CHP concludes investigation of accident that killed local religious leaders

Professor Douglas Kmiec, the Ambassador to Malta who was driving the car at the time of the accident, talks to The Sunday Times of Malta about the fateful day.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The California Highway Patrol has concluded its investigation into the Aug. 25 auto accident that killed Sister Mary Campbell and critically injured and eventually caused the death of Monsignor John Sheridan, both of Our Lady of Malibu Church.

Pepperdine University law professor and U.S. Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec was the driver of the vehicle in the single car accident on Mulholland Highway. He was also injured in the accident. Sheridan died Sept. 17 of heart failure, never having recovered from his injuries.

The three had been returning from a 60th anniversary celebration at Louisville High School, run by a Catholic order, in Woodland Hills, when the front wheel of the car left the pavement, propelling the vehicle into a drainage ditch. Kmiec and Sheridan were riding in the front seat and wearing seat belts. Campbell, who had removed her seat belt so she could lie down in the back seat, was killed instantly.

Officer Leland Tang, media spokesman for the CHP, said that anytime a death is involved in a traffic accident, the agency launches a full investigation and submits a report to the county District Attorney’s Office. When asked in September if charges would be filed against Kmiec, Tang said the District Attorney would make that decision.

When reached for an update this week, Tang said the report had been submitted shortly after Oct. 15, and that the final recommendation did not specify charges against Kmiec for driver negligence, but that vehicular manslaughter would be the “usual” charge.

“In cases such as these, we would usually have an informal discussion with the D.A.’s office to suggest the next step,” Tang said. “But since Kmiec is a public figure and a U.S. Ambassador, we wanted to go by the book with this investigation to avoid any suggestion of preferential treatment. The report was submitted for review and possible charges.”

When reached by telephone, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office said the case report had not yet been entered into the computer, so she had no update on whether charges indeed would be filed against Kmiec.

Kmiec returned to Malta by early October and, in a lengthy interview with The Sunday Times of Malta, spoke movingly of how “life as I know it stopped” that day. In the interview, Kmiec said it had been “a beautiful day” and that he will never forget the awful sound of silence following the crash into the drainage pipe.

He speculated that a brief distraction to adjust the air conditioning knob pulled the car only slightly to the right, but enough to allow the wheel to leave the immediate pavement and veer off the shoulder.

Kmiec said that directly following the accident, he was able to see that Campbell had “already been claimed,” but that Sheridan was conscious. The ambassador managed to dial 911 on his cell phone and was told by the operator to keep talking to maintain consciousness.

Instead, Kmiec and Sheridan pulled out rosary strings that had been given to them by the Louisville sisters at breakfast just that morning and started to count off the beads.

Kmiec said he continues to ask, “Why me? Why do I have to be the chariot driver to eternity?”

The District Attorney’s office was unavailable for further comment.

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