DRIVER: I NEVER HEARD SIREN

Her passenger was killed by a police car rushing to an emergency call

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ALBANY -- The driver of a car hit broadside by a police cruiser late Friday said she had a green light "the whole time" and never heard a siren before the collision that left her 21-year-old friend dead.


"There was nothing. It was dead quiet," said Melissa Escobar, 22, of Albany, speaking publicly for the first time since the wreck at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Quail Street. "I want the truth to go out."


Escobar's 1992 Honda Civic collided with the cruiser driven by Officer Christopher Orth as Orth was eastbound on Madison Avenue toward the Addictions Care Center of Albany's detox facility on the campus of Capital District Psychiatric Center.


Orth was responding to a call that came in around midnight for an intoxicated man threatening staff at the crisis center when his Dodge Charger patrol car broadsided Escobar's sedan as it headed south on Quail across Madison, fatally injuring passenger Jamar McGill.


In a statement released Saturday, police said "preliminarily, it appears the officer was operating in emergency mode, with lights and sirens on."


But Escobar said Tuesday that she and McGill -- both soft-spoken -- had the windows down, the air conditioner off and her iPod turned low as they discussed the future of their relationship.


McGill, in the front passenger seat, looked down toward his lap as the car passed into the intersection -- perhaps putting his money back in his wallet, Escobar said.


"He looked down, and I was just looking straight, and the radio was on very, very low, just faint enough so we could barely tell what song was playing," Escobar said. "As we went through the intersection, he looked out and he jumped and he yelled to me. All I saw was like bright white light and red and blue light flickering."


Next came a thundering crash. Escobar said she doesn't remember anything else until her car came to a rest, McGill shoved toward her and was pinned "basically laying in my lap."


"I just remember that I was screaming to him, and I was calling to him and he was unresponsive," she said. "His face was just like a dead stare. I just wanted to make sure he was OK."


The pair -- who had known each other for about a year after being introduced by their respective exes -- had only been out about 10 to 15 minutes, Escobar said. She described McGill as "my best-friend-to-significant-other."


They were on there way back from a Quail Street store where McGill liked to buy cigarettes to her apartment off New Scotland Avenue, she said. They had been at her apartment earlier.


"We didn't have any red lights," Escobar said of the trip down Quail toward Madison. "We were just coasting along at like 25 (mph). As we went into the intersection, there was nothing."


City police have declined to speak in detail about the crash, citing an ongoing reconstruction of the wreck by State Police and an inquiry by internal departmental investigators in the Office of Professional Standards.


Detective James Miller, a department spokesman, declined Tuesday to comment on Escobar's account of what happened that night, again noting the pending investigation.


No investigative agency has yet said publicly which vehicle had a green light.


But Section 1104 of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law permits emergency vehicles to pass through red lights "after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation." An exception allows police vehicles to go through red lights without audible sirens.


Orth, who has served in both the Marine Corps and the New York Air National Guard, has been on the force for two years, the department has said. He suffered scrapes and bruises in the crash.


An eyewitness told the Times Union Saturday that she saw flashing lights and heard the initial ring of sirens farther up Madison, but that as the cruiser came down the street and through the intersection the sirens were not on.


That same witness, Erin Calvert, a driver for a nearby deli, also said at least one other police car had already passed through the intersection.


But Escobar said if that's the case, she never saw it.


"We were coming straight down Quail, and I didn't see any other cop cars go in front of us," she said.


While McGill was rushed to Albany Medical Center Hospital, Escobar accompanied police investigators to a South Station interview room, where officers took her statement.


"Everything they asked implied that I was doing something wrong as a driver," Escobar said, adding that investigators repeatedly asked whether the radio may have been too loud or if she was otherwise distracted. "I had a green light. They tried to make it seem like I had a red one, but I had a green light."


Hours later, while sitting alone in the interview room, Escobar said, she learned via text message that McGill had died.


McGill's grandmother, Weter McCann, said her family is slowly coping with his death.


Mayor Jerry Jennings visited the family, but McCann said they are still upset they have not received an apology from police.


McGill is a second cousin of Common Councilman Corey Ellis. A spokesman for Ellis, who has said nothing publicly about the incident, confirmed the relationship when approached by a reporter Tuesday.


Services for McGill are Saturday at the Church of God of Prophecy, at the same location as the car crash. The sermon and prayer services will begin at 10 a.m.


Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com. Staff writer Humberto Martinez contributed to this report.