A Taos County Sheriff’s Office investigation into a July crash involving one of its deputies and a civilian driver has found the civilian to have been at fault, but noted that both drivers likely could have made split-second decisions to have avoided the collision.
The investigation determined that James Iliohan was with his girlfriend preparing to make a left-hand turn from Paseo del Pueblo Sur onto Siler Road the evening of July 9, when one deputy came behind their vehicle at high speed. Iliohan yielded, but said he didn't realize a second deputy, Jeffery Vargas, was following close behind. When Iliohan tried to complete his turn, Vargas clipped the back of his vehicle, causing it to roll into the corner of the intersection.
The deputies were responding to a domestic violence call on Blueberry Hill Road. Both had their lights and sirens on. By the time Iliohan realized a second deputy was coming, he said he felt the safest maneuver was to complete his turn across the intersection.
The sheriff’s office determined that Iliohan had “tried to beat the second sheriff’s emergency vehicle across the intersection, crossing its path of travel, contrary to NM State Statute 66-7-332.”
To look into what happened, Sergeant Jason Rael and Undersheriff Steve Miera reviewed data from Vargas’ Dodge Ram 1500 truck and Iliohan’s Toyota 4Runner.
Documentation provided by the sheriff’s office showed that Vargas hit a top speed of 78 miles per hour in the 35 mile-per-hour zone.
In an interview with Rael, Vargas said he hit his brakes and veered to the right in an attempt to avoid Iliohan’s vehicle. At the point of impact, his vehicle was traveling 51 miles per hour. He skidded to a stop into a cyclone fence near the Indian Hills Inn. He checked himself for injuries before stepping out of his vehicle to check on Iliohan and his girlfriend, who were also uninjured.
The crash data showed Iliohan had gradually accelerated in his turn to a top speed of 14.9 miles per hour as he tried to cross the intersection in an attempt, he said, to get out of Vargas’ path.
The drivers were interviewed about the crash and both tested negative for intoxicants.
Despite the findings of his investigation, Miera said the sheriff’s office wasn't planning on issuing a citation to Iliohan for the violation.
“It can be further determined that this crash could have been avoided if both drivers had demonstrated further due care in the operations of their vehicles,” Miera wrote.
Miera also contacted Santa Fe Police Department to review the investigation. An investigator from the department noted that Vargas was also not wearing a seat belt during the crash.
Miera defended that point, stating that in circumstances involving a quick response to a violent call, deputies sometimes don’t click in their seat belts so as to be able to respond to any threats as quickly as possible.
Miera had also asked the Santa Fe investigator to verify his determination that Iliohan was at fault, but that portion of the investigation hadn't been completed as of press time.