by Lauren Daley
A former city traffic officer accused of insurance fraud, reckless endangerment and related charges in a 2010 road rage case was acquitted this afternoon in a non-jury trial.
Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos granted Garrett John Brown's motion for insufficient evidence in the case that stemmed from an encounter — first recounted in this City Paper story — with donut deliverymen Matt Mazzie and Blaine Johnston in the early morning of Nov. 18, 2010.
As they testified in court today, Johnston and Mazzie contend that they crossed paths with Brown around 4 a.m., when Brown began chasing them after they turned in front of his truck off Fifth Avenue and onto Morewood Avenue. Both men testified that Brown was far enough away that the turn was safe, and that they heard screeching brakes after they passed through the intersection. Brown, they alleged, chased them down, and confronted them at multiple stoplights — without identifying himself as an officer. At one point, they say, he threw coins at the window while pulled up alongside them; during another confrontation he allegedly punched the side of the van and reached for Johnston's arm. Later, they testified, he ran them off the road; as Brown left his own vehicle, they said, they drove off to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, their next delivery stop, where police arrived after Mazzie dialed 9-1-1.
"Some psycho just tried to run us off the road," Mazzie can be heard telling a dispatcher in the recording, which was played in the courtroom today.
Although he did not testify today, according to a police report taken that night, Brown told police that he was sitting at a red light when Johnston rear-ended his truck. Brown, who was off-duty at the time of the incident, told police officers at Children's he had pulled up to the van to exchange information, but Johnston fled. In a recording of Brown's own 9-1-1 call, which was also played in court, Brown tells a dispatcher he was rear-ended by a U-Haul truck which left.
Erie Insurance paid Brown approximately $2,100 for damages to his truck and $445 for a rental car, but questioned Brown's version of events after hearing other accounts of the crash. They hired their own investigator and concluded Brown's version wasn't consistent with his statement, according to a complaint against Brown. Brown was later charged with lying to investigators and on his claim when he said he was rear-ended.
Rangos heard nearly three hours of testimony from Mazzie and Johnston, as well as from Erie Insurance adjustor Gloria Vish and city police Sgt. William Kunz. In the afternoon, the prosecution withdrew its expert witness, William Simcox Sr., after Rangos and defense attorney William H. Difenderfer questioned his credentials for accident reconstruction. Simcox, a supervisor for accident-investigation company Unified Investigators, primarily deals with fire and mechanical investigations.
Much of the debate in the courtroom hinged on discrepancies between the witnesses' accounts.
Johnston estimated that he and Mazzie were traveling at 45 miles per hour. Johnston said he couldn't remember with which part of the truck Brown struck them, but said the two vehicles ended up parallel, facing the same direction. Johnston said that as Brown got out of his truck, he saw Brown reach behind his back, near his waistline — and that Johnston threw the van in reverse at Mazzie's prodding. In the process, he testified, his van ripped off Brown's bumper.
"I was fearful of my life," Johnston said. "This was getting out of control."
Mazzie, who estimated the vehicles' speed at only 25 mph, acknowledged telling Johnston to leave. But he testified that he didn't see Brown reach behind his back. "He looked agitated," Mazzie said.
Rangos ruled that between the 9-1-1 calls and inconsistencies in witness statements, there were too many conflicting accounts about what happened that night to uphold the charges. "The witnesses were unclear on how the accident occurred," she said. While Brown may have engaged in "bad behavior," she added, "I don't see that rising to reckless endangerment." While "it's pretty clear Mr. Brown did not answer truthfully [on the insurance company's questionnaire] that words had been exchanged between the parties," she said, there was insufficient evidence to indicate he had committed insurance fraud.
"I'm just not seeing how the Commonwealth can meet [the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt] when we've got three different versions of how an accident happens — a fourth from the defendant," Rangos said. "This isn't a civil case ... I need beyond a reasonable doubt at this point."
Brown and his attorney left immediately following the trial — we've contacted Difenderfer for comment and will update this post if we hear back. Nicholas Radoycis Jr., the prosecutor, declined comment after the verdict. Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said prosecutors have no option to re-file charges. "We believed that we had the evidence to try and case and the judge ruled otherwise," he said in an e-mail.
Brown, a 10-year veteran of the police force, was fired from the bureau on Feb. 16, 2011. Johnston faced charges from leaving the scene of an accident from the case, which were later dismissed because Brown failed to appear at the preliminary hearings.
Both Mazzie and Johnston declined comment after the trial.