Updated March 27, 2022 - 12:01 am
Tyler Kennedy sat in his Ford truck, smoking fentanyl outside the Area 51 Alien Center store, as Nye County deputies approached the pickup, looking for a gun.
A call to police at 1:20 p.m. from Larry Harvey, manager of the Fort Amargosa RV Park across U.S. Highway 95, alleged Kennedy drove into the park, started an altercation and took a shot at Harvey.
Kennedy, a 33-year-old admitted drug user with prior theft and driving citations, was on the road from Arizona to Oregon. He’d been sleeping in his 1998 truck, which was cluttered with food trash, clothing bags, drink cups, toilet paper and an open roll of aluminum foil.
But he would not make it to Oregon. An hour after the police stop, high on opiates and meth, Kennedy veered into an SUV, killing three members of an Idaho family.
During that March 27, 2021, stop, Nye Sheriff’s Deputy Breanna Nelson was the first to approach Kennedy’s pickup. “Oh s—-, you scared me,” Kennedy said. “What’s going on?” Nelson asked.
Two more deputies and two Nye sheriff’s detectives arrived and questioned Kennedy, their attention focused on the alleged gun and altercation, according to bodycam videos obtained by the Review-Journal.
Deputies asked Kennedy to get out of his truck, and he sat on the store’s porch, vaping and complaining about being detained. He repeatedly declined to consent to a vehicle search and accused officers of ambushing him.
Once deputies determined from surveillance video that the alleged gun was Kennedy’s cellphone, and the “gunshot” was likely fireworks, their interest in him quickly waned.
“He’s probably got dope in the car, and that’s why he doesn’t want anyone going through it,” Nye Sheriff’s Detective Daniel Fischer said to his colleague, Detective Brooke Gentry.
“I don’t care about that,” Gentry responded.
Kennedy relented to a search of his truck when officers told him they weren’t interested in drugs for personal use — only the gun.
Nelson found pills and a piece of burnt foil used for smoking fentanyl, according to court records and police video. “He’s chasing. He’s chasing pills,” one officer said in the video. Chasing is a common term for heating foil and inhaling the drug vapors.
Gentry told Nelson an arrest was not mandatory and that it was up to her whether to write a report or throw away the drugs. “That sounds like garbage,” Nelson responded.
Fischer told Nye County Sheriff’s Lt. Alan Schrimpf that there was no reason to take a report on the gun allegation.
As they walked away, Fischer remarked on Kennedy’s appearance. “Yeah, his eyes are pinpoint,” he said. “He’s probably under the influence.”
None of the five officers conducted field sobriety tests or stopped Kennedy from driving, as Nye County Sheriff’s DUI policy required.
Instead, Nelson told Kennedy she was disposing of the drugs and that his keys were on the front seat. “Yeah bro, your pills are going in the trash,” she said.
Turning to Schrimpf, she seem annoyed. “That was a huge waste of time,” she said. “And how many f——— cars we have here?”
About an hour later, Kennedy was speeding and weaving through traffic north of Beatty.
He crossed the center line and, at an estimated 90 mph, careened into an SUV carrying an Idaho family traveling on spring break, records show.
Three of the family members died at the scene — two adults and a 12-year-old girl. Two other children were injured.
Kennedy survived and this month pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI causing death.
Chelsea Roberts, the mother of the child who died and another who survived the crash, said police failed her that day.
“To knowingly let a person drive away who you know is intoxicated on an illegal substance is like letting an unguided missile go wherever it wants,” she said. “He was an unguided missile, and they allowed it to happen, because they didn’t follow their … protocol of their job.”
A year after the crash, bodycam videos and preliminary hearing testimony reveal the actions of five Nye County officers who allowed a man showing signs of drug use to get back on the road. It took five months for the Review-Journal to obtain the video from the sheriff’s office, which blurred officers’ faces and refused to release an internal probe of the officers’ actions or whether any disciplinary measures were taken.
How we reported this story
The Review-Journal spent months investigating what happened on March 27, 2021, in the hours before the crash that killed three people.
After receiving tips, the newspaper reviewed hundreds of pages of court testimony, dispatch records, multiple bodycam videos and state patrol reports. The Review-Journal filed a half-dozen public records requests and interviewed family members and attorneys. The news organization’s general counsel fought to obtain the bodycam video. Nye County finally released the video, but blurred officers’ faces. An investigation done by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office into the officers’ actions has not been released to the public.
