WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The Wilmington Police Department has opened an official investigation into citizen allegations that an officer gave preferential treatment to a man who caused an accident after he'd been drinking, despite the lack of a formal complaint by any citizens.
That man, Richard Luther, has multiple family members serving in or retired from the local law enforcement community. We now know that years ago, Richard Luther also served as a Reserve Officer for the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.
The accident in question happened along a busy stretch of Market Street in August. Richard Luther was leaving the parking lot of a bar near the intersection of Market Street and Gordon Road when he pulled out into oncoming traffic.
Luther struck the car of UNCW student Michaella Dillon, pushing her across several lanes of traffic and into a ditch across the road. Dillon suffered numerous injuries including burns from the airbag, a broken thumb on her dominant hand, and a knee injury. She was taken to the hospital for treatment.
Witnesses tell us multiple people approached a Wilmington police officer at the scene to share concerns that Luther had been drinking before the accident and that alcohol may have played a role in the crash. The bartender inside the establishment Luther just left also told WECT she'd just cut Luther off after serving him two drinks because he "seemed intoxicated."
But despite these concerns, WPD Officer T.R. Spencer did not give Luther a breathalyzer test and determined he was not intoxicated.
According to WPD Officer T.R. Spencer's accident report, "There was a witness on scene who said that he smelled alcohol on driver of veh 1 [Luther]. When I spoke to the driver of veh 1 about this, he confirmed that he had a 'drink' and a beer earlier. I was unable to perform Standardized Field Sobriety Tests on him due to his legs being injured from the collision, however, I was able to make a determination that he did not appear to be impaired. There were no clues from horizontal gaze nystagmus, his eyes were clear, his speech was not mumbled and I could not smell any alcoholic beverage on his breath."
Witnesses Question WPD Officer's Actions and Report
But witnesses and the crash victim are now casting doubt on Officer Spencer's account of the facts.
Ron Naylor, a mechanic who was performing a brake job next door to the bar Luther was leaving, witnessed the crash and the aftermath. He says a New Hanover County Sheriff's deputy who happened upon the scene right after the crash helped Luther out of his car and stayed right next to him until Luther's wife, Pat, came to pick him up.
Naylor said when the Wilmington police officer approached Luther, the sheriff's deputy on scene told the officer, "I've got this," and the police officer walked away. Naylor contends Officer Spencer never got close enough to Luther to smell his breath or do the other analysis for impairment Spencer documented doing in his report.
While Officer Spencer declined to do a breathalyzer test, he had grounds to conduct one under North Carolina law.
According to General Statute 20-16.3, "Alcohol screening tests required of certain drivers;… A law-enforcement officer may require the driver of a vehicle to submit to an alcohol screening test within a relevant time after the driving if the officer has: Reasonable grounds to believe that the driver has consumed alcohol and has: (a) Committed a moving traffic violation; or (b) Been involved in an accident or collision."
Accident victim claims "falsified" police report
The crash victim is also questioning the content of the police report.
"It's completely falsified," Michaella Dillon told us. "He didn't get my statement. The police report is incorrect. It has my car in the wrong lane, and it says on the police report it says 'she says', but I never told an officer any of those things."
"I just feel like they didn't care about me," Dillon says of the way the case was handled. "They were more concerned about getting him off the charges. They didn't care that I was in the hospital."
Dillon said she plans to file a formal complaint with the WPD.
WPD Internal Investigation
On Tuesday, a day after our original story about the accident aired, Naylor says Wilmington Police Sgt. Paul Verzall came to interview him and another witness about the crash and the way it was handled. Verzall is listed as a Professional Standards Investigator on the business card he left with Naylor.
Officer Spencer has been with the WPD since 1997, and is employed as a police officer with no recent disciplinary action on his record. WPD has not responded to our question asking if other police officers responded to the scene to assist Spencer. They continue to decline our request for an on-camera interview about this incident.