By Ari Bloomekatz and Scott Glover
The Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — A wave of grief washed over the Los Angeles Police Department on Sunday as news spread that two off-duty officers were killed just hours apart in separate traffic accidents on the 101 Freeway.
Detective Mike Selleh, 52, a Mission Division narcotics investigator, was riding his motorcycle to his second job as a movie set security guard when he was struck by a car during a dramatic, chain-reaction accident near the southbound Highland Avenue exit. The 3:20 a.m. accident, captured on video by a nearby photographer, resulted in a 13-vehicle pileup that spread debris over 2,000 feet and shut down the freeway for 11 hours.
Hours later, Officer David Rodriguez, 33, of the North Hollywood Division, skidded off the Ventura Freeway portion of the 101 near the Sepulveda Boulevard exit, plunging down an embankment where his car was partially hidden by landscaping.
Both officers died at the scenes of the accidents.
Police Chief William J. Bratton, who attended an afternoon roll call at the North Hollywood station, described a somber and tearful scene among Rodriguez's fellow officers.
"As you might imagine, the stations are pretty close-knit. Things like this really have a phenomenal emotional impact on people," he said. "To have two in one day is really unheard of."
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the LAPD officers' union, issued a statement Sunday night about the deaths.
"This is a terrible day for the LAPD and for the Selleh and Rodriguez families," it read in part. "These two deaths are a tremendous loss for the LAPD and for the community they served. They will be deeply missed by all."
Police officials said chaplains and grief counselors were available to officers who needed help coping with the dual tragedies.
Selleh, a veteran with nearly three decades on the job, was described by Deputy Chief Michel Moore, the LAPD's top commander in the San Fernando Valley, as "a go-to guy, soft-spoken, not much for fanfare. He just got things done."
Moore said he delivered the news to Selleh's wife and two children in Simi Valley.
"They were absolutely devastated," he said. "It was clear that this man was huge in their lives."
Investigators believe that Selleh was trying to avoid a white 1991 Toyota Corolla that had struck the center divider just south of Highland Avenue, careened out of control and became disabled in the roadway.
They believe that Selleh was struck by a vehicle trying to avoid the Corolla and was thrown from his motorcycle. Other cars collided as drivers struck the Corolla or tried to avoid hitting it, said California Highway Patrol Officer Alex Delgadillo.
The unidentified driver of the Corolla was questioned and released, police said. The CHP did not have a tally Sunday night on the number of injuries.
Brad Baker, a video director who runs his own business, was leaving a nearby party where he had been working when he heard a loud crash and a long screech of tires. He ran to the freeway. By the time he arrived, he said the officer's motorcycle was already lying on its side.
For nine minutes, Baker said he filmed car after car traveling over the Cahuenga Pass at speeds he estimated to be about 70 mph. Cars spun out and skidded, with some slamming into the wreckage. Some drivers avoided the first few crashed vehicles only to smash into others beyond them, said Baker, whose video was purchased by KTLA-TV Channel 5 and also appears on latimes.com.
"There was constant screeching of tires and then sliding and crunching. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It was horrible," Baker said.
Investigators worked through most of the morning to collect each part of the motorcycle and took measurements of the crash site so that they can reconstruct the accident and determine who, if anyone, was at fault, Delgadillo said. He said such a reconstruction was necessary in case criminal charges are filed.
"Authorities know far less about Rodriguez's accident, according to Moore, the LAPD deputy chief. Investigators believe that the officer's vehicle plunged down the embankment some time between 6 and 10 a.m.
They have not identified any witnesses, Moore said.
"Was there another car involved? Was he trying to avoid something? Did he fall asleep? We just don't know," Moore said. "Anything I tell you would be speculation."
Rodriguez, who joined the LAPD in 2003, had earned a reputation as an aggressive but by-the-book patrol officer who was recently promoted to the anti-gang unit. At home, he was a gentle man, fellow officers said, taking care of his ailing mother.
He is the hardest working officer I know," said Officer Tim Bohac, who partnered with Rodriguez for 2 1/2 years. "He wasn't one to sit around and wait for things to happen."
Bohac said his former partner was a formidable 6 feet 2 and weighed 270 pounds.
"He was the brawn, and I was the runner," Bohac said. "Hopefully, no one was going to mess with us because of his size, but if they took off running it was my job to catch him."
Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times
LAPD grieves as 2 off-duty officers die within hours