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“All of those officers and their actions were investigated through the Internal Investigation process,” Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly wrote in a brief email exchange. “So in short, those investigations are not public information. I can tell you the outcome, but not the facts of the case.” Wehrly, citing personnel privacy and pending litigation, declined an interview, and department staff also refused repeated requests for the outcome.
Schrimpf told the Review-Journal in February, “There’s more to the story than you probably know,” but directed all questions to Nye Sheriff’s Capt. David Boruchowitz.
The other officers declined to comment or didn’t return multiple calls and emails.
The crash killed Michael Durmeier, 39; his fiancee, Lauren Starcevich, 38; and his daughter with Roberts, Georgia, 12. Lauren’s 6-year-old daughter, Emerson, broke her wrist. Jackson, Michael’s son with Roberts, turned 11 a few days after the crash and has suffered brain trauma.
‘Officers shouldn’t be on force’
A former Metropolitan Police Department training officer said there’s no question a field sobriety test should have been administered on Kennedy.
“If it was so bad that one deputy noticed he’s probably intoxicated, that’s a huge liability,” said Dale Anderson, who retired in 2019 and now runs a business teaching security measures. “They didn’t do their duty.”
Thomas Moskal, a former chief deputy district attorney in Clark County’s DUI unit who now defends people accused of DUI, said the officers could be prosecuted on misconduct charges. At the very least, they should lose their jobs, he said.
“I find it grossly shocking,” Moskal said after reviewing the bodycam video. “Those officers shouldn’t be on the force.”
In July 2021, Boruchowitz said deputies who stopped Kennedy before the crash believed he was not intoxicated. But the bodycam video contradicts that narrative.
During Kennedy’s preliminary hearing in August, Nye County Sheriff’s Sgt. Morgan Dillon, who interviewed Kennedy after the crash, testified that Kennedy told him he was smoking fentanyl when officers came up to his truck — and had been doing so every 20 minutes to stave off withdrawal.
Jason Earnest, Kennedy’s public defender, asked Dillon whether he believed that trained deputies would release a driver believed to be intoxicated.
“Well, we could assume that a law enforcement officer with Nye County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t let somebody get into a vehicle high or with dope?” Earnest asked.
“I’ve worked for Nye County for a long time,” Dillon responded. “I don’t assume anything.”
Dillon and Earnest did not respond to requests for comment.
A family heads to Nevada for spring break
For Michael, Lauren and the kids, March 27, 2021, was a perfect travel day early in the family’s spring break trip from their home in eastern Idaho across the divide from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was a clear, sunny day with temperatures reaching the high 60s.
Michael, with Lauren in the passenger seat and the three kids in the back, was driving south on U.S. Highway 95 a few minutes before 4 p.m. in Lauren’s 2011 silver Toyota Highlander.
The family had spent the night in Elko, enjoying the hot springs. The following morning they headed to Las Vegas to stay with an uncle. After Las Vegas, the plan was to raft the Colorado River — one of Lauren’s passions — and camp after a trip to the Grand Canyon.
Lauren and Michael shared a love of adventure and the outdoors.
Michael had grown up in West Memphis, Arkansas, a rabid Razorbacks fan. He also loved the Grateful Dead and similar jam bands that fit the laid-back lifestyle of Western ski towns.
When he was around 18, Michael and some friends were driving from Arkansas to Yellowstone when their car broke down near Driggs. He liked the place so much he decided to stay. He found work in construction, which had been his father’s profession, and slept in a tent the first summer there.
“He always wanted to do adventures, and he was a very sweet, sweet kid,” said Michael’s mother, Gina Durmeier.
Michael took up snowboarding, sending his mother daredevil pictures of him negotiating the mountain pass that separates Idaho from Wyoming. Michael met Chelsea Roberts through a friend, and they had Georgia in 2008. They married the following year and had Jackson in 2010.
Like many firstborns, Michael and Chelsea’s daughter was a go-getter. Georgia excelled at school and was a key player on the local softball team despite her small size. The other players nicknamed her Peaches — the state fruit of Georgia — since the team already had another player with a similar name.
As an infant, she had suffered a life-threatening infection. The story of the emergency room care that saved her drove her to want to be a doctor.
“We always knew she would be something big,” Roberts said. “She was a baby, but her knowing that story, that her life was saved, she wanted to do things like that.”
As if medicine wasn’t enough, Georgia also planned to have a bakery on the side. She loved to surprise the family with cupcakes and other treats made from scratch.
