By Wanda J. DeMarzo, BrowardBulldog.org
Purple flowers encircle two utility poles top to bottom on Dixie Highway in Oakland Park. Balloons, votive candles and teddy bears sit sentry — a memorial for 14-year-old Cara Dyan Catlin.
She died at the intersection Jan. 23, 2010, a passenger in a car struck by a Broward Sheriff’s Office patrol cruiser speeding to a traffic stop.
One year later prosecutors have yet to decide if the former deputy should be charged with a crime.
Broward Sheriff’s traffic homicide investigators calculate then-Deputy Frank McCurrie hit speeds at 89 miles per hour. He did not have his siren or flashing lights to warn other drivers, the Broward Sheriff’s Office said. The posted speed limit on Dixie Highway is 40 mph.
According to BSO policy, when responding in a non-emergency deputies are expected to abide by the rules of the road, said a spokesperson for the sheriff’s public information office. That includes no speeding.
Cara’s father, Duane Catlin declined to speak about his daughter’s death or the lengthy investigation.
Cara and her step-sister, Heather Meyer, were driving home in a Honda Civic around 10 p.m. The girls had run out for food. The 21-year-old Meyer was on Dixie and preparing to turn across a southbound lane to Northeast 56th Street. She had a green light, but not a protected turn signal.
McCurrie was heading south and responding to a call from another deputy at a traffic stop.
McCurrie smashed into the Honda Civic. The impact ripped off the back of the car near where passenger Cara sat. She died. Another young passenger, Gabriel Alegria and Meyer were taken to Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale with injuries. McCurrie was treated for minor injuries and released.
The girls were just blocks from home.
In the days following the accident, BSO said that a thorough investigation would be completed. The McCurrie’s patrol car did not have a camera installed nor did traffic or surveillance cameras record the collision, said Jim Leljedal, spokesman for BSO.
The Catlin family hired attorney Steven Frankl in January but has not said if they plan to sue BSO for a wrongful death. Numerous messages left at Frankl’s office were not returned.
Cops, crashes and policy
The accident was similar to one that occurred around 10:30 March 3, 1998. A Piper High School senior returning home from his job tried to turn left onto Northwest 117th Lane from Oakland Park Boulevard in Sunrise. He was broadsided by a BSO patrol car driven by Deputy Chris Thieman.
Eric Brody, then 18, suffered severe brain damage. He was pinned under the dashboard and was in intensive care for four weeks, a coma for six months and a rehabilitation facility for nine months. It wasn’t until January 1999 that Brody returned to his Sunrise home. He can barely walk or speak.
Although, Sunrise police responded to the call, BSO asked to lead the investigation. In a suit filed against BSO, Brody’s attorney claimed Thieman was driving 70 miles per hour.
A jury awarded Brody nearly $31 million to pay for his care. However, he has not been able to collect the money since state law limits the liability of government agencies to $100,000 per person in such cases. It takes an act of the Legislature to pay larger amounts.
So far, the cost of Brody’s care has exceeded nearly $1 million, Block said. And the jury estimated it would cost about another $9 million for his care for the next 50 years of his natural life, Block said.
BSO hired the Miami-based law firm Greenberg Traurig to represent them in the Brody case, as well as Palm Beach attorney Allen Rossin.
“BSO has asked the insurance carrier to negotiate with the Brody family and resolve this case,’’ said BSO attorney Allen Rossin. “BSO doesn’t control the amount offered to the Brody family.”
In Fort Lauderdale, the police department has a more flexible policy regarding the use of high speed and lights and sirens. The policy allows for discretion and is a judgment call made by a supervisor.
The use of sirens and lights is determined necessary for “Code 3” calls, said Fort Lauderdale police Sergeant Frank Sousa.
“A Code 3 call could be a drowning, a domestic, it’s hard to determine,’’ Sousa said. “But when the patrol officer would respond with lights and sirens and high speeds is normally determined by a supervisor.”
McCurrie let go
McCurrie was initially assigned to administrative duty. In April, he was terminated for “failure to meet probationary standards,” said BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, McCurrie is not working as a law enforcement officer in the state.
Traffic homicide investigators with the Sheriff’s office concluded its accident investigation in August and forwarded the findings to the State Attorney’s Office felony division. Although BSO declined to discuss the findings, the investigation was treated as a traffic homicide.
The State Attorney’s Office also declined to comment on the investigation.
“We do not comment on open cases,” said Ron Ishoy, State Attorney’s Office spokesman.
An investigation like this can easily take many months, said criminal defense attorney Alberto Milian.
“Because this is a case involving a crash, prosecutors will hire a reconstructionist and gather all the data they can,’’ said Milian, a former prosecutor with the State Attorney’s Office. “This isn’t a robbery where the facts are simply laid out. There is a lot of data to gather.”
And McCurrie isn’t a typical would-be defendant, he isn’t likely to go anywhere or commit a crime while prosecutors review all the data and decide whether to press charges, Milian said.
“There’s a higher standard in this case because of who the driver was,” Milian said. “This is not the typical auto crash and the prosecutor has to believe that everything has been done correctly.”
But attorney Lance Block, who handled the Brody case, argues that in these circumstances BSO should never investigate one of its own.
“It highly improper and taints all of their findings,’’ Block said. “Sunrise was the lead agency on Eric’s accident but BSO took it over and documents have a way of getting lost, reports and tests come out in their favor.”
For any investigation to be impartial it should be conducted by a disinterested or independent agency, Block argues.
Just a week after Cara’s death, friends of the Northeast High freshman remembered her at a vigil at the beach, according to a Sun-Sentinel story.
A number of Cara’s friends wore her favorite colors, purple and white. The smiling, happy teen loved television production classes and cheerleading and had an appointment to have her braces removed two week after her death.
Another memorial stands at the Catlin home. A five-foot angel marks the entrance to the backyard. A fence decorated with simple plastic tumblers spell out RIP CARA CATLIN.
Reporter Wanda J. DeMarzo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org