Copyright 2014, Jules A. Staats; Library of Congress, USA.  All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. This work may be previewed only.


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Sometimes a change of pace is good.  This is a true story of a very unusual incident.  Perhaps no deputy sheriff in the entire country has seen a black and white patrol car like this.


          It was a crisp, clear night in Basset, California, which was an unincorporated area in the center of Los Angeles County.  The patrol shift was past the half-way point and the advection fog was timidly appearing in low areas.  A clock by a liquor store showed 4:30 AM as the Sheriff's patrol car cruised on East Valley Boulevard--a main artery through the center of the County--the heavy duty police pursuit-rated oversize tires made a distinct snapping sound as the car drove the aging concrete highway gaps.  It was a familiar sound, made as the patrol car rolled from one segment of the old concrete road to another.  A freight train on the left was clattering down the tracks, outdistancing the police car, while heading for the City of Industry switching yard.


          Working this police unit, were two deputy sheriffs and the year was around 1968.  The two deputies knew each other, and were casual friends.  Still, they actually had not been partners in a patrol car before.  The passenger, or number two deputy, was working eight hours overtime.  He expected--and received the task of doing all the paperwork, while the driver who was working his assigned shift did all the driving.  It was fair, after all, as the deputy working overtime was making extra wages at a time and a half rate.


          Jay had previously pulled a long eight hours on the previous day shift.  It had been a very busy day, assisting on two traffic accidents and writing eight long burglary reports.  Not surprisingly he was noticing that he was becoming more tired by the minute.  He reflected that perhaps he made a mistake, when he volunteered for the extra hours and the extra bucks.  He now sleepily regretted this decision.  His thoughts then wandered, making him doze a bit.  His body jerked as he caught himself.  His thoughts demanded that he regain control of himself; got to stay awake.  Just 3 1/2 hours, and it's all over and the money is mine.  What a lousy night to work.  I should have gone home.  But I need the money.  Nuts, we all do.  Lights on those poles hurt my eyes.  Why did they ever go to those bright orange street lights anyway?  What I need is a hot call to wake me up.  Maybe another cup of Joe.  No that is a bad idea.  No more coffee, I'm floating now.  Jay felt miserable, and found himself caught up by his thoughts as his body clamored for sleep.


          The police radio seemed to respond to his wish.  "Industry 146 one-four-six, a 459 Silent, 1 alarm man enroute in ten minutes, at the Acme Auto Parts store 10115 Valley.  Car 143 is assisting, rolling from the station." 


          Startled back to reality by the call, Jay scribbled the information about the possible burglary in progress call on his clipboard.  He wrote everything on blank paper all over his clip board.  This would be information that would be the basis for his Car Log Sheet later. He started thinking, that this would be just the ticket to wake up and stay alert for the rest of the shift.  He thought to himself: If we luck-out, and can get an arrest out of this, so much the better.  Then-there is Court time, more paid overtime.  All right!  A wonderful train of thoughts for a young Deputy Sheriff with four little children, and a fair share of bills that consistently cried out to be paid.


          Bob, his partner, had already flipped on the flashing yellow light on the sealed beam three light "Christmas Tree".  The two red lights to the front were left unlit.  The result was a futile gesture of advising the public that a police unit was on an urgent call.  Nobody could see the flashing amber light until the patrol car was past and far ahead.  As a result, patrol deputies referred to the light as the "excuse me light."  This was a Patrol Response Policy of the time that was strictly enforced.  Looking back, this was a rule that caused poor public relations at best and danger to other motorists who were unaware of a high speed patrol unit responding to an urgent call.


          Objects by the side of the road passed by Jay's eyes in a blur, as they raced in and out, right and left, past the normal flow of traffic.  He glanced at the speedometer then back out the windshield trying to forget what he just observed.  He pulled his seat belt even tighter which made him feel better.  He thought to himself, that if Bob were not a cop, he would give him a ticket.  Oh well, he drove that way himself.  It was policy to almost never use the red lights to "split" traffic.  Other police departments had an optional code 3 policy with a “silent” approach to a high risk crime scene.  Other police departments, fire, and ambulances responded to emergency calls with red lights and siren often, but due to the restrictive Department emergency and urgent response policy at the time many patrol deputies never responded code 3 for months.  When they did, many crashed.  As a result the emergency and urgent response policy became even more restrictive as well as enforced.  It became just part of doing the job.


