Crime

Driver's story conflicts with own text messages, witness accounts in deadly Bellingham crash

Alyssa Holmes waters the flowers Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. at the memorial for her friend, Dragan Skrobonja, where he was killed last Memorial Day at North State and East Chestnut streets in downtown Bellingham. Holmes, who maintains the memorial, says she is still in shock from the loss of her friend.
Alyssa Holmes waters the flowers Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. at the memorial for her friend, Dragan Skrobonja, where he was killed last Memorial Day at North State and East Chestnut streets in downtown Bellingham. Holmes, who maintains the memorial, says she is still in shock from the loss of her friend. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Dragan Skrobonja bumped into a few post-midnight revelers outside a bar on East Chestnut Street early on Memorial Day.

They knew Skrobonja casually; he'd long been a familiar face in Bellingham's nightlife crowd. So they invited him to hang out after-hours at an apartment up the hill. But first the group split up for a quick pit stop, to grab beer to go from the Up & Up tavern at 1234 N. State St.

Skrobonja, 37, trailed the others by about 10 paces as he walked down the sidewalk.

Then tires squealed.

People scattered.

Before Skrobonja could react, the headlights of a heavy-duty pickup truck bore down on him.

The black Ford F-350 bulldozed a path of carnage through downtown Bellingham in the early hours of May 26, a rampage that killed Skrobonja, sent three other men to the emergency room, T-boned an SUV filled with five people, and badly damaged three parked cars.

Since then, police have pieced together 364 pages of reports, witness statements, interview transcripts, diagrams and dispatch logs recounting the events of that Memorial Day morning. Those reports were released in response to a records request from The Bellingham Herald.

Much of the detective work has been devoted to answering a few pivotal questions.

How much did the driver, Dustin Frederick Brown, have to drink that night?

Did he shift the truck into reverse after hitting, and killing, Skrobonja?

Did he then try to flee, or did his truck - with many of its parts customized by Brown - have a mechanical problem that made it impossible to stop?

That morning, Brown, 28, told a detective that he'd been sober enough to drive. But when he hit the gas, he said, the throttle stuck and his pickup "just went haywire."

That story clashes with witness accounts, diagnostic tests on the truck, and even Brown's own text messages sent from the bar that night, according to police reports.

CONFLICTING STORIES

Three hours after the crash, Detective Pauline Renick questioned Brown in the emergency room of St. Joseph hospital. Brown told her his night had been a blur ever since his head hit the steering wheel, and that he was nearly blind without his glasses, which had been lost (and broken) in the aftermath of the crash.

Still, he agreed to talk, and police transcribed 20 pages of dialogue from their interview.

Brown said he arrived at the Up & Up around 7 p.m. The bar hosts free pool on Sunday nights. Brown tried to convince some friends to meet for a few games, but they all politely declined. Brown played against strangers at a rotating table: winners stay, losers sit out until their next turn.

Renick asked if he'd been drinking.

"I had a few drinks," he said, at first.

Later, when pressed for details, Brown's recollection changed. He insisted he'd only had one pint. He made it a point to recall the name of the brewery and the beer: Ninkasi, Dawn of the Red. He explained how he bought a full pitcher, poured one glass for himself and gave the rest to two girls he'd just met. Brown drank no other alcohol, he said, before getting into his truck at 1:30 a.m.

But a breath test gauged his blood-alcohol level at 0.23, close to three times the legal limit. Over the span of their 29-minute conversation, Renick tried again and again to draw out a confession from Brown.

"Okay, so I want you to think about this for a second," Renick said, "because what I'm looking for here is some - some honesty, and I'm just going to tell you that doesn't really add up with what your preliminary blood-alcohol results were."

Also, as she later told him bluntly, Renick could smell alcohol on his breath.

"So you know," she continued, "sometimes people don't remember things exactly the way they happened, and so I'm just going to ask you if it's possible you had more than one beer?"

"I'm being completely honest with you, I'm not really a big drinker," Brown said. "I do drink casually from time to time."

After a brief tangent about Brown's keys, Renick circled back and reframed the question. She told Brown it seemed like he'd been honest with her, and that everything added up. Except for one thing, she said. She asked again, "Do you think it's possible that you had more than one beer?"

"I'm telling you right now, it's not," Brown said. "When the original officer, hours ago, breathalyzed me, and told me that it was three times the legal limit-"

"Yeah."

"-I did not believe it."

