By Scott Feldman, firstname.lastname@example.org
9:05 PM AKST, December 28, 2012
Ashley Elliott can't remember any details from the collision, but the 6-inch metal plate and five screws from the surgery to repair her broken collarbone will remind her of the event for the rest of her life.
Elliott, of Enumclaw, Wash., has wanted to work in law enforcement since she was in middle school. Then, as a senior studying sociology and criminal justice at Northern State University, she began an unpaid internship with the Aberdeen police on Feb. 22. She spent three days a week with the department, working different shifts with different officers to gain experience.
On March 17, the 21-year-old went on a ride-along with officer Mark Miller of Aberdeen Police Department during the overnight shift. She had been on several ride-alongs before. Most calls were routine.
Near the end of her shift, another officer, Alejandro Reyes, slammed into the passenger side of Miller's car, sending both cars into an apartment building. Reyes' car ended up backward on the front stairs of the porch of the building. Miller's car went through the lawn and came to rest against the side of the building.
Elliott was trapped in the front passenger seat.
Nine months later, the injuries and fallout from the accident continue to affect her life.
The collision between the two police cars was voted the No. 3 local story of 2012 by American News newsroom employees.
The following is an account of the collision and aftermath as seen through the eyes of Elliott. The narrative is told in her own words from email and phone interviews, though it has been edited and reorganized for clarity.
Police anticipated a lot of drinking March 17. It was St. Patrick's Day weekend, and the State B high school basketball tournament was in town.
About 4 a.m. Sunday, March 18, Miller and Reyes received a call from a third officer who was chasing an assault suspect on foot. Both officers went to respond, Miller heading east on Seventh Avenue, Reyes going north on Washington Street. The cars were heading toward an unmarked intersection. Reyes' flashing lights were on.
ASHLEY ELLIOT: We wanted to emphasize police visibility and were conducting bar and hotel checks. We anticipated lots of drinking in the community.
The last thing I remember is that we busted an underage party at a local hotel.
I believe we were headed back to the department, so I could go home for the night when we got the call for backup. I am not positive that this was in fact the case because everything before the accident is a blur.
I have no memory of the hours before the accident, the accident itself or anything after the accident. I don't remember being cut out of the car by the Jaws of Life, but I do know that Officer Reyes held my hand and talked me through it. The next thing I remember is a brief moment in the ER and then being moved out of the ER to another room.
I don't remember anything besides that until Monday afternoon. Visitors came all throughout the day, some of which I remember, some I don't. Supposedly I continued to ask what happened, and how I got there, and kept repeating that I thought I was hit by a bus, and wondering why I was naked. Needless to say, the medication was doing its job, and many visitors were kept entertained.
I was just thankful that everybody was OK. I tried to piece together what happened in my head. Trying to make it all make sense. The police had some information. I also looked at my log book. I kept diligent notes during my ride-alongs. My logbook was a haggard, bloody mess from the accident, but my writing stopped midsentence, leading me to think I was probably finishing up my notes for the night in preparation for our return to the department when the accident occurred.
I also read the articles and comments online, as well as the posts on Facebook. Comments about the accident were frustrating. People post comments without having all the facts, promoting misinformation, passing judgment or making jokes, without regard to the actual people involved. We were all injured and lucky to be alive, but some people disregarded that, finding it amusing that two officers hit each other.
Sitting in the hospital unable to move while reading all of the stuff was very uncomfortable.
Miller, Elliott and Reyes were all taken by ambulance to Avera St. Luke's Hospital. Elliott spent four days at the hospital with broken ribs, cuts on her forehead and inner ear and several bruises on her feet and legs. Two weeks later, she had surgery on her broken collarbone. She managed to get through her final semester of college with the help of friends and family, despite being in considerable pain.
ELLIOTT: I couldn't dress myself, wash my hair, get out of bed by myself, make food, write or type or carry anything.
I'm one of those people who won't ask for help, so this situation has been a struggle for me, but I appreciate all the people who stepped up to help me.
I had a steady stream of visitors: police, soccer team, parents and coaches, baseball team, friends from school, neighbors, county commissioner Burt Elliott, teachers from NSU.
Later, when I went to the impound yard to see the cars, I was amazed that our injuries weren't worse. We were all pretty lucky.
The Aberdeen Police Department is filled with great officers who made me feel welcome. Officers were more than willing to help me learn and share their experience. They took me in and treated me like one of their own.
My internship was an awesome experience — except for the accident. Immediately after the accident, they offered help, counseling and support. The police department was very supportive while I was still in South Dakota.
While Elliott worked through school, the South Dakota Highway Patrol conducted its investigation of the collision and determined that Reyes was driving 58 mph when he collided with Miller's vehicle, traveling 18 mph. The speed limit at that uncontrolled intersection is 20 mph.
On May 5, Elliott received her degree at NSU's commencement ceremonies, her right arm in a black sling that blended into her gown as she walked the stage. She accepted the diploma with her left hand.
Less than two weeks later, on May 17, Reyes lost his job with the Aberdeen Police Department and was cited for his role in the collision. Reyes was later sentenced to pay $285 in fines and fees, spend six months on probation and received a suspended 30-day jail sentence. Miller recovered from his injuries and continues to work for the police department. The apartment building's owner said most of the damage has been repaired.
Elliott is now pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice at Washington State University, but she continues to feel the effects of an accident that happened nine months ago, more than 1,000 miles away.
ELLIOTT: I still see a chiropractor and do physical therapy at WSU to try and get my strength back so that I can begin testing for law enforcement. The testing process can take over a year, so I really should be completing the physical testing right now, but I am nowhere near ready to do that at this time.
The chiropractor continues to work on my neck and back since the accident; my back and neck were really out of alignment but couldn't be worked on very well until my collarbone healed some. So this is a slow process. Unfortunately, this has also resulted in some pretty intense headaches that can last for three to four days at a time.
I can't enroll in a police academy because I would fail the physical. I can't even do a single pushup. I have good days and bad days. Sometimes I have to take medication for the migraines, even though I hate it.
The city of Aberdeen was initially supportive, as well. They sent representatives to visit me in the hospital, sent cards and flowers and offered to assist with handling of medical bills and insurance claims.
However, the city's insurance company recently indicated that they are not responsible for my injuries and have denied my claim. My personal health insurance has maxed out and they are no longer covering my physical therapy and my medical bills are rapidly adding up. As a result, I may be forced to hire a lawyer to represent me.
It's very frustrating because I would never have wanted to file suit against a city that had become my second home and people who I felt were my friends.
Elliott was told by doctors that her collarbone won't be fully healed for a year after the accident and she shouldn't fire a gun until 18 months after her injury. She has been slowly regaining her strength and recently started going to the gym to exercise on the advice of her physical therapist.
The city of Aberdeen's liability insurance is handled by the South Dakota Policy Assurance Alliance. Elliott's claim was denied because of the waiver she signed which allowed her to go on the ride-along. Jack Hieb, an attorney with Richardson Law Firm in Aberdeen, who examined Elliott's claim for the alliance, said Elliott accepted all of the risks inherent in a ride-along when she signed her waiver. He also said if the waivers aren't enforced, no one could go on ride-alongs because of liability issues.
At the time of this writing, she had not filed a lawsuit but was looking into hiring a lawyer.
Copyright © 2013, Aberdeen News