Michael and Chelsea divorced in 2017 but remained friends. They lived near each other in eastern Idaho, sharing custody of the two children. “Michael was a fun-loving dad,” Roberts said. “He was Dad all the way … and provided (for) and he loved his kids.”
After working for other builders for years, Michael decided to get his contractor’s license. He was printing cards for his new business right before the road trip.
Wanderlust and adventure
Lauren had moved frequently after growing up in Florida. The day after graduating with a criminal justice degree from the University of South Florida in Tampa in 2005, she packed her bags and headed to Portland, Oregon. She made fast friends, initially sleeping on people’s couches and supporting herself by painting houses.
She moved to Las Vegas in 2007 to stage houses for real estate agents and worked in a furniture store. After Southern Nevada’s housing crash, Lauren returned to the Pacific Northwest to lead rafting trips during the summer and snowboard Mount Hood in the winter.
“She just kind of did whatever she felt like doing, you know, at that moment,” her sister Olivia Crawford said. “She basically just lived every day of her life to the fullest.”
Lauren visited Idaho and decided to move there. “Snowboarding was her number one thing,” Crawford recalled.
In 2012, Lauren received a call from her best friend, Emily Stewart-Golden. Stewart-Golden had suffered a miscarriage and would never be able to carry another child because doctors had to perform a hysterectomy. Distraught, she flew from Florida to Idaho to stay with Lauren.
“I just really wasn’t in a good place,” she said. “And she took care of me for weeks. She fed me, and she watched me to make sure that I wasn’t harming myself. It was a really, really dark, dark time, and she took care of me.”
At the time, Lauren suggested being a surrogate and carrying Stewart-Golden’s baby, but then she became pregnant herself.
Lauren returned to Florida to be near family. After giving birth to Emerson in 2014, she followed through on the offer to help her friend.
“We had one embryo, so it was really a very, very slim shot that it would work, but her and me moved in with my husband,” said Stewart-Golden, who could easily be mistaken for Lauren’s sister, seen in photos she provided of the surrogate pregnancy and birth. “We were just kind of all one little weird family.”
In Florida, Lauren earned a teaching certificate and worked as a teaching assistant after returning to Idaho. She also started studying for her real estate license. She and Michael planned to open a house-flipping business using his contractor license to renovate homes and her broker’s license to find and sell them.
The morning of the fatal crash, Lauren learned she passed her real estate exam.
The minutes before the horrific crash
After police let Kennedy drive away from the Alien store, Nelson followed him for about 30 minutes, turning off in Beatty. At that point, according to court testimony, Kennedy was spotted driving recklessly as he neared mile marker 99.
Weaving and tailgating in his Ford F-150 as he hit heavy traffic in a construction zone, Kennedy swerved into the desert but realized barbed wire prevented him from driving around the vehicles.
He drove up the shoulder, cutting into a line of motorists waiting for a pilot car to take them through the zone. Clearing the backup, he was passing four to five cars at a time at around 90 mph, other drivers testified in the hearing.
Kennedy nearly hit Beatty resident Angel Delamora’s Honda Civic. Delamora was driving with his three daughters and his father-in-law and had to swerve to avoid Kennedy’s truck. “He missed me by a hair,” Delamora testified.
Kennedy veered into the southbound lane, colliding with the Toyota Michael was driving, police reports say.
The family’s SUV overturned. State patrol reports show Lauren and Jackson were ejected on impact. Michael was still breathing but doubled over in the front seat. He would not live long. Georgia died on impact.
Bystanders trying to get Kennedy out of his truck testified that they found glass pipes, a dime bag with white powder that later tested positive for meth, a pill bottle and the burnt foil.
A Nevada state trooper wrote in his report that he noticed Kennedy had constricted pupils — an observation nearly identical to the one Detective Fischer made during the earlier stop. The trooper administered sobriety tests and then obtained a search warrant to draw Kennedy’s blood.
“I’m very mean and just angry when I’m high,” Kennedy told friends during a jailhouse call that Nye County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirk Vitto quoted in the preliminary hearing.
It’s unclear whether Kennedy somehow obtained the meth between the earlier stop and the crash or Nelson had missed it in her search of his vehicle. But court testimony showed Kennedy smoked a bowl of meth and three fentanyl pills at roughly 11 a.m. the day of the crash.
He also has a history of traffic violations dating back more than a decade, court records show.