Once police got a warrant to search through Brown's iPhone, however, they found that statement hard to believe.

"So I'm downtown and shouldnt drive," Brown texted a friend at 9:36 p.m. "Wanna volunteer to house me?"

"Shoot can't help you señor," she answered.

He texted her again just after 10 p.m. "Im never lookin for help ... Except now... But ok."

Thirty seconds later Brown told another friend via text, "Im (expletive)-faced downtown, dont wanna drive home."

"I'm headed down to Bellevue now," she replied, within a minute. "Otherwise I would invite you to crash at my place."

Judging by the timestamps, Brown stayed at the bar for three more hours. Police tracked down bar-goers who met him that night. Most hadn't talked with him for very long, but two men who sat next to Brown said he looked and acted drunk. So drunk, in fact, they saw him from afar and called him over to their table, in the beer garden outside the bar, around 12:30 a.m. They figured they could "manipulate" him into buying rounds of beer for the table, according to another report by Detective Renick.

One man at the table, Jeremy Evans, 25, watched Brown drink "at least two more pints of beer," and buy three or four pitchers for the table. Evans had been drinking too: tequila at home, beer at the bar. But he told the detective that Brown looked and acted much more drunk than the others in his group. Brown couldn't look him in the eye, Evans said, and he was spilling beer as he poured it into his glass. He told Brown his name five times; Brown said he was autistic - in the report, it's not clear if he was serious or making a joke - and that was why he kept forgetting Evans' name. Annoyed, Evans parted ways with him after about an hour.

THE CRASH

Last call for in-house drinks at the Up & Up came early that Monday morning, sometime between 1 and 1:20 a.m. Bar hoppers started migrating home. Some grabbed a bite to eat before calling it a night.

Outside of Pel Meni, a popular late-night hangout that serves Russian dumplings, a line curled out the front door. Out on the sidewalk, roommates Kale Oostema, 24, and Taylor Alaniz, 22, were mingling when they heard the revving of a diesel engine on the other side of North State Street, parallel-parked between the Old World Deli and the Shakedown bar. A black Ford F-350 puffed charcoal-colored smoke from its dual exhaust pipes.

And it was loud. All around the block, people broke from what they were doing to look into the street: A nurse, who lives in an upper-floor apartment in the Daylight Building stepped to her window; Officer Joshua McKissick paused from checking on a drunk man in an alley behind the Royal Inn; a manager of the Up & Up even heard the engine from inside the bar, by the pool tables, as customers started to file out for the night.

Oostema figured the driver was trying to look cool.

"Whew!" he yelled.

Oostema, Alaniz and Officer McKissick heard the engine's roar rise and fall - contrary to Brown's later claim that the throttle got stuck at a high, constant level, according to police. Seconds later, the tires squealed as the truck "peeled out," by Oostema's account, onto the one-way North State Street.

Before anyone could react, the truck fishtailed on the wet road, caught some traction and swerved left over the sidewalk, knocking over three men in their 20s, at a speed police believe was well over the 25 mph limit. The Ford barreled through the parking lot of the Color Pot and lurched over a short concrete barrier onto Chestnut Street. That's where it ran into and over Skrobonja, who had been on the sidewalk. He died at the scene.

A former combat medic ran to Skrobonja, but found he was beyond help. So he tended to the other victims. They suffered a bevy of injuries: a jaw that needed surgery, a fractured ankle, a cut that required stitches along a right cheek, extreme back and leg pain, and bruising.

The Ford continued south across Chestnut, T-boning the driver's side of a Toyota 4Runner occupied by five exhausted Ski to Sea racers on their way to a Motel 6. (The Toyota had just turned left onto Chestnut Street.) On impact, the 4Runner was thrust into a parked Honda CRV on the other side of the street.

DID BROWN REVERSE?

Brown's Ford has an automatic transmission, with the shifter on the steering column.

"I know I never put it into reverse," Brown told Renick at the hospital, "unless I tried to go into neutral and it hit reverse or something with the throttle up."

"Okay," Renick said.

"I do remember kind of jangling with the shift stick on the column, trying to get it, you know, out of gear, into park. Park wasn't doing anything, um, it was panic, I barely- I won't even say I really touched the shift column, but I could see myself doing that in a time of stress."

"Okay."

"It was very, very stressful," Brown said.

Police spoke with more than a dozen people who had a view of the truck after it hit Skrobonja. Some had only blurry memories of the crash, or simply couldn't tell, in the chaos, if the Ford driver had reversed before driving back toward State Street.

