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Twenty-year-old Arnell Robinson andMetropolitan Police Department Officer Michael Pepperman started on opposite ends of the 400 block of O Street NW on the afternoon of March 6, 2009. Robinson rode an unregistered motorbike; Pepperman, on his way to sign warrants at the courthouse, drove an unmarked police Ford Taurus. Only one of them would make it out of the encounter alive.
Robinson, headed the wrong way down the block with two other friends on off-road motorbikes, hit a speed bump as he passed Pepperman and attempted a U-turn. Though the officer stopped his car to make room for the bikers to go by him on both sides of the street, Robinson flew off his bike and into a parked car. His bike came to rest under Pepperman’s car.
Robinson, who had hoped to become a firefighter one day, died of a severed aorta at Howard University Hospital six hours later. The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Pepperman after looking into Robinson’s death. A crash review panel investigating his death ruled that Robinson’s death was an unavoidable accident.
Except, with the exception of Robinson’s death and the crash board ruling, there’s evidence that suggests that much of that didn’t happen. There were no cars on one side of the street to make for a tighter passage between the police car and Robinson’s bike, according to video evidence in a lawsuit. Robinson wasn’t going the wrong way down a one-way street—he was on a two-way street, the video shows. Most worryingly of all, the other officer in the car and witnesses on the street would later claim that Pepperman struck Robinson deliberately, court papers indicate.
Newly public documents in a wrongful death suit between Robinson’s mother and the District government paint a different picture than the one approved by MPD’s crash board. It’s one in which MPD brass worry about interference from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the crash review board acts on incomplete information.
Pepperman didn’t respond to a request for comment about the case. MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump referred questions to the District’s Office of the Attorney General, which declined to comment on the case.
Five years after Robinson’s death, the most explosive question in the accident is whether Pepperman swerved his car to hit Robinson deliberately. Hours after the crash, MPD Officer Gina Leveque, who had been in the passenger’s seat of Pepperman’s car, told a crash investigator that her own account of the crash would differ from Pepperman’s. “He did that on purpose,” Leveque told the investigator.
Four days later, she recanted the statement in another interview, chalking it up to the emotion of seeing Robinson’s crash. By then, the interview prompted one investigator to write that it was “nothing more than a traffic collision.”
“I guess I just wanted to point the finger, I guess,” Leveque said. “I don’t know. I was just really, really upset.” But Leveque wasn’t the only person to say Pepperman had deliberately crashed into Robinson. Witnesses who had been standing near the crash site provided statements referenced in the legal battle saying that Pepperman sped up his vehicles and swerved into Robinson’s lane.
“The officer sped up as he swerved into Mr. Robinson’s lane of traffic,” witness Adam Wilson said in a statement for the plaintiff. “He did not slow down. The police car crashed into Mr. Robinson’s motorcycle head-on, and Mr. Robinson’s body hit the right-front of the police car and went flying over the hood.”
Why would a cop deliberately strike a teenager who hadn’t committed a crime beyond driving a motorcycle that wasn’t street legal? David L. Shurtz, the attorney for Robinson’s mother, has a theory—and a separate class-action lawsuit on behalf of eight motorbikers to go with it. In Shurtz’s telling, District cops, frustrated by their inability to catch stunt-loving youths breaking traffic laws, have taken to just striking them with their cars.
In fact, the area around Dunbar High School where Robinson crashed was the site of mischief from the subculture Shurtz calls “the biker boys.” Fifty minutes before Robinson’s ride down O Street, the principal of nearby Scott Montgomery Elementary called police to complain about motorbikers riding on a field near his school.
Even if you don’t believe Shurtz’s theory that District cops are using their cars as weapons to fight stunt bikers (and again, Pepperman has never been charged in the crash), the initial MPD investigation and review of the crash was filled with holes and miscommunications.
The trouble started almost immediately after the crash, when Major Crash Investigations Unit detective Sheryl Harley arrived on the scene. Harley ran into enough interference in her investigation from other MPD employees that she felt the need to send an email the day after the investigation to MPD Assistant Chief Patrick Burke and other brass saying that she would do her investigation with the help of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“The case will be conducted in the standard fashion that all cases are handled and reviewed by the United States Attorney’s Office in regards to any fatal crash,” Harley wrote in the email she claimed was meant to “prevent any misunderstandings.”
Harley’s email didn’t persuade Michael Anzallo, the assistant chief in charge of Internal Affairs, which wanted its Force Investigation Team to conduct its own investigation over Harley’s objections. Anzallo worried in an email, which like Harley’s email LL obtained through Shurtz’s discovery process, to other MPD officials why the U.S. Attorney’s Office was getting involved in the case.
“Not sure why US Attorney is invovled [sic] so early unless subpeonas [sic] are needed,” Anzallo wrote two other MPD officials. “I thought we did investigations to bring evidence to US Attorney. Not the US attorney investigate for us. Not out [sic] shops but W0W.”
The eventual report produced by the Internal Affairs division cleared Pepperman, as did the crash review board. It wasn’t the first time his driving record had been scrutinized before the crash: Between 2006 and the crash in 2009, he had been cited for two other accidents, according to a letter sent to him by MPD’s human resources department.
But discrepancies continued to exist between different official versions of the story. Some reports, including the traffic report created the day of the crash and an email summary of the incident from Anzallo to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, don’t mention Robinson’s body colliding with Pepperman’s car, but the car’s headlight had broken glass that one investigator described as consistent with cuts on Robinson’s knee.
Surveillance footage taken from a police camera of 5th and O streets raises other questions about the crash panel’s decision. While the MPD official in charge of the crash review panel said in a deposition that he wasn’t sure whether Pepperman and Robinson were on a one-way street, the video shows that the block has two-way traffic.
And though a police report after the crash described parked cars on either side of Robinson and Pepperman’s encounter—something that would make a crash in close quarters more understandable—the camera’s last image of the street, taken less than two minutes before the crash, showed that the crash occurred on a long stretch of road with almost no parked cars on one side.
Interestingly, though, James O. Crane, the MPD commander in charge of the crash unit, didn’t know whether the investigator ever saw the footage from the police camera. Similarly, there’s no record of the panel hearing Leveque’s initial statement that Pepperman caused the crash deliberately, even though Crane conceded in a deposition that Leveque’s statement was significant.
All that remains of Robinson’s crash is a lawsuit working its way through and questions about whether the city will agree to a settlement. While Robinson’s mother waits for answers, though, one part of the District government has embraced her son. In 2013, Mayor Vince Gray held a ribbon-cutting for a D.C. National Guard academy meant to help at-risk youth that Robinson had graduated from two years. Behind Gray, organizers set up a life-size picture of Robinson in uniform as an example of the model student.
“You’d be better off flipping a coin than coming up with the result that they did,” Shurtz says. “So it’s inconceivable that this investigation was done in good faith.”