Thursday, February 19, 2004

Death raises issue
of police driving skills

The Big Isle chief says officers need
constant reminders of safety

Bare-chested Gregory Pluta Jr., who died Sunday, is hugged by his father in this undated family photo.

HILO >> Eight months before a fatal accident involving a Kona police officer, Big Island Police Chief Lawrence Mahuna began efforts to improve the driving skills of all officers, he said yesterday.

But the program never started. Time was needed to send a civilian employee to the mainland for training in remedial driving and pursuit driving. More time was needed to create department training programs.

"They are going to be reminded constantly that getting to the scene safely is one of your biggest issues," he said.

At 1:27 a.m. Sunday, a Kona officer responding to a call of a disturbance struck and killed pedestrian Gregory Pluta Jr., 33, on Alii Drive.

The initial police statement said officers were responding to a "nonurgent" call. Mahuna said yesterday that circumstances were more serious than that, involving drinking at Keauhou pier south of Kailua-Kona and a possible fight brewing.

Meanwhile, Gregory Pluta Sr. learned about his son's death from a doctor, not the police. He said he heard contradictory and erroneous information but had no way to know what was true.

On Tuesday, Mahuna called Pluta to offer his sympathy but no answers.

"I could not reveal a lot of evidence about the accident itself," Mahuna said. "I'm a father before I'm a police chief. If my son was struck and killed, I'd want someone to contact me personally."

Pluta was not pleased. "Yeah? What else?" he said he told the chief.

On the morning of the accident, Pluta's wife, Gwen, the stepmother of Gregory Jr., learned that the officer in the second police car was her nephew.

"He told me it was just an unfortunate accident," Pluta said. "Unfortunate? My son is dead."

Gregory Jr. had been baby-sitting for one of Gwen's friends just before the accident. He had also had a few drinks, although how many is not clear. "He wasn't drunk," the children's mother told Pluta.

The mother gave Gregory Jr. a white T-shirt, which he immediately put on. It is not clear whether that is the "white shirt with blue pinstripes" that police eventually described him as wearing.

A white shirt should have made him visible, but the accident scene is well lit in any case, Pluta said.

At 7 a.m., Gwen's friend looked for skid marks at the scene but could not find any. That might mean police were not speeding, but Pluta said he is not reassured.

A man whose home faces the scene told him police were driving with dome lights on but no sirens. They suddenly stopped, turned off their lights and got out of their cars, but he did not see the accident happen.

Pluta has a lawyer, but he said: "I don't want money. I just want answers."

Mahuna said that will take several weeks at a minimum. Questioning witnesses is simple, he said. Toxicology tests take time.


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