskal said after reviewing the bodycam video. “Those officers shouldn’t be on the force.”

In July 2021, Boruchowitz said deputies who stopped Kennedy before the crash believed he was not intoxicated. But the bodycam video contradicts that narrative.

During Kennedy’s preliminary hearing in August, Nye County Sheriff’s Sgt. Morgan Dillon, who interviewed Kennedy after the crash, testified that Kennedy told him he was smoking fentanyl when officers came up to his truck — and had been doing so every 20 minutes to stave off withdrawal.

Jason Earnest, Kennedy’s public defender, asked Dillon whether he believed that trained deputies would release a driver believed to be intoxicated.

“Well, we could assume that a law enforcement officer with Nye County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t let somebody get into a vehicle high or with dope?” Earnest asked.

“I’ve worked for Nye County for a long time,” Dillon responded. “I don’t assume anything.”

Dillon and Earnest did not respond to requests for comment.

A family heads to Nevada for spring break

For Michael, Lauren and the kids, March 27, 2021, was a perfect travel day early in the family’s spring break trip from their home in eastern Idaho across the divide from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a clear, sunny day with temperatures reaching the high 60s.

Michael, with Lauren in the passenger seat and the three kids in the back, was driving south on U.S. Highway 95 a few minutes before 4 p.m. in Lauren’s 2011 silver Toyota Highlander.

crash scene
The Toyota Highlander after it rolled. | Courtesy Nevada Highway Patrol

The family had spent the night in Elko, enjoying the hot springs. The following morning they headed to Las Vegas to stay with an uncle. After Las Vegas, the plan was to raft the Colorado River — one of Lauren’s passions — and camp after a trip to the Grand Canyon.

Lauren and Michael shared a love of adventure and the outdoors.

Michael had grown up in West Memphis, Arkansas, a rabid Razorbacks fan. He also loved the Grateful Dead and similar jam bands that fit the laid-back lifestyle of Western ski towns.

When he was around 18, Michael and some friends were driving from Arkansas to Yellowstone when their car broke down near Driggs. He liked the place so much he decided to stay. He found work in construction, which had been his father’s profession, and slept in a tent the first summer there.

“He always wanted to do adventures, and he was a very sweet, sweet kid,” said Michael’s mother, Gina Durmeier.

Michael took up snowboarding, sending his mother daredevil pictures of him negotiating the mountain pass that separates Idaho from Wyoming. Michael met Chelsea Roberts through a friend, and they had Georgia in 2008. They married the following year and had Jackson in 2010.

Like many firstborns, Michael and Chelsea’s daughter was a go-getter. Georgia excelled at school and was a key player on the local softball team despite her small size. The other players nicknamed her Peaches — the state fruit of Georgia — since the team already had another player with a similar name.

As an infant, she had suffered a life-threatening infection. The story of the emergency room care that saved her drove her to want to be a doctor.

“We always knew she would be something big,” Roberts said. “She was a baby, but her knowing that story, that her life was saved, she wanted to do things like that.”

As if medicine wasn’t enough, Georgia also planned to have a bakery on the side. She loved to surprise the family with cupcakes and other treats made from scratch.

Michael and Chelsea divorced in 2017 but remained friends. They lived near each other in eastern Idaho, sharing custody of the two children. “Michael was a fun-loving dad,” Roberts said. “He was Dad all the way … and provided (for), and he loved his kids.”

Read more of this story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.