Records: Light should have been green in fatal Scottsdale Torch Ride

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Records: Light should have been green in fatal Scottsdale Torch Ride

Police staffed about 60 percent of people they’d requested for the event

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After a fatal motorcycle accident during an Arizona Bike Week charity ride, Scottsdale Police are warning drivers to beware,

Debra Martin moved to Arizona so she could take advantage of weather prime for motorcycle riding.

It was also a reason why Martin rode in a March charity bike event in Scottsdale. She was not far behind tandem riders Al and Sam Barela when they entered the intersection at Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Thunderbird Road.

“Everything happened so quickly,” said Martin, 46. “This car shot out of the side street. We saw impact. We saw bodies fly.”

Scottsdale police say the Barelas were at fault: They ran a red light, causing the crash that resulted in their deaths. But event-planning documents show that the traffic light at the crash intersection was supposed to be green for the more than 1,000 riders in the March 28 event, which had been dubbed “Arizona’s largest police-escorted ride.”

Documents also show that Scottsdale police staffed about 57 percent of the officers and police assistants they’d originally requested for the event.

Before the ride, the Barelas had signed a waiver agreeing to follow all traffic laws, records said.

Still, for many participants in 16th Annual Chester’s Torch Ride benefiting Special Olympics Arizona, “police escorted” meant that police would protect their right-of-way from beginning to end. Some bikers said they felt like Scottsdale police blamed the Barelas for their own deaths, and they took to social media to air their grievances.

Scottsdale police declined comment for this story, citing an ongoing investigation, and Torch Ride organizers with Mesa-based Chester’s Harley-Davidson Motorcycles have not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Six days after the crash, Josh Barela rode with his wife, Miranda, from Farmington, N.M., to Mesa on Good Friday. The next morning, Josh, Miranda and other bikers met the bodies of his father and stepmother at an Apache Junction mortuary to escort them home.

During the ride back to New Mexico, Josh said he felt numb as he waded through childhood memories and things he wished he could have said to his dad.

“There is just so much, you get so lost even thinking about it,” said Josh, 29. “It blows me away. It’s like, how the hell is he just gone?”

Al and Sam Barela were westbound on Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard when they crashed into a vehicle at the Thunderbird Road intersection. According to records obtained by The Arizona Republic, Scottsdale police had assigned the city’s Traffic Management Center, or TMC, to keep that light green for Torch Ride participants.

The TMC used to be in downtown Scottsdale, but it was relocated in 2014 to an office park south of Shea Boulevard. The center allows operators to control and monitor Scottsdale’s approximately 300 traffic signals, as well as view about 140 camera feeds. It is unclear if the intersection at Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Thunderbird Road has a camera.

The Barelas’ crash is “exactly what you are trying to protect against,” said Tucson-based attorney Ted A. Schmidt, who has litigated government liability cases for 35 years.

“It looks like they had properly planned for the safety of this event, particularly as it pertains to going through intersections,” said Schmidt, managing partner of Kinerk, Schmidt Sethi, PLLC. “They didn’t implement their plan.”

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Jim Moore, Executive VP of Operations for Biker Information magazine

A Scottsdale Police Department spokesman said two days after the crash that 11 Scottsdale police officers were assigned to the Torch Ride. E-mails and officer assignments released last week by Scottsdale police show the coordinating officer had originally requested 23 officers and police assistants. Records show there were actually 13 people assigned to the event.

“If you come up short by almost half, it seems to me there was a breakdown somewhere,” Schmidt said.

This week, Scottsdale police released a waiver signed by the Barelas prior to the Torch Ride. The waiver acknowledged that the Barelas would obey all traffic laws, and it released Chester’s, Scottsdale police and the city of Scottsdale from claims of death, injury, economic loss or property damage.

Most people believe that signing a waiver is a formality and it does not change participants’ “reasonable expectation” that organizers and the city will not “completely abandon their responsibilities to maintain safety,” said Tucson-based criminal-defense attorney Michael J. Bloom.

Two days after the crash, a Scottsdale police spokesman told The Republic that Chester’s was notified that not all intersections on the Torch Ride route would be controlled.

“From the beginning of the event, from our standpoint, it was not going to be a closed route and that all intersections would not be controlled — that was relayed to the organizers,” Officer Kevin Watts said.

Scottsdale police would not respond to questions about who communicated that message, or how or when it was done.

Event-planning documents show that seven of the 13 Scottsdale officers and police assistants who worked the Torch Ride were assigned to specific intersections. The others included a supervisor, two front and rear motorcycle escorts, and an officer assigned to the TMC, records show.

Riders passed through a total of 17 lights in Scottsdale, four of which were supposed to be allowed to go through normal cycles, records show. Scottsdale police documents indicate the officer assigned to the TMC was instructed to monitor and adjust 10 lights’ timing as needed.

Scottsdale police planned to receive three groups of Torch Ride participants — each with a maximum of 500 riders — arriving in 30-minute intervals, records show. They expected the groups to take about seven minutes to pass any given point.

The Torch Ride started at Chester’s and was preceded by a pancake breakfast, playing of the National Anthem and a prayer, said participant said Kevin Kwake of Ahwatukee Foothills. At no time were riders told they’d have to stop for red lights, he said.

“When you put on an event like this, you have to use reasonable care to make sure people understand the rules,” Bloom said.

Kickstands went up at noon and Mesa police escorted Torch Ride participants from Chester’s to State Route 87 north of Southern Avenue, where they turned the event over to officers from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. DPS handed them off to Scottsdale police near the intersection of Shea and Palisades boulevards, about eight miles from where the Barelas wrecked.

The force of the collision sent Sam Barela’s body into oncoming traffic on Thunderbird Road, Martin said. A former nurse’s assistant, Martin rushed to see if she could help her.

“She was bleeding from her right ear,” Martin said. “She had one leg behind her. There was a pulse, but it was very, very faint, very weak.”

This year was Martin’s first Torch Ride, but she’d ridden in several other large, police-escorted runs. For her, police-escorted meant riders should have had the right-of-way throughout.

“It was a senseless death,” Martin said. “It didn’t have to happen.”