The cause of a motor vehicle crash isn't important to the dead. It's strictly a concern for the living.
Guilt or innocence, blame or blamelessness, need to be established after a crash. At stake are living concerns like time in prison, or huge amounts of money in lawsuits, or at the very least, personal closure for the survivors.
Enter the crash reconstructionists, smart police officers whose job it is to ask Â— and answer Â— that one all-important question:
Bob Routt of La Grande and Rocky Desimini of Baker City have wrapped up their careers as Oregon State Police reconstructionists, but they savor the memory of literally hundreds of cases they worked together in Northeast Oregon.
Routt retired in 2001, after 27 years with the OSP. Desimini retired only this week, and is launching a company that will specialize in the training of reconstructionists.
Their friendship endures, and they still think of themselves as partners. They meet often to recall their work and the pride they took in it.
"The job was to gather evidence that can either convict or acquit. It was to establish truth," Routt said during a recent get-together at his home.
The two remember more than the investigations they did out on the road. With equal enthusiasm, they recall the thousands of hours they put into training after they joined the OSP reconstruction program in the mid-1980s.
"In order to be effective, we had to qualify ourselves as expert witnesses. The accumulation of our experience and education helped us a great deal," Routt said.
Much of their instruction came from the Washington Association of Technical Accident Investigators, a professional organization they joined in 1987. For years they attended classes and seminars hosted by the group.
Always, it was highly technical stuff, exacting and demanding.
Desimini recalled one class in particular that made the participants experts on tire friction.
"There's a constantly recurring question about friction and how it differs from tire to tire. But the truth is, until you get into commercial tires, the range isn't very much," Desimini said.
To establish that fact once and for all, seminar participants did a practical exercise. Routt and Desimini never forgot it.
"We skidded cars all day," Desimini said. "We skidded cars with the softest rubber and the hardest rubber, and we measured and measured. We found there wasn't a calculable difference between the two."
A decade or more ago, police officers quit using the word "accident" when referring to motor vehicle mishaps.
Accident, after all, implies the incident couldn't be avoided. In reality, that's almost never the case.
Crashes usually happen because someone did something they shouldn't have.
"The only time it's really an accident is when there's an act of God," said Desimini.
"If someone's driving down the road and a tree falls on them, then it's an accident. But in the overwhelming number of cases, it comes back to the human operator."
A driver takes his eyes off the road for a critical split second. Or falls into a daydream and runs a stop sign. Bends over to recover something he's dropped on the floor. Goes too fast for weather conditions.
Or runs his vehicle off a cliff with his wife inside. And tries to make it look like an "accident."
"A lot of times, you look at a crash and listen to what people tell you, and you say, Â‘Hold on, something's wrong,' " said Desimini.
It happened along the Snake River near Huntington in Baker County, about 1989.
A man called authorities to say he had been driving along the river and took his eyes off the road for a second. His car went over an embankment, with his wife on board.
Fortuitously, the driver was able to exit as the vehicle went over the side.
The trapped wife drowned.
Desimini, first investigator on the scene, listened to the driver's story, studied the scene, took measurements. He noticed right away there were no skid marks on the road.
And he knew something was wrong.
"The vehicle went over at an angle, and we figured out the driver's side was up and the passenger side down when it did. It was impossible for him to jump out like he claimed," Desimini said.
At the end of the day, Desimini told the Baker County district attorney it was murder.
"The DA said, Â‘Go for it,' " Desimini recalled.
Routt and Desimini investigated further. They built a strong case based on vehicle dynamics, the mechanics of a door lock, and also that there was a large insurance policy and a girlfriend involved.
When the case went to court, murder was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
One thing, however, bothers Routt about it today.
The dead woman had a penchant for photography. Her camera was recovered from the car. The film inside, though soaked, was not ruined.
"The last picture on the roll was of the husband, standing with his thumbs hooked in his belt, this sneer on his face. The picture was taken at the spot he'd driven her over. It was just chilling," Routt said.
Some crashes are easier to figure out than others. Once in a while, a criminal is so dumb he practically apprehends himself.
Several years ago, Routt and Desimini were asked to help with an investigation of a double homicide on Lincton Mountain near Elgin.
A couple had been shot to death in the woods. In addition, the woman had been run over by a vehicle.
The fleeing killers had flipped their vehicle while driving off. They righted it and continued on their way.
Study of the crash scene, coupled with reference to auto manufacturer data bases, enabled the reconstructionists to determine make and model of the getaway rig. They knew they were looking for a green Mitsubishi pickup.
But that wasn't the information that led to arrests.
Instead, an OSP officer from the Milton-Freewater command, combing through dirt and debris at the scene, came across a photograph of a young girl.
"She was someone he knew from Milton-Freewater. We went to where she lived. What do you know, a green Mitsubishi with rollover damage was parked outside," Routt said.
Two Milton-Freewater men, one of them related to the girl in the picture, were taken into custody on murder charges.
They are in prison today.
For sheer mayhem and carnage, the crash Routt and Desimini remember best is one that occurred on Interstate 84 near Pendleton, Sept. 26, 1999.
"It was the crash of the largest magnitude, and the department pulled out all the stops," said Routt.
The incident, actually an accident considering the act-of-God blowing dust that caused it, saw about 50 vehicles pile up in three chain-reaction crashes.
The investigators recall a hellish scene of fire and smoke, death and chaos.
Here's how crazy it was: In the middle of the confusion, a couple scrambled madly around trying to stash suitcases full of marijuana they'd been carrying in their vehicle.
"Anything you'd expect to see, it was there," said Routt.
At least seven people died and scores were injured.
The OSP mobilized its entire reconstruction department. Investigators broke into teams to take measurements, take photographs and collect evidence.
"The litigation has finally ended, and there were only two trials," Routt said. "To my way of thinking we did a remarkable job. Our findings must have been correct, because they weren't disputed."
That's one more success in a long string.
Looking back on it all, the two investigators said their careers
wouldn't have been half so remarkable if not for fellow officers and technical experts they worked with and trained under throughout the years.
It was also a stroke of good luck that they became partners.
"There were times when we weren't at each other's scene, but we'd always be running things by each other," said Desimini.
Routt added, "We used each other for quality control."
A necessary thing, for men committed to finding the truth behind the tragedy, the right answer to the question, What happened?