Cops eye cruiser flaw in fatal crash

Crown Vic sometimes accelerated at random, Beverly chief says

By Paul Leighton and Amanda McGregor , Staff writer
Salem (MA) News, January 22, 2007

BEVERLY - The police cruiser that slammed into a parked car on Cabot Street
and killed a woman on Saturday had a history of problems with the
accelerator, according to police. Police Chief John Cassola said yesterday
that officers had complained about "random acceleration" problems with three
new Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers after the city bought them in 2005.

Cassola said the city sent the cruisers back to Ford to check them. He said
the company found no problems and returned the cruisers to Beverly police.
But last month, one of those cruisers experienced problems again, forcing
Cassola to take the vehicle off the road, according to Police Lt. Mark Ray.
Ray said the cruiser suddenly accelerated in the parking lot at Shore
Country Day School.  "Fortunately it was a day off from school (and no
students were around)," Ray said.

Cassola said he has informed state police, who are investigating the crash,
about the history of mechanical problems with the three cruisers. The
cruiser involved in the crash has been taken to the state police barracks in
Danvers.  Ray said state police should "absolutely" take a look at the
connection between the faulty accelerators and Saturday's fatal crash. He
said officers have had to stand on the brake or turn off the engine in order
to stop cruisers with the random acceleration problem.

"A number of officers have experienced it," Ray said. "They're documented
events." Ray said the officer who was driving the cruiser, Stuart Merry, has
a reputation for being a "cautious driver."  "That's what makes this so
unusual," Ray said. "He's very safety conscious in the way he operates motor
vehicles."

A spokesman for Ford could not be reached for comment last night.

The 2006 Crown Victoria driven by Merry crossed the double-yellow line at a
curve on Cabot Street and slammed head on into the driver's side of a parked
car on the opposite side of the street on Saturday at 9:20 a.m.  Neighbors
and city officials identified the victim as Bonney Burns, who was sitting in
her Toyota Camry directly in front of her apartment building at 361 Cabot
St. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Burns, 61, was parked on the street in front of the apartment building next
to a "No Parking This Side of Street" sign. Landlord David Cormier said she
almost always parked in the driveway in the back of the building but
sometimes parked on Cabot Street near the front door to bring in groceries
or other items.  "She was probably loading something," Cormier said. "She
had a bad back."

Heather Swan, who lives on the third floor of the apartment building and
witnessed the accident, said she could not tell why Merry's cruiser suddenly
veered across the road. Swan said she was driving home on Cabot Street in
the opposite direction of Merry when the accident occurred right in front of
her.  "It looked like he lost control and hit Bonney," Swan said. "I
couldn't quite tell what caused the accident. It happened so fast."

Swan said neighbors rushed to help Burns and Merry, who were both
unconscious inside their vehicles. A woman who had been driving by stopped
and called 911, she said.  Swan said she and others tried to talk to Burns,
but she "wasn't responding."

Merry sustained multiple injuries but was doing "fine" yesterday at Beverly
Hospital, said Cassola, who visited his officer.  "He's certainly sore,"
Cassola said. "We thought it looked real serious at the scene."

Merry, 40, joined Beverly police as a reserve officer in 2000 and was hired
as a full-time patrolman in 2002. He has also worked for the Massachusetts
Environmental Police and as an auxiliary police officer in Hamilton. His
late father, Roger Merry, was a Wenham policeman.  Ray said Merry is
recovering physically but is obviously upset about the fatal crash.  "He's a
very conscientious person," Ray said. "It's bothering him."

Ray said Merry was on routine patrol Saturday morning. Merry had started his
day shift at 7:45 a.m., less than two hours before the accident, and was
scheduled to work until 4 p.m.  "He wasn't dispatched to a call," Ray said.
"Whether he was responding or not to an incident he saw is part of the
investigation."

The state police collision analysis team is investigating the accident,
according to state police Lt. Eric Anderson, along with the Essex County
District Attorney's office. No charges had been filed in the crash as of
last night.

The accident occurred as Merry was driving his cruiser southbound on Cabot
Street, past the intersection with Rantoul Street and after he drove up and
around the bend at Brooks plaza.  The closest speed limit sign posted on the
southbound side of Cabot Street is half a mile away from the accident, and
it reads 30 mph.

"It's an awful thing to happen to the city, just a terrible thing," said
City Councilor Kevin Hobin of Ward 4, which includes Burns' neighborhood.
"I didn't personally know her, and I only met the officer once or twice. Our
thoughts and prayers are with her and her family. This is the grieving
process. Let the officer get back on his feet, and find out what happened
later."