          Since this was an urgent call, not an emergency call, Bob braked the radio car to a halt at the next red traffic signal.  There was heavy cross traffic which was unusual at that time of the morning.  It seemed that all the 4:30 AM drivers had cooperated to form a convoy.  Common sense and policy dictated that the call would have to wait, briefly, until the traffic signal allowed the unit to safely proceed.


          The light changed to green in a second or so, and Bob expertly maneuvered through the intersection and beyond; again surprising several few slower drivers, as he passed them by.


          Jay had his passenger side window down.  Because of that, he had no trouble hearing a four barrel carburetor violently sucking wind behind him.  The brand new 1968 Ford just behind them inhaled air through an unrestricted police interceptor air cleaner.  Jay remarked to himself:  Wow, they could be heard breathing gas and air two blocks away when the accelerator was mashed to the floor.  But then, Jay thought: Who are these guys, anyway?  I don't know them.  Not from our station...........Got it, it's a South End Station car, poaching in our area.  


          The new, high performance radio car continued to catch up, and now was passing on Bob and Jay's right.  That created no problem at the moment, since this road had two lanes in both directions, or one lane for each patrol car. 


          The two police units were almost abreast of each other.  The driver of the other district patrol car waived to say hello.  Just then Jay shifted his gaze out the windshield, down the highway, and noticed a very dirty slow moving car in the left lane with very dim taillights.  This vehicle was driving at a snail’s pace and was now directly in Bob and Jay's path.


          Bob was keeping his eyes on the road, and somehow did not hear or notice the other patrol car just starting to pass on the right.  This is a human problem that with excitement eyes tend to acquire tunnel vision and concentration can block out sounds.  Jay pondered:  Is this other unit passing us or does he just want to keep abreast of us?  Is he actually planning to get to our call first?


          Bob started to smoothly guide the cruiser into the right lane to go around the slow vehicle that was almost invisible in the night.  Jay knew that the radio car to his right was now in Bob's blind spot as it had slowed down and was still abreast but now next to the right rear door.  Jay anticipated the danger of a possible collision.  He instantly issued a loud warning:


     "Car on the right!"


          Bob was an expert driver and an old hand at all this.  He glanced right and to the rear, observed the police black and white, and immediately slowed his patrol unit down to the same speed of the car in front of him, and all the while maintaining complete control of the police car and not even locking up a single car wheel.  Bob and Jay found themselves following a close three foot distance from the slow moving car ahead.


          Jay observed that the crew of the other police car, on the right, was not doing as well adjusting to this traffic change.   The poaching crew's driver mistakenly anticipated that the lead police car would continue in the left lane.  They did not see the slow driver also in the left lane with very dim taillights.


          As Bob swung right to pass the slow moving car, corrected, and swung left braking hard, the poacher driver was unfortunately behind in his observations and reactions.  Thinking that only one evasive maneuver was necessary, the other crew tried a quick lane change, into the right shoulder.  As there were no streetlights at all and no buildings that shed light on the road, only the headlights illuminated the roadway.  The shoulder continued for about 100 feet and then a drainage ditch started.  The other crew quickly found that the swerving into the shoulder was a bad choice as the driving shoulder ended.  The new Ford patrol car had slowed to about forty to fifty miles per hour; the car was actually straddling the ditch, wheels on each slope, committed, uncontrollable, and the vehicle could not be brought back into the roadway.  It was as if the car were on tracks.


          All of this, the hard slowdown of Jay and Bob’s car, the new patrol car now starting to pass them on the right again while in the shoulder happened in a split second, but was observed in slow motion.  Most people have had this time changing experience. 


          At this instant in time, Jay noticed that the other police car now was passing them and just abreast of them, actually just off Jay's right shoulder patch.


          He continued his stare at the other patrol car seeing something in slow motion that put him in a state of awe.  His eyes became, as if they were riveted open, as he watched the other squad car rise off the ground, and start to fly!


          Astonished, Jay put both of his hands on the passenger door window sill, as if to brace himself against what he observed.  He was now looking at the entire underside of the car.  The car was flying just above his head.  It appeared to be almost level.  He saw the shiny new mufflers, the clean black painted underside of the new vehicle.  He could see the drive shaft start to rotate in concert with the rear wheels.  The driver had taken his foot off the brake while in midair.  When the brakes were released, the engine attempted to propel the car forward as designed, by turning the rear driving wheels.  However, there was very little traction, eight to ten feet off the ground.


          He then saw the guy wire, or support for the telephone pole.  The car was riding the cable, dead center, perfectly balanced toward the top.  Then, the front bumper hit the sturdy wood pole six feet above the roadway.


