Brian Hitchcock was headed home from his job as a technical writer for Skechers in Manhattan Beach last June when he pulled up at a red light next to Hermosa Beach motorcycle officer Anthony Parente. Parente was driving to headquarters after a 12-hour shift on his police motorcycle.
The light turned green and both their lives changed forever.
As they took off, Parente moved in tight behind Hitchcock's BMW 323 and activated his siren. Hitchcock hit his brakes, and Parente rear-ended Hitchcock's car, which sent Parente somersaulting through the air. He landed upside-down, his boots sticking in the air, in the backseat of Hitchcock's top-down convertible.
“The siren spooked me. I instinctively hit the brakes to see where it was coming from,” Hitchcock, the 59-year-old Harbor City man, tells L.A. Weekly. “Next thing I know, the siren is blaring and the officer is in my backseat. I couldn't hear, and I couldn't think.”
Hitchcock got out of his car, which was stopped in the middle lane on Artesia Boulevard — the lane that engineers refer to as the No. 2 lane — just past the intersection of Artesia and Ford in Redondo Beach. He asked Parente: “Do you need some help?”
Parente said he needed his radio.
When he heard Parente's call of “Officer down!” go out at 6 p.m. on June 8, Hitchcock realized the officer was well enough to call in — but he started to worry about his own fate.
“I realized this could be twisted around to look like I was at fault,” he recalls.
Indeed, the police immediately investigated the collision as a criminal act by Hitchcock: assault with a deadly weapon.
A press release issued by the Redondo Beach Police Department framed the incident as the fault of a driver who appeared to stop short in order to injure a police officer — a far more sensational angle than a cop rear-ending a car because he turned on his siren while tailgating.
Parente was, by his own written admission, only two to three feet behind Hitchcock when he activated his siren, far closer than law enforcement training guidelines.
When someone anonymously e-mailed police and the Torrance-based Daily Breeze a cell phone photo showing Parente's boots and legs sticking out of the BMW's backseat like an outtake from Weekend at Bernie's, the WTF picture went viral — and mild-mannered Hitchcock was depicted as an anti-police vigilante.
“If somebody uses a vehicle to intentionally put somebody in a position where they could receive great bodily injury, that is assault with a deadly weapon,” Redondo Beach Police Department Lt. Joe Hoffman told the Breeze.
Retired L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. Lt. Roger Clark, an expert witness in hundreds of cases, who has no ties to Hitchcock or Parente, says police are trained in vehicle pull-overs to understand “that when the driver suddenly becomes aware of the siren, they sometimes stop in the middle of the road as an instinctive reaction. When you tailgate a driver, that's an obvious problem.”
Police reports and witness statements show that a monthlong investigation by Redondo Beach Police into Hitchcock's background found no evidence of anti-police bias.
After that, Redondo Beach Detective Mike Strosnider invited Hitchcock to a let's-be-friends lunch at Subway on the pretext that the investigation was over. It wasn't. Strosnider secretly recorded the lunch in hopes of capturing incriminating comments, but came up empty, according to his own report.
Undeterred, Strosnider asked Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley's office to pursue a felony charge of assault with a deadly weapon. Cooley declined. “We found insufficient evidence that Mr. Hitchcock intentionally stopped short,” Jane Robison of the DA's office tells the Weekly.
So Strosnider asked Redondo city prosecutor Brenda Wells to pursue a misdemeanor criminal assault charge against the baffled and outraged Hitchcock. Wells agreed.
On Nov. 9, Hitchcock was charged with one count of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of reckless driving and one count of reckless driving with injuries resulting. If convicted on all three, the writer, who is recently widowed, faces three years in jail.
Hitchcock, who has Type 2 diabetes, says the relentless quest by beach-city police to criminalize an accident has caused him personal, professional and financial havoc.
“Of course this wasn't deliberate,” he says. “Why would anyone bring this kind of grief on themselves?”
His lawyer, Thomas Beck, claims that city prosecutor Wells “is knowingly carrying water for the Hermosa Police Department.”
Wells says only, “I'm confident I have sufficient evidence to win a conviction.”
Hitchcock responds, “I will not take any plea bargain. This was an everyday traffic accident. He was too close when he put the siren on, and I put the brakes on too quickly.”
The aftermath of the accident was something of a Keystone Kops affair. Hitchcock was swarmed by more than a dozen police officers from three departments and interviewed for two and a half hours.
Hitchcock says he was accused of deliberately causing the crash, “standing over [Parente] in an intimidating manner” and “sarcastically” asking the officer if he needed help.
Parente, 6'1″ and armed with his duty pistol, claimed to be so afraid of Hitchcock — a gray-haired, fairly out-of-shape man in a Hawaiian shirt — that Parente feared Hitchcock would snatch the shotgun from his fallen motorcycle.
“I knew this was an intentional act,” Parente wrote in a five-page report submitted Sept. 6.
In his written narrative, Parente says he was “moving in and out of traffic” — gliding between cars and straddling lanes, as many motorcyclists do — but was not sharing a lane with anyone when he stopped at the red light.
Parente tried to pull Hitchcock over, he wrote, because the motorist cut him off after the light turned green. Parente claims that Hitchcock, in the curbside lane one over from Parente, “accelerated greatly” on the green light, and cut him off in the middle or No. 2 lane.
“He's lying about both those issues,” Hitchcock says.
Hitchcock says Parente's motorcycle was straddling the middle lane and the No. 1 lane — next to the median — when Hitchcock “pulled up squarely in the No. 2 lane, [and] centered [my car] as best I could with him right there.”
When the light turned green, Hitchcock says, he accelerated in a normal manner, but “Parente turned on the siren while I was changing gears from first to second. I never got above 20 miles an hour.”
The two eyewitness drivers closest to the collision supported Hitchcock's version.
Kim Weller of Manhattan Beach told Strosnider that she saw “a gray convertible in the No. 2 lane next to a police motorcycle in the No. 1 lane. When the light turned green, the convertible accelerated normally. The police motorcycle immediately pulled in behind the convertible and activated its lights.”
Denise Bustamente of Redondo Beach told Strosnider she “noticed a police motorcycle near her, perhaps straddling the No. 1 and 2 lanes. In the No. 2 lane was a convertible. As the convertible left the intersection with a green light, the police motorcycle moved in behind it.”
Beck says he's eager to put the facts in front of a jury. “It's a crime for Parente to file a false police report. And he's their chief witness.”
The day after the wreck, Parente was reported to have “soft tissue” injuries. Since June he's been on paid medical leave, and apparently not having much fun. “The assault has caused me some intimacy problems with my spouse,” he wrote at the end of his report. He did not respond to several calls from L.A. Weekly seeking comment.
“He can hide now, but he'll have to answer in court,” Beck says.
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