Family rushes to Vegas
Soon after the crash, state patrol officers and Nye deputies started calling family members in Idaho, Florida and Las Vegas.
Deputy Nelson called Chelsea Roberts to inform her that her daughter and son were involved in a crash. The voicemail is still on Roberts’ phone.
“I just like fell down — like to my knees,” Roberts said.
Panicked, Roberts and Emerson’s father, Josh Myers, separately, drove 10 hours through the night to Las Vegas not knowing who was alive or injured.
“They said, you just need to get here,” Myers recalled.
After driving through the night, Roberts found Jackson connected to tubes and beeping machines. Myers was relieved to see Emerson’s only physical injury was her arm enclosed in a cast. He refused to leave her side, sleeping in the chair next to her until she was discharged.
Changed lives for the youngest crash victims
Life has changed for Jackson and Emerson, the two crash survivors.
Jackson loves football. He suffered brain trauma in the crash that ended his ability to play — at least for the time being. The team made him a special coach, allowing him to travel with players to games.
He substituted getting into the action with an encyclopedic knowledge of football statistics.
“He just eats, sleeps, breathes football,” said Roberts, who lives with Jackson and her older daughter from a prior relationship in a small apartment on the outskirts of Driggs.
Emerson, strapped into her car seat, was protected from the most severe impact, suffering a broken wrist. Doctors and her counselor, however, cannot tell Myers how the trauma of living through the crash that killed her mother will affect Emerson’s life.
“I just make sure she knows every day — you have something to say, you say it to me,” Myers said, tears streaming down his face, partly hidden by a large Stetson. “I’ll never be mad. I’ll never be upset. … I am here for you. And that’s my job. You come to me.”
Before, Emerson was a fun-loving girl, asking her father to shoot videos of her dancing, making snowmen in the frigid winters and playing with her dog, Carl. Now, there are nightmares.
She avoids talking about the crash, and Myers doesn’t force it. Occasionally, Emerson will mention that “my mommy and I used to do this” before shutting down.
On occasion, Emerson is more worried about Myers’ grief than her own, he said. Returning from Las Vegas after getting her out of the hospital, Myers started crying when a friend met them at the airport.
“She just looked at me, (and said) ‘Daddy needs to cry. It’s OK,’ ” Myers said. “What 6-year-old is gonna say that to me? I mean, she’s unbelievably strong. And it’s like she’s trying to be tough. And I’m like, ‘You don’t have to be tough.’ ”
Lauren is buried in a sparse cemetery on the outskirts of Driggs near Myers’ house. Her granite headstone is framed against the mountains she loved. Jan. 25 would have been her 39th birthday, and her mother sent flowers to the grave.
Michael’s ashes are in West Memphis with his parents.
The box of Georgia’s ashes is the center of a memorial surrounded by religious figures and photos in Roberts’ walk-up apartment. A softball competition in Driggs was named the Georgia Peaches Memorial Tournament, which in July was dedicated with a butterfly release.
The plan is to reunite father and daughter’s remains and spread them at Durmeier’s family cabin in the Ozarks this summer, after Jackson is out of school.
“Michael liked to go there, and the kids had been there,” Gina Durmeier said, adding that she may also sprinkle some ashes on the Idaho pass where Michael loved to snowboard.
Family hopes lawsuit may lessen police failures
Chelsea Roberts is suing the Nye County Sheriff’s Office and the deputies who let Kennedy drive away.
Her first lawsuit in December contained no details of the prior stop because her attorney and childhood friend, Greyson Goody, said Nye County was stonewalling their requests for records. Her Las Vegas attorney, Michael Kane, filed an updated complaint after seeing the preliminary hearing transcript the Review-Journal obtained.
The lawsuit alleges the officers on the scene “failed to perform field sobriety tests on Kennedy before releasing him and his vehicle to drive, even though he was exhibiting signs of intoxication.” She said she hopes the case will prevent similar failures at the department.
After the initial notifications, Nye County Sheriff’s officials refused to provide family members with crash details or information about Kennedy’s prior stop, according to relatives and their attorney. No one called to express condolences or apologize for failing to stop Kennedy, family members said.
Kennedy told police later that he had been using opiates since his late teens, after his mother gave him pills, and became a full-fledged addict by age 20 or 21. His LinkedIn page showed a spotty employment history.
In a moment of clarity during a jailhouse phone call with family and friends, Kennedy summed up what many in the victims’ family were feeling when they learned details of the police stop right before the fatal crash.
