BERLIN – Nov. 8 marked the one-year anniversary of 16-year-old Tymeir Dennis’ death.
Time hasn’t yet eased the pain for his family.
“I look around my house and I can just see him here,” said Roxie Dennis, Tymeir’s great aunt. “I just can’t believe it.”
More than a year after the teenager was struck and killed by a Maryland State Trooper while crossing Route 113 in Berlin, Dennis says her family still has questions about what happened that night.
Berlin resident Gabe Purnell says the community as a whole is still struggling with the event and the lengthy Maryland State Police investigation that followed.
“It affects the psyche of the community,” Purnell said. “Folks want to trust law enforcement but something like this happens and you leave the community hanging.”
Both he and Dennis are questioning the process following the accident, which occurred the evening of Nov. 8, 2013, near the intersection of Route 113 and Bay Street. Maryland State Police Trooper Nicholas Hager, then 21, was in an unmarked police cruiser when he hit Dennis and his older brother, Tyheim Bowen, as they were crossing the road. Tymeir Dennis was pronounced dead shortly after at Atlantic General Hospital while his brother was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma to be treated for multiple injuries.
In spite of concerns voiced by the teens’ family members, Lt. Earl Starner, commander at the MSP Berlin Barrack, says the same investigation procedures that are followed any time a state trooper is involved in a fatal accident were followed in this situation. Because it was a traumatic incident for everyone involved, Starner said Hager was immediately placed on administrative leave.
“We make sure the trooper is okay and speaks with our medical director,” he said. “That occurred here.”
He could not say how long Hager was on leave, citing it as a personnel matter, but said that it was a normal amount of time for a trooper to be off following a serious incident.
Starner stressed that Hager was given administrative leave and was not suspended.
At the same time, MSP’s crash team began investigating the accident. Starner reported the team is made up of a variety of MSP officers who “have received the highest level of training.”
The group, he explained, is an individual unit and not associated with any local barrack.
“They’re a specialty unit,” he said.
That unit spent close to eight months — a timeframe Starner says isn’t unusual with fatal accidents — looking into what happened the night of Nov. 8. That time was spent collecting physical evidence, having it analyzed and interviewing witnesses. According to Starner, once an initial report is created by the crash team, it goes through layers of review by various people throughout MSP.
When the report is deemed complete, it’s sent to the local State’s Attorney’s Office.
“We don’t place any charges until we’ve forwarded the case to the state’s attorney for review,” Starner said.
Starner said the report on Hager’s accident concluded that he should not face traffic or criminal charges. While he was exceeding the speed limit — which at the time was 50 mph — by driving at 57 mph, Starner said that was determined to not be a factor in the accident. He said the accident was caused by pedestrian error.
“If you’re crossing, you have to yield to oncoming traffic,” he said.
Trooper’s Speed Debated
Dennis still questions Hager’s speed and doesn’t understand why he wasn’t issued a speeding ticket at the very least.
“I know it was an accident, but I know there was a high rate of speed,” she said. “I don’t care whether it was seven mph [over the limit] or 70 mph. Why would you be going that fast to get to nowhere?”
Starner maintains that speed was not a factor in the crash.
“It’s over the posted limit but not at an amount deemed to be a contributing factor,” he said. “You wouldn’t routinely see anyone else getting a citation for going seven mph over the limit.”
Aside from Hager’s speed, Dennis says other concerns for Tymeir’s family are the conflicting witness reports they have heard about and the swiftness with which the accident scene was cleaned up. Dennis said she visited the scene of the crash the morning following the accident and could not find as much as a piece of debris or a drop of blood, which surprised her, knowing the extent of Tymeir’s injuries.
“I went and hugged and kissed him in his hospital bed,” she said. “I saw the blood that was coming from his head.”
According to Starner, it’s simply common procedure to clean up the area in which an accident occurs. He says evidence is documented and collected and then the road is cleared.
“We have an obligation to get the road open again,” he said.
No Peace For Community
For Dennis, who is president of the Worcester County chapter of the NAACP, the biggest issue following Tymeir’s death is the fact that the investigation of the accident was handled by the state police.
“I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “That’d be like me investigating my own child.”
She said the inquiry should have been handled externally and its results should have been more available to the public.
In response, Starner said he had been in contact with Tymeir’s family and had made himself available to answer questions. He also pointed out that following the accident, significant pedestrian safety improvements had been made to Route 113, which had long been considered a hotspot for accidents.
Dennis agreed that the addition of a countdown crosswalk and cautionary signage would make the Route 113 and Bay Street intersection safer. She credited Maryland’s State Highway Administration, Berlin resident Patricia Dufendach and the members of the Berlin Pedestrian Safety Committee for bringing that about.
A safer intersection doesn’t address area residents’ concerns with the investigation into Tymeir’s death though.
“The community is not at peace with this,” Dennis said.
With the recent riots in Ferguson, Mo., where a grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who shot an unarmed black teen, Dennis says concerns with law enforcement are at the forefront of people’s minds. She has heard from enough troubled citizens that she is thinking about starting a committee to look into ways the process for situations like those Tymeir’s family was involved in could be improved.
“If something can come out of that, my nephew’s death is not in vain,” she said.