At least eight witnesses were certain it backed up. Oostema and Alaniz said they saw bright white reverse lights on the back of the truck. Three people in the 4Runner witnessed the truck backing away before taking off again.

One of Skrobonja's friends had just wrapped up a phone call, and lost track of his friend, when he saw people scattering from the truck's path. After it hit the first two cars, he "could not recall specifically seeing the reverse lights but the truck was definitely in reverse," according to an officer's report.

A trail of red steering fluid traced the route of the Ford through a parking lot on the south side of Chestnut. Afterward, Brown told police he desperately wanted to stop but the truck was "literally possessed."

"I was along for the ride," Brown said to the detective. "I was bleeding everywhere, and my glasses - I couldn't really see, I was just on a terrible- an amusement ride from Hell, pretty much."

The truck hit two more parked cars on North State Street and, according to police, reversed rapidly again, fishtailing as Brown put it back into drive. A witness, Tyler Dixon, 24, from Mount Vernon, told officers that gave him enough time to jump onto the truck's step bar and latch onto Brown through the driver's open window. Dixon pummeled him while the truck continued south on State until, by Dixon's account, Brown got knocked out.

The driver slumped to the right and dragged the steering wheel with him, turning the battered truck into a metal railing above a 10-foot drop into a parking lot beside the Herald Building. The truck tore out the railing but stopped just short of going over the ledge. In all, the truck traveled 475 feet.

Momentum flung Dixon to the pavement. He suffered only a fractured knuckle. A crowd swarmed the truck, removed the keys and pulled Brown from the cab.

"But once I finally grabbed him again and threw him out of his truck, he just repeatedly said he was sorry for what he did," Dixon told police. "Like, over and over again."

MECHANICAL PROBLEMS?

"Okay, so when you left the Up & Up," Renick asked Brown, "you said that your vehicle - what happened, it spun out of control?"

"I have a 2000 Ford F-350," Brown said, "it's a 7.3-liter turbo diesel, and I have (an) enhanced turbo, enhanced injectors and enhanced fuel system on it. And when I start it up, I hit my fuel system switch on high as possible and touch the throttle; (I) laid off the throttle for a second getting out of the parking lot, and the throttle just stuck, and all I remember was what seemed like six blocks of going full-on, and I was going left to right, just smashing stuff, everything in my way to try and stop."

The throttle had stuck a few times in the past, he said, and the brake controller sometimes stuck, too, because of his homespun wiring job. But it wasn't the brakes that morning, he said - it was the throttle.

The next week a traffic officer took the truck to a mechanic at Diehl Ford. The mechanic explained to police: The accelerator feeds data virtually to the fuel injector. So there's no physical link, and in the event of a problem, the accelerator would always default to idle speed, according to police.

The mechanic "flatly said that it was impossible for the accelerator to stick open in this kind of system," and when it was tested at the dealership, the accelerator worked fine, according to the officer's report.

A broken steering spindle was discovered. However, police noted, per witness accounts and tire marks on the road, the truck was still steering even as it crashed into the railing.

AWAITING TRIAL

After the Memorial Day weekend, Deputy Prosecutor James Hulbert charged Brown with nine felonies: vehicular homicide, four counts of vehicular assault, three counts of hit and run causing injury, and one count of hit and run causing death.

Police also found Brown's license had been suspended two years ago in his home state of Rhode Island for failing to pay for out-of-state traffic tickets. The suspension had been reaffirmed three times since, and local police were working to confirm it remained suspended in May.

Brown remains in Whatcom County Jail on $500,000 bail. Results of his toxicology tests haven't been confirmed, but they're expected to be close to the initial test.

Brown's next court hearing has been set for Sept. 10, with a tentative trial date of Sept. 22. His public defender, Darrin Hall, said Skrobonja's death has been difficult for everybody, including Brown.

"It haunts him every day," Hall said, "because people's lives are ruined when lives are lost."

On a Facebook page, "Justice for Dragan Skrobonja," friends and loved ones continue to post updates on the court case, and new photos and memories are posted almost daily.

On the sidewalk off East Chestnut Street, friends started leaving flowers within hours of Skrobonja's death. The memorial has been in bloom ever since.

READ POLICE INTERVIEW

To read a transcript (PDF) of a Bellingham Police interview with Dustin Brown, click here.

MAP OF ACCIDENT SCENE

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