“They should have not let me go because a lot of the blame is going to be on them,” Kennedy said in a call, quoted by Nye County prosecutor Vitto during the preliminary hearing. “If they would have arrested me, like they should have, the accident never would have happened. People never would have died.”
Kennedy is scheduled to be sentenced in July and could face up to 60 years in prison. The five officers who questioned and released him are still employed by the county.
Editor’s note: Attorney Michael Kane and reporter Arthur Kane are not related and had never met before this story was reported.
Contact Arthur Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.
Arrest policy revised after triple-fatal DUI crash, investigation
The Nye County Sheriff’s Department revised its arrest policy months after its officers questioned and released a driver who, an hour later, caused a crash that killed three people.
Officers allowed Tyler Kennedy to drive in March 2021 despite finding drug paraphernalia in his truck and observing that he looked “under the influence.” A former prosecutor and police experts were highly critical of how the officers handled the situation, which put a spotlight on police discretion and when an arrest should be required.
Kennedy was not given sobriety tests as required by DUI policy at the time. The department’s arrest policy was updated in December to specifically list DUI and reckless driving suspects as those who must be arrested and not cited and released, records obtained by the Review-Journal show.
The changes came after a county investigation of the five officers who were shown on bodycam video questioning Kennedy for 42 minutes about a gun complaint and drugs at an Amargosa Valley store. One officer told a deputy that it was not mandatory to arrest Kennedy. One of the officers, Michael Mokeski, was a department training officer.
County officials claim the arrest policy changes were a result of ongoing updates and not tied to the fatal crash. Nye Sheriff Sharon Wehrly declined to comment on the officers’ actions.
She testified in a civil case last year that her department is updating and standardizing policies and that the agency is working to achieve Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies accreditation.
On March 15, Kennedy pleaded guilty to three counts of DUI causing death.
Thomas Moskal, a former chief deputy Clark County district attorney who led the DUI unit and now defends people accused of impaired driving, said he searched Nevada statutes at the Review-Journal’s request and was surprised that state law did not explicitly require DUI arrests. “The Legislature needs to look into that,” he said. “There should be mandated arrest.”
Broad police discretion
The circumstances of the Kennedy stop raise questions about the judgment of officers and their decisions to arrest and detain or release a suspect during a stop.
Experts say officers have broad discretion — there is no national standard — and guidance is determined by the policy of each law enforcement agency.
But University of Nevada, Reno Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Emily Berthelot said that if an officer allows a suspect believed to be intoxicated to drive away, it endangers the community and is possibly a criminal act.
“If prosecutors brought charges against whoever decided to release this man, there would be a very high risk of conviction,” she said, adding that charges of negligence, dereliction of duty and endangering the public could potentially be filed, depending on the evidence.
She said police discretion can be a good thing on minor violations but not ones that risk public safety.
Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia and the officers involved in the stop declined comment.
Mokeski’s attorney, Brent D. Huntley, wrote in an email that Mokeski, who now works as an investigator for the district attorney, left the scene before other deputies found the drugs and paraphernalia.
Police arrest discretion
Richard F. Groeneveld, who retired from the Phoenix Police Department in 2007 as a commander and wrote a book in 2005 on police arrest discretion, said it is impossible to have a policy and procedure for every possible situation police will encounter, so some leeway is necessary.
But releasing a DUI suspect without making sure he can drive safely is a clear liability issue and a huge risk to the community. “We do a pretty good job teaching policy and procedures, but don’t do a good job teaching discretion or cognitive thinking on the job,” he said.
Many departments are losing veteran officers, so younger, less-experienced police are on the streets and even becoming supervisors, he said.
Policing history in the United States shows policy decisions are made on a local level by chiefs or sheriffs, he said, adding that arrest discretion probably shouldn’t extend to a felony situation where a suspect is found to possess illegal opiates.
Dale Anderson, a former detective and training officer at the Metropolitan Police Department’s academy, said an officer has more leeway dealing with a victimless offense than a crime with a victim.
Based on his experience, Anderson said DUI arrests involve a lot of paperwork and often result in few consequences for the offender, while gun calls are seen as important.
“I worked in the firearms unit, and what happens in law enforcement is they don’t care about dope,” said Anderson, who now runs a self-defense consulting business. “If I get a gun, it’s a prize — ‘We recovered a gun today. Good job.’ Some are so blinded by the trophy, they don’t care about anything else.”
Contact Arthur Kane at email@example.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.