Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:47 PM on Wednesday, September 15, 2010

City settles lawsuit in 2005 fatal crash

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

A year after a mistrial and days before a second jury trial was to start, the city of Homer has agreed to a settlement in a wrongful death suit in a 2005 fatal car crash.

The families of Rebecca Jean Atwater, 21, and Randall Walstrand, 17, alleged that Homer Police Officer William Geragotelis should have prevented John Wayne Blackshear-Walker, 24, from continuing to drive and cause a fatal crash on July 24, 2005, after Geragotelis stopped him in a red 1990 Toyota Corolla at the Kachemak Center parking lot on Pioneer Avenue following a complaint of reckless driving near Bishop's Beach. Geragotelis warned Blackshear-Walker to slow down and he drove away.

About 40 minutes later, Blackshear-Walker was driving on Kachemak Drive near East End Road when the car hit a ditch, flipped over and landed on its roof. The accident killed Blackshear-Walker, Atwater and Walstrand, as well as Toni Gregoire, 19.

Gregoire's family was not a party to the lawsuits.

In the settlement, the city will pay the Atwater and Walstrand families each $35,000, or a $70,000 total payout.

The city admits no fault, said Homer City Manager Walt Wrede.

"This has been very costly both emotionally and financially," said Howard J. Meyer Jr., the lawyer for the Walstrand family. "It was a difficult case. People like to believe the police force are doing what they were supposed to be doing."

Lawyers for the Atwater and Walstrand families argued that when Geragotelis stopped Blackshear-Water, the officer should have noticed the driver appeared intoxicated and also should have known Blackshear-Walker was involved in prior alcohol-related activity. According to court records, Blackshear-Walker pleaded no contest in August 2004 to a charge of furnishing alcohol to minors.

Meyer said he was prepared to have a witness testify she also talked to Blackshear-Walker after Geragotelis left. The witness, a former Subway manager, had seen Geragotelis talk to Blackshear-Walker and went out to see what had happened. In a deposition, Meyer said the witness described the smell of alcohol from Blackshear-Walker as "penetrating." The woman recognized several passengers and warned them not to continue riding with Blackshear-Walker. Tests later showed the driver had a .198 blood-alcohol level when he died.

Police in 2005 said Blackshear-Walker wore sunglasses and smoked cigarettes. They said he did not slur his speech or have any trouble producing his license and registration when asked.

The city and its lawyer, Frank Koziol, an Anchorage attorney representing the city through the Alaska Municipal Joint Insurance Association, argued that Geragotelis was investigating a speeding complaint and had no legal basis for a drunk driving investigation, Wrede said.

The Subway manager was a witness Atwater and Walstrand's lawyers asked to add to the list in the 10th day of last year's jury trial in Anchorage Superior Court. Judge Sharon Gleason said the defense could accept the witness, but would understand if the defense asked for a mistrial. The city asked for a mistrial and it was granted.

Meyer said the Subway manager had been hard to locate because she later took a job with the prison system. To protect jail workers, the state keeps confidential contact information.

Part of the reason the families filed the lawsuit was to get police to "sit up and take notice," Meyer said.

"The police understand now there are consequences when you don't do your job," he said. "Hopefully this won't happen again. The next time you have suspicion of alcohol they'll err on the side of caution."

Homer Police reviewed its policies and procedures after the fatal crash, Wrede said.

"At present, there have been no changes to policies or procedures," Wrede said. "HPD is always looking for training opportunities, and investigative stops are no exception."

Geragotelis retired from Homer Police as an officer after the car crash. He later returned to the department and now works part-time as a jail officer.

"This case took a heavy toll on the mothers — to go through a trial again, to see the pictures, to hear about your child's last moments," Meyer said.

Wrede said the amount of the settlement was less than each side would have spent on a new trial. The settlement will be paid through the Alaska Municipal Joint Insurance Association, a pool of Alaska cities providing liability insurance for Homer and other contributing cities.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong.@homernews.com.