As lawsuit filed, details emerge on crash that killed Stanislaus County deputy, CSO

The families of two Stanislaus County sheriff’s employees who died in a Modesto crash nearly two years ago are suing the Ford Motor Company, alleging that a defective patrol vehicle allowed lethal amounts of carbon monoxide to enter the cabin where the driver and passenger were seated.

Deputy Jason Garner’s Ford Explorer was traveling 89 mph when it crashed in a wrecking yard on Crows Landing Road, landing on top of a dumpster and catching fire on May 13, 2017. Garner and his passenger, sheriff’s Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson, died from blunt force trauma, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Officer Tom Olsen, a CHP spokesman, has said Garner was “driving in a normal pattern prior to the collision,” and it was only a matter of seconds prior to impact the patrol vehicle sped up to 89 mph.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Stanislaus Superior Court on behalf of Garner’s and Johnson’s families by attorneys from the San Francisco-based The Matiasic Firm, P.C.

The lawsuit alleges the Sheriff’s Department-issued 2014 Ford Explorer Police Interceptor Utility Vehicle had defects. The plaintiffs’ attorneys claim these defects allowed exhaust and other gases — including lethal amounts of carbon monoxide —to enter the vehicle, leading to the deadly crash.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the defendants — who designed, manufactured, marketed, leased and sold hundreds of thousands of Explorer vehicles with this defect — knew or should have known the vehicles were dangerous and defective.

“In a calculated and callous fashion, Ford prioritized profits over the safety and well being of the motoring public,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Paul Matiasic said in a news release Wednesday. “Our first responders encounter countless dangers in their selfless efforts to protect and serve the community, yet Ford nonetheless subjected them to a lethal threat they could neither see nor hear.”

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Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

“Our condolences go out to the families affected by this tragic accident,” the Ford Motor Company said in a statement. “In their investigation, neither the Stanislaus County Coroner nor the California Highway Patrol’s Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team identified CO poisoning as a contributing factor in the crash.”

Company officials in a July 2017 news release addressed concerns about first responders driving Ford Police Interceptor Utility Vehicles.

Also included as part of the lawsuit is the Price Ford of Turlock dealership, formerly Patchetts Ford, which sold the vehicle to the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department in July 2014. The Sheriff’s Department is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Details about final moments before crash

A CHP report about the crash provides details that led to the fiery wreck. The Modesto Bee obtained a copy of the CHP report after independent journalist Steve Ringhoff first became aware of it and acquired his own copy.

Garner and Johnson left the Sheriff’s Department on Hackett Road at 8:11 a.m. on May 13, 2017, to respond to a report of a residential burglary that occurred the night before. They were not responding Code 3, with lights and sirens.

Garner was driving normally as they traveled north on Crows Landing Road, but a half-mile from the crash, something changed.

About 8:16 a.m., Garner pulled over on the right shoulder at Pecos Avenue and opened his door, according to information from the automatic vehicle locator in the patrol car as outlined in the CHP report.

Investigators don’t know why Garner pulled over or what he or Johnson were doing during that time, but the door remained open for 18 seconds. When the patrol vehicle got back on the road, it was just over a half-mile from the point of impact.

“The speed of (the Ford) rapidly and continually increased as it traveled north in the northbound lane,” according to the CHP report.

When the Ford reached 65 mph, Garner steered to the left and entered the opposing, southbound lane. He continued north toward a vehicle headed south on Crows Landing. The unidentified driver of the vehicle had to decelerate and swerve to the right to avoid a head on-collision, according to the report.

Garner turned the Ford to the right and back into the northbound lane, continuing to accelerate. The Ford was traveling at 80 mph and the accelerator pedal was at 100 percent throttle as it approached the rear of a northbound white van, according to the report.

Garner again turned left into the southbound lane, then continued west onto the shoulder and into Modesto Auto Wreckers, where the crash occurred. The Ford was traveling 89 mph upon impact.

Memorials for Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Jason Garner, 41, and community service officer Raschel Johnson, 42, at the scene of their deaths in a traffic accident Saturday, May14, 2017, morning on Crows Landing Road just south of Seventh Street in Modesto Calif. Marty Bicek mbicek@modbee.com

The patrol vehicle hit a pole supporting an awning of the business, then crashed into a metal table holding two automatic transmissions and a torque converter. All three items crashed through the windshield and struck Garner and Johnson, the blunt force of which killed them.

The Ford’s accelerator pedal was at 100 percent throttle in the final five seconds preceding the crash as it increased from 78 to 89 mph. According to the CHP report, there was sufficient time “if he was not in an incapacitated state” to put the vehicle in neutral, perform a steering maneuver, brake or alter the course of travel prior to the crash, but Garner took none of those actions.

