Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

TOP STORY > >Wreck raises questions

By JOAN MCCOY
Leader staff writer

A wreck last month at the intersection of Dewitt Henry and Pecan in Beebe in which no ticket was issued is causing problems in the police department because Janice Petray, the driver considered responsible for the rear-end collision, is a member of the city council who is reportedly dating a police officer. According to reports by witnesses, she appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, but she denies it.

Mayor Mike Robertson has in-structed Police Chief Wayne Ballew to get to the bottom of the matter. The two ranking officers involved have already been demoted to patrol officer, in part because of the incident, and other action is possible.

“Wayne is going to have to decide if he’s going to do an internal investigation and we’re going to have to talk about it more,” the mayor said.

Statements made the day after the wreck show discrepancies that must be addressed, Robertson said.

“It looks like everybody is trying to brush it aside,” he said. “When you have a council member dating a police officer, the public is going to scrutinize it.”

Robertson said he has told Ballew, “It is what it is. Investigate and if it looks bad, it is bad.”

Petray, who is serving her sixth year on the city council, told Patrol Officer Michael Wolford after the wreck at about 9 p.m. July 23 that she was stopped at the traffic light and that when the light turned green the pickup she rear-ended did not move forward.

Petray was driving a red convertible, 2004 Honda S20 when she struck the silver 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup driven by Mallory Davis of Beebe. Davis’ pickup traveled 145 feet after the impact.

Wolford did not give Petray a ticket for the wreck, but he wrote in a statement the next day, after Chief Ballew saw discrepancies in the accident report, that Petray appeared to be drinking.

“I felt during my investigation of the accident that I was unable to do my job due to my superiors (Cpl. Tony Bryant and Sgt. Steve Benton) convincing me that Ms. Petray was fine and that she was sitting still at the stop light when I knew she wasn’t,” Wolford wrote in his statement.

Benton was supposed to be off-duty but decided to go the scene of the wreck.

“I feel that I was unable to do my job due to the circumstances. I was persuaded to make decisions I normally would not if I was by myself,” Wolford continued.

“My investigation revealed that Ms. Petray had struck the back of Ms. Davis’ vehicle. Ms. Davis had been sitting at the red light.

The light turned green and she proceeded to go through the light when Ms. Petray strikes her in the rear. I believe that the accident was caused due to Ms. Petray being under the influence of a controlled substance.”

Wolford said Petray an-nounced immediately after the wreck that she was a city council member and that she was dating Sgt. Benton.

David Nelson, a firefighter and part-time police officer, who also was at the scene, said he smelled alcohol when he spoke to Petray.

Lt. Eddie Cullum, who took statements from witnesses on July 24, said in his statement that Richie Mahoney, who towed Petray’s car, told him that although he didn’t smell alcohol on Petray, she appeared to be “under the influence.”

The two ranking officers did not make written statements.

Petray denies that she had been drinking.

“I was yard working and cleaning my kitchen all day and I was hungry for a Mazzio’s salad,” she said.

Filing for the city council starts today and Petray says she intends to run for a fourth term.

“I’m 49 years old and I’ve never been in an accident,” Petray said. “I’ve never even been stopped for a traffic violation.”

Petray says that because of her lack of personal knowledge about traffic stops, she didn’t realize that her accident was not handled by the book.

“If I need a ticket, I’ll be glad to pay it. I didn’t know I had done anything wrong,” she said.

Petray also told this reporter Tuesday evening that the air bag in her car was activated, and when she got out of the car, it made her feel uncomfortable and unsteady on her feet.

That may be one reason people around her thought she was intoxicated.

Petray, who is recently divorced from former Beebe Mayor Phil Petray, also said she is no longer dating Benton.

“I have visited with Steve this summer,” she said. “We’ve grilled out and gone to the movie. I’m not seeing him right now.”

Petray says she is sorry for the trouble the accident has caused all the officers involved.

“I love Beebe. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt it,” she said.

Chief Ballew said the incident has sullied the good reputation he is trying to build for the department, and that he started his investigation immediately after realizing that it was possible the situation had been mishandled.

He wasn’t there, so he doesn’t know if Petray was drinking or not, he said. But he has told all his officers that no one gets special treatment. And he is certain that if she appeared to have been drinking, she should have been tested.

“I will not tolerate it,” he said. “I don’t care who you are. You’re not going to drink and drive.”

Officer Wolford was the first on the scene of the accident. Bryant came to assist and then Benton was called.

Ballew said Benton was off-duty and there was no reason for him to have been there.

However, Assistant Chief Ron Lewis was on duty and should have been called since a council member was involved.