Briscoe says the crash scene was “just
chaos” when she arrived. The top of
Hall’s convertible had been sheared off.
A teen’s backpack had been flung into a
tree; an officer climbed up to retrieve it.
Hall and his passengers had been rushed
to area hospitals. One boy’s injuries were
so serious that doctors didn’t expect him
to live. CRU detectives and other officers scrambled to determine his name
so they could notify his parents and help
get them to the hospital in time to say
Eventually, teens who’d been at the
party gave officers a list of cellphone
numbers for kids who might have gotten
into Hall’s car. The first number they
tried rang at the hospital, where 15-year-
old Shawn Gangloff lay dying. Police
worked through the cellphone carrier to
find and notify his parents.
“Shawn will always be 15,” his grieving mother told a packed courtroom last
September, when Hall was sentenced to
18 months in jail. He had pleaded guilty
to vehicular manslaughter and causing
a life-threatening injury while driving
impaired by alcohol.
“What always bothers me about these
kind of cases is that they happen over and
over and over again,” Briscoe says. “It’s
just different kids in different locations.
It’s often kids from the same high schools.
So you know that they’ve seen it—and for
some reason it just doesn’t sink in.
“And it’s always some small thing that
could have changed, and it means some-
one’s life,” she continues. “Shawn hadn’t
some talk that maybe they were going to
go get pingpong balls to play beer pong,
and they were supposed to come back.
We have text messages from the kid who
hosted the party, saying things like, ‘Hey,
where are you guys? I thought you were
coming back. I’m going to lock the door
if you are not here soon.’ Small decisions—sometimes they have these big
A BOARD IN THE CRU office lists the
number of fatal crashes in the county by
year. Last year, there were 38 fatal collisions in which 39 people died, including
13 pedestrians and three cyclists. Alcohol
was a factor in nine of those collisions.
On another wall, a small white board lists
the names of CRU detectives, in order of
whose turn it is to lead the investigation
the next time someone in Montgomery
County dies in a car crash.
On a sunny winter day, the detec-
tives are having lunch together at their
office, talking about their work. Death
“They need to fall apart,” Kinser says.
“They need you to be stoic. You can
decompress later on.”
Robinson recalls how challenging it
was to maintain his composure when
he went on death notifications with
an especially kind-hearted colleague
who has since retired. “I could hold it
together until I saw her start to tear up,”
Robinson says. “Then I had to tell myself,
Look away. Don’t look at her. Look at
things on the wall.”
Everybody who does this work is
somehow changed. Some changes seem
small. CRU detectives don’t wear all
black clothing when they walk their dogs
at night. They never jaywalk and don’t
let their loved ones. If they ride bikes,
they do so on nature trails, not roads.
Behind the wheel, they don’t hit the gas
the second a red light turns green; they
wait and look both ways to make sure
they aren’t about to be blindsided. They
tend to drive big, heavy trucks—the
kind that give them more protection in
a crash. They always wear seat belts.
Other changes are profound. When
Briscoe’s father died of cancer recently,
she was deeply grateful that they had
time to say goodbye. “I know that not
everybody gets the chance to do that,”
she says quietly.
It is the rare officer who can investigate fatal collisions decade after decade.
“This work has a shelf life,” Kinser says.
Power, who led the investigation into
the fatal crash on New Year’s Day in 2012,
wondered recently if he’d finally seen too
much death and grief. He was investigating a wreck in which three members
of a family, including a 4-year-old, were
struck and killed by two strangers who
were drag racing on Georgia Avenue in
Silver Spring. The tragedy hit Power particularly hard, and he considered leaving
CRU. He stayed.
“Seeing that through to a successful prosecution made me think maybe
this is my true calling,” Power says. “Not
that I’m the perfect investigator, but I
know I can do this job and help others
get through it. I can’t always give families the answers they want to hear, but
I can tell them what happened. I like
the clarity of that. We have the ability
to make sense out of what seems like a
completely senseless loss.” n
April Witt ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a
former Washington Post writer.
“If you don’t have the ability to
separate the emotions from the
work you are required to do, this job
will eat you alive,” says Picerno.