          It was lightning, demolition, and fireworks all rolled into one.  The top of the high voltage pole was sheared off by the car's weight.  The radio car fell straight down, landing on all four wheels, with the poll in front of the vehicle.  He heard the sharp explosion of high voltage electrical wires striking the ground.


          Bob was completely stopped now, the entire street dark.   Another flash of sparks, and the darkness resumed again.  Jay hoped that the transmission line circuit breaker would stay tripped, but he did not know if there were still deadly hot wires down, laying invisibly in the street.  A few moments later, sure enough there was another electrical surge, which could have killed anybody who depended on the outage being final.


          The once shinny and brand new Sheriff’s patrol car was upright, albeit totally ruined with the front end smashed and the frame obviously bent beyond repair.


          The dust slowly settled in the still air.  All approaching traffic from both directions stopped, and waited as no driver wanted to venture past this blinding light display and the stopped patrol cars with flashing amber lights.


          Jay waited to regain his night vision.  Due to the bright flashes of the shorting electrical wires he was still seeing spots where his vision should be.  It was like watching the largest flash camera in the world or accidently viewing a lightning bolt at night.


          Even more time dragged by.   It seemed like an eternity for everyone there.  There was now absolutely no sound, as the cloud of dust and smoke wafted around all of them.  After stopping his police car, Bob had flipped on the all the emergency lights to stop all oncoming and following traffic.  The red lights caused an eerie glow in the smoke and dust.  A forth sharp and very loud buzz and sparks erupted everywhere for still another time.  Then, as a giant circuit breaker, miles away, finally tripped again, silence and darkness now ruled the night.  Jay mused:  That is why I never count on circuit breakers staying off when high voltage lines are on the ground.


          The question haunted both of the deputies: Power is supposed to come back only one time, trip and stay off.  That is not happening, so will the power try to come on one more time?  The last flash showed wires down all across the roadway, from left to right.


          He then used his flashlight, moving the beam in circles, and even leaned out the window searching until he established for certain that there were no electrical wires on their own car.  Satisfied that it was possibly safe, he finally and slowly ventured out of the patrol car, carefully walking toward the demolished police car.  He finally got close enough to see the deputies inside the car.


          The car was sitting at the bottom of a ditch that was three feet deep and about six feet wide.  The patrol car was still upright but the vehicle was draped by thick power lines.


          He actually found himself smiling as he observed the driver of the crushed car, who was touching his face, and feeling his chest.  The driver was not hurt.  Neither was his partner.  Jay almost laughed out loud as if it was almost humorous, because these guys were not really sure if they were still alive or dead and still on this earth.  This was analogous to people who pinch themselves to see if they are awake.


          Jay and Bob immediately grabbed handfuls of road flares to block the street so that cars would not venture over the finally quiet high voltage wires.  It was an hour later when the electric company; Southern California Edison arrived.  They made sure, that the high voltage lines were not active until repairs could be made, cut the wires and removed the cables from the roadway.  The twisted remains of the once-new radio car would be towed away on a wheeled dolly, never to patrol again.


          The victims of the accident finally were now free from the confinement of their patrol car.  Understandably they did not have much to say.  Their eyes widened as the Station Patrol Sergeant arrived to interview these two deputies that were out of their district.


          "What happened?" he asked with a partial smile on his face as he glanced at the wrecked car.


          The driver of the wrecked car told the truth.


          The Sergeant nodded.  "O.K. that's what you say happened.  Now, let me tell you, what really happened.  This will go on all the reports"


          The Sergeant embellished the incident which involved a phantom vehicle that forced the Pico Station crew off the road and into the ditch.  He altered the circumstances because he remembered that not too long ago, he was just a patrol deputy.  There was no intent to do anything wrong and the so-called poaching was just another district team wishing to assist on an urgent call.  The vehicle that Bob had to avoid was almost invisible due to mud on the reflectors and tail lights and qualified as the phantom vehicle.  It really was another version of the circumstances.  The report was subsequently accepted by the Department and verified that all that transpired was within policy.


          The crew of the ill-fated patrol car therefore was not punished, as a result of the clever interpretation of the incident.  Remember the phantom driver, who was never caught, who was blamed for forcing the patrol car into the ditch?  So, it was written, so it was.  The term used in those days was; "Spreading the Lead."


          Still, Jay will never forget, the day he saw a Ford police car fly. 


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     1 Code for Silent Burglar Alarm