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OWI trial fallout

December 24, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY – A deputy prosecutor has accused her colleague of attempting to sweep under the rug the nonaction of three La Porte City Police officers, who allowed an allegedly drunk man to drive away from a 911 call last year, only to cause a double fatality just over an hour later.

And she said her pointed questioning of those officers during trial has cost her her job.

According to Ana McNamara, whose last day with the La Porte County Prosecutor’s Office is Dec. 31, the decision whether to pursue criminal charges against Sgt. Patrick Sightes, Cpl. Daniel Reed and Officer Robert Hagler belongs to Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mark Roule.

“Roule was tasked with assessing and deciding whether any charges or investigation would occur according to the police officers’ testimony,” McNamara said. “He was not happy with Judge (Michael) Bergerson’s comments regarding the police officers, and so I am not surprised that he has decided against any action.”

Roule was incredulous in his response to the allegations.

“I haven’t made that call because that would not be my call to make,” Roule said in a phone interview Sunday. “It is not a closed issue. Initially, prior to the trial testimony, there was no criminal conduct that could be proven against the La Porte city officers. Whether that has changed on the basis of their trial testimony will be a decision for the new administration.”

John Lake, who takes over as prosecutor on Jan. 1, said he currently knows little about the case in which the three officers responded to a 911 call for a suspected drunk driver outside a martial arts school in downtown La Porte on Oct. 6, 2017.

Trial testimony showed the suspect, off-duty paramedic Tron Gorbonosenko, was allowed to drive away from the scene, which was cleared after 13 minutes and with no breathalyzer or field sobriety tests having been conducted. He caused the fatal crash on his way home from the school.

During Gorbonosenko’s trial last month, each of the three officers testified he did not smell alcohol on Gorbonosenko, nor did he sense impairment. However, their testimonies directly conflicted with that of other witnesses – and with each other’s.

“Sgt. Sightes was unwavering and consistent in his sworn testimony that Officer Reed knew Tron Gorbonosenko personally; that Tron had assisted Reed’s father several times; that Tron was a La Porte paramedic; and that Reed identified him from the back of the head before anyone ever approached or spoke with Tron,” McNamara said.

“Reed denied all of this under oath and would not divulge how he was able to identify Tron in a crowded room. He also was red-faced and bumbling as he testified, and claimed he had no idea who Tron was until he was getting into his squad car to leave. In my opinion, the rookie Hagler had no choice but to go along with the other much senior and superior officers, who knew better. Because of their favor and hall pass, two people died.”

But in an interview on Nov. 20, Roule said police officers cannot be held legally responsible for not preventing crimes. And he said their contradictory testimonies in the case do not meet the qualifications to prove perjury.

Roule also indicated no probable cause existed at the time for charging anyone besides Gorbonosenko in relation to the fatal crash that claimed the lives of La Porte business owners Donald and Angela Kaczmarek.

“I would like it to be known that I strongly disagree with (Roule’s) very political and soft position regarding the dereliction of duty of La Porte city officers Reed and Sightes, as noted by Judge Bergerson,” McNamara said. “Although the prosecutor’s office works hand-in-hand with the police, that should never be a factor in whether to pursue justice, conduct an investigation or look the other way. This is not a popularity contest.”

Lake said he is not in a position to comment on the case, as he is not yet the prosecutor and is unfamiliar with most of the details.

However, he said, “If I’m presented with a case where we have probable cause to believe somebody committed a crime, we’re going to pursue it.”

According to La Porte Police Chief Tom Owens, he requested the Indiana State Police investigate the officers’ conduct on Jan. 19 – one day after he learned they had encountered Gorbonosenko prior to the crash without documenting the incident.

ISP Sgt. Ann Wojas said her department is no longer investigating the officers, and that the matter was deemed civil in nature, not criminal.

Despite their decision, Owens said the case remains under investigation by the La Porte Police Merit Commission.

Doug Biege, the commission’s attorney, confirmed they are waiting to receive court transcripts of the officers’ testimonies. Once they have had the opportunity to review those, they will be able to make a decision regarding how to proceed from a disciplinary and supervisory standpoint, Biege said.

As for McNamara’s claim that her hardline stance against the officers’ conduct cost her her job, she said the incoming chief deputy prosecutor, Bethany Beckman, recently informed her she would not be retained in 2019.

“She gave no reason, none,” McNamara said. “I have more experience than almost every prosecutor in this office, including Roule. … This was to appease the police, as Roule is ‘in’ with Lake. … This is outrageous and political.”

Roule noted that while McNamara has been an attorney for 20 years, she has only worked as a prosecutor for about six months. He said the Gorbonosenko trial was her first criminal trial.

“I have had zero discussions about staffing with anybody from the Lake administration,” he said. “I am, frankly, shocked that Ms. McNamara is blaming me for something that I had nothing to do with. She didn’t have the courtesy to even ask me anything about it before making unfounded allegations and mischaracterizations of what occurred.”

Lake confirmed that Roule was uninvolved in the decision whether to retain McNamara.

He said all deputy prosecutors – except for Christina Espar, Lake’s opponent in the November’s election – were invited to interview with Beckman, and Mary Lake, Lake’s chief of staff and wife. Approximately a dozen made the cut.

“Mark did not have any input in the hiring process for my office,” Lake said.

He also said the decision not to retain McNamara was not related to her performance in the Gorbonosenko trial.

But McNamara is adamant.

“I specifically tailored my questioning of the three police officers so that the truth of what happened that day would come to light, without regard to politics or stepping on the toes of the police,” she said. “Everyone in that courtroom knew what really happened when I was finished questioning them. For that, I have suffered repercussions.”

And she recommends legal action be taken against Sightes, Reed and Hagler.

McNamara said, “I echo Judge Bergerson’s hope that something will be done about this, so that favors and politics will no longer be a factor in obtaining justice for (Angela Kaczmarek’s mother) Linda Hopkins and her family.”

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