Toxicology report

According to a toxicology report obtained by The Bee, Garner’s blood had a carbon monoxide saturation level of 19 percent, below the 25 percent to 35 percent “potentially toxic” level listed on the report but above what would be considered normal.

Johnson, meanwhile, had a saturation level of 27 percent, which is within the “potentially toxic” level. There was evidence – determined by soot found in her airway – that she may have taken a few breaths after the vehicle was filled with smoke, according to the autopsy report obtained by The Bee. There was no soot found in Garner’s airway, the report states.

Garner did not have medication, drugs or alcohol in his system. While Garner suffered from anxiety and an enlarged heart and had a family history of heart disease, the investigation did not determine whether he was suffering a heart-related issue or anxiety prior to the collision.

Forensic pathologist Eugene Carpenter conducted the autopsies on Garner and Johnson. On Wednesday, Carpenter said carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled out as a factor in the cause of the crash. He said what caused the crash remains undetermined.

Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms typically begin with sleepiness or a little headache, “but they don’t suddenly accelerate into a wall,” Carpenter said, referring to Garner’s actions moments before the crash.

The forensic pathologist said the levels found in Garner were probably not enough to knock an average healthy person unconscious. Carpenter told The Bee that carbon monoxide typically would be “slowing him down, not speeding him up.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys argue in the lawsuit that the saturation levels found in Garner and Johnson are “alarmingly high and toxic.” They also argued that Garner lost consciousness as a result of the carbon monoxide entering the cabin; he lost the ability to control the vehicle, which led to the crash.

Carpenter said the carbon monoxide levels found in Garner and Johnson were due to smoke from the fire.

“While their training provided them with defenses against myriad threats associated with their jobs, when they donned their uniforms that morning, they could not possibly have envisioned the toxic and lethal danger lurking beneath their seats that would befell them,” Matiasic said in his firm’s news release. “These officers and their families deserved better.”

Carbon monoxide suspicions

Testing for carbon monoxide poisoning was done as part of the investigation into the accident because Ford Explorers, a commonly used patrol vehicle, had been under federal scrutiny over complaints of exhaust fumes entering the cabin.

Before the Stanislaus County fatal wreck, a Newport Beach Police Department officer alleged he crashed his Explorer patrol vehicle into a tree as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Additionally, an officer in Texas was hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning after becoming ill while driving an Explorer during a recent shift.


Why Did We Report This Story?

Two Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department employees died in a crash while on duty in a department-issued vehicle. Questions about what might have led to the crash remain unanswered nearly two years later, and the public should know if there could have been anything done to prevent it. The Bee initially reported news about the deadly crash and has continued to follow-up with public safety agencies, asking for definitive answers about what caused the crash.

How Did We Report This Story?

The Bee obtained copies of the autopsy reports, toxicology results and a detailed report from the California Highway Patrol about the moments leading up to the crash. The Bee this week received a news release and a copy of the filed lawsuit from the plaintiffs’ attorney.

Who Did We Speak With?

The Bee spoke to the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsies on Jason Garner and Raschel Johnson. We sent an e-mail to media representatives from the Ford Motor Company on Wednesday afternoon May 8, 2019. The following morning, we received a comment from Ford officials and added the company’s response to the lawsuit’s allegations to the online version of the news story. We asked for a response to the lawsuit from the owner of the Price Ford of Turlock dealership, which is listed as a co-defendant in the lawsuit, but our phone call has not been returned. We also have spoken to the CHP about its investigation into the crash.

“There is nothing we take more seriously than providing you with the safest and most reliable vehicles,” Hau Thai-Tang, Ford’s executive vice president of product development and purchasing, said in the July 2017 news release.

Ford’s ongoing investigation into this issue has discovered holes and unsealed spaces in the back of some Police Interceptor Utility vehicles that had police equipment installed after leaving Ford’s factory, the company said at the time.

When police or fire department officials routinely install emergency lighting, radios and other equipment, they have to drill wiring access holes into the rear of the vehicle. If the holes are not properly sealed, it creates an opening where exhaust could enter the cabin, Ford officials said.

Some law enforcement agencies have added carbon monoxide monitors inside the vehicle.

Ford Motor Company announced in July 2017 that it would cover the costs of specific repairs in every Police Interceptor Utility Vehicle that may have this concern, regardless of age, mileage or aftermarket modifications made after purchase.

Attempts by The Modesto Bee on Wednesday to reach the Price Ford dealership’s owner, James Figurell, were not successful.

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Rosalio Ahumada writes news stories about criminal court cases in Stanislaus County for The Modesto Bee, issues related to immigration and immigrant communities and breaking news related to crime and public safety. From time to time, he covers the Modesto City Council meetings. He has worked as a news reporter in the Northern San Joaquin Valley since 2004.
Erin has been covering breaking news and crime at The Modesto Bee since 2010. She is a Humboldt State graduate and resides in Oakdale.