A New Berlin resident who remains displaced nearly a month after her home was destroyed by an SUV that veered off the road said the incident was mishandled by law enforcement and town officials.
According to the police report, 61-year-old Kenneth W. Titus Jr. of Norwich was traveling north on state Route 8 shortly after 1 p.m. May 11 when his vehicle, a 2007 Chevy Suburban, exited the east side of the roadway and struck a mobile home belonging to Donna Gulley.
Titus was faulted for the accident, but no charges were filed, according to police.
“I don't know how to explain it,” Gulley said. “I just don't understand how Mr. Titus never got a ticket for anything.”
Responding to the scene was Officer Andrew Wheatley of the Town of New Berlin Police Department, who said he did not administer a sobriety test or order drug screenings because he felt they were unnecessary.
Titus was transported to Chenango Memorial Hospital in Norwich with complaints of back pain and showed no signs of impairment in a “brief” interview immediately beforehand, Wheatley said.
“There were no signs of slurred speech, no bloodshot eyes,” he said, and a search of the vehicle yielded no signs of drug or alcohol use.
“(The operator of the motor vehicle) stated he ‘looked down’ and didn’t really know what happened,” the police report read, but Wheatley said he did not ask Titus what speed he was traveling or if he was using a cell phone when he veered off the road.
“He indicated that he looked down. He didn’t indicate he was texting,” Wheatley said, citing the contents of his report.
Gulley’s daughter, Dezarae Yother, said she was told by police Titus said he was travelling the speed limit — 55 mph — and was fiddling with the radio when he ran off the road. He careened over two roadside embankments and through a field of tall grass before striking the trailer, she said, so “he had plenty of time to swerve in either direction.”
Wheatley told The Daily Star in an interview Tuesday he was employed by Titus about 15 years prior, but denied that the relationship could have influenced the investigation.
“If there’s some indication there’s a friendship, it’s completely the opposite, I can assure you,” Wheatley said.
Though the incident happened more than three weeks ago, Gulley said she was unable to submit an insurance claim until a police report was filed, which was not until five days later. The final copy contained four sentences and a diagram of the vehicle’s path from the road into the trailer.
“I don’t know why she felt she was getting the report late,” Wheatley said. “Most people get a report within three to five business days.”
Wheatley said he was at the end of his shift and was dispatched to another personal injury accident immediately after. He was then scheduled for two days off and called in sick the next two days, according to Deborah Barker, the town clerk.
“I just feel that things could have been handled better so I could get things going quicker. I not only lost my home that day, but also my income,” said Gulley, who works as a home care provider to two individuals who lived in residence with her.
Gulley was attending her grandson’s high school graduation in Illinois at the time of the crash, but her 85-year-old mother, Bernice Brownell, was home with the two individuals. She was knocked six or seven feet back from where she was standing at the stove cooking soup — the stains were still visible on the linoleum floor three weeks after the incident — suffering bruises to her spine and requiring several trips to a specialist in Syracuse, according to her granddaughter, Dezarae Yother.
Yother said her grandmother told her it felt like a hurricane or tornado swept through the neighborhood, and the aftermath “looked like you had four or five toddlers here no one was watching.”
Stuffed animals littered the floor, drawers had flown open and their contents strewn about; a large wooden hutch in the corner had overturned onto the baby’s play area, and a curio cabinet containing a china set and porcelain figurine collection had swung open, she said. Wall panels split at the seams and polyester trim unfurled from the ceiling. A 30-inch flat screen TV landed across the room from where it was molly-bolted to the wall, and the washer and dryer, on the opposite end of the trailer, were dislodged from their fixtures.
Yother estimated the impact of the crash pushed the trailer five feet off its foundation and two feet back. Firefighters responding to the scene had to move the exterior wooden staircase, once flush with the threshold, out of the way to get inside the home, she said.
Gulley, an Army veteran, will be 62 in December. She is battling lung cancer for a third time, and found out in March the cancer had spread to her kidneys. She is undergoing in-home chemotherapy treatment — two days of pills and 10 days of shots, according to Yother.
“I can only imagine what goes through her mind,” Yother said. “She’s one hell of a woman.”
A lifelong resident of New Berlin, Gulley said she has owned the one-acre property for nearly a decade. The trailer was only three years old, a brand-new upgrade from the 1968 model she occupied previously.
Yother said the two are staying at a Howard-Johnson in Norwich until further arrangements can be made. Gulley’s trailer, now an empty shell, still sits askew on its concrete pad, awaiting removal by a salvage company.
“It’s laugh or cry, but I chose laugh,” Yother said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”
Yother said she contacted the town supervisor, Robert Starr, who she said did not return her call until three days after the incident.
“He acted like he didn’t even know it happened,” Yother said.
Barker said the supervisor only works part-time and was out of the office when Yother first called. She said she spoke to Yother the next day, offering any assistance she could, and informed Starr of the situation when he returned to work. Barker said she told him the issue was resolved, but had not realized Yother requested a return call from Starr.
“It was three days before he got back to her and I think emotions were high and things got pretty heated between the two of them,” Barker said.
Yother said Starr seemed unconcerned with her family’s plight when they finally spoke. She said she asked him what he would do if it was his mother who was displaced.
“He told me, ‘this wouldn’t happen to my mother,’” she said.
Exasperated, she asked him where she was supposed to put her mother’s 400-pound hospital bed.
“He told me I was being unrealistic and stupid and then he hung up,” Yother said.
Starr did not return several requests for comment.
“I feel the officer wasn't very helpful at all, and certainly Mr. Starr was not at all sympathetic or friendly to a member of the community,” Gulley said.
“They acted like what happened to my mother didn’t matter,” Yother said. “I gave it a week’s rest because it’s time to take care of her, but I’m going to keep after them because I feel even an apology would be better than nothing. I’ll keep pushing until I feel my voice has been heard.”
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.