Crime

For KCPD officer, charges didn’t mean arrest or mugshot. Did he get a special break?

Fatal wreck on Interstate 435 near Stadium Drive: What happened

On Oct. 21, 2018, a Kansas City police van slammed into three vehicles, killing 17-year-old Chandan Rajanna, on Interstate 435 near Stadium Drive. Here's a re-creation of the accident according to the police report.
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On Oct. 21, 2018, a Kansas City police van slammed into three vehicles, killing 17-year-old Chandan Rajanna, on Interstate 435 near Stadium Drive. Here's a re-creation of the accident according to the police report.

When most people are charged with a crime, they get arrested.

Their home address is listed in court documents and their mugshot is released to the public.

But that didn’t happen with Terrell E. Watkins, who until recently was a Kansas City police officer and is now facing charges, accused of causing a traffic wreck that killed a teenager and injured two other people last fall near Arrowhead Stadium.

When Jackson County prosecutors filed charges against Watkins last week, they put down as Watkins’ address 5301 E. 27th Street, which is not his home. That is the address of a defunct police station, and Watkins does not work there, since he resigned in June, according to the Kansas City Police Department.

Watkins, 34, is charged in Jackson County Circuit Court with first-degree involuntary manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault and a misdemeanor count of careless and imprudent driving.

According to the charges, Watkins was speeding and using his phone when the police van he was driving slammed into the back of a car stopped in traffic headed into a Kansas City Chiefs game.

The driver of the Mitsubishi, 17-year-old Chandan Rajanna, was killed as a result of the crash. Two passengers, the teen’s father and sister, were seriously injured.

Watkins has yet to be formally arrested. No booking photo has been taken and he remains free until he appears in court for an arraignment hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 7.

Michael Mansur, a spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, said Watkins was not being treated differently because he was a police officer.

“We have given him no special consideration,” Mansur said.

John Picerno, a criminal defense attorney who has represented dozens of clients charged with causing fatality crashes, disagreed.

“They gave him a break on that one,” he said. “It is obvious they did that because he’s a police officer.”

Picerno noted that prosecutors had the option of either requesting the judge to issue a summons to appear in court or an arrest warrant.

But in cases involving death, Picerno said, in most cases prosecutors requested the defendant be arrested rather than issuing a summons.

“That is unusual (to issue a summons) when there is a death involved,” Picerno said. “I do not know of an incidence where they have issued a summons. I am not saying that it didn’t happen but I am not aware of that, but it is highly unusual.”

Attempts to reach Watkins for comment Monday were unsuccessful. Online court records did not show an attorney representing him.

Watkins resigned from the police department June 20, more than a month before prosecutors filed criminal charges in the fatal crash.

Still, the address of the former East Patrol Division police station near 27th Street and Van Brunt Boulevard, which the department has said it is not using, was the most accurate address prosecutors had for Watkins when they filed criminal charges, said Mansur, the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.

Prosecutors have made similar use of department addresses before, when charging former officers who have moved out of the city, Mansur said.

A summons for Watkins to appear in court was mailed to him, according to court records.

Sgt. Jacob Becchina, a Kansas City Police Department spokesman, said it was unclear why prosecutors used the old East Patrol address for Watkins.

Investigators had used the downtown police headquarters for Watkins’ address in their crash reports.

Fatal crash

Before the crash, Watkins was assigned to the Police Athletic League, where he worked as a coach and youth mentor. He had been a Kansas City police officer for seven years.

After the crash, Watkins was reassigned to the professional development and research bureau.

Prosecutors allege Watkins was speeding in a police van on Oct. 21 when he slammed into the back of a Mitsubishi Lancer that was caught up in heavy pregame traffic outside the Truman Sports Complex at the Stadium Drive exit off Interstate 435.

Watkins was late to an off-duty security assignment at a Kansas City Chiefs game when the crash occurred, according to charging documents.

Rajanna, the teenage driver of the Lancer, was a Shawnee Mission South senior. He was killed as a result of the crash. His father and sister were seriously injured.

Watkins also was injured.

Witnesses said that around the time of the crash, the Ford E350 police van sped along the interstate and made numerous lane changes as it passed other vehicles, according to court records.

Data collected from the police van’s airbag control module allegedly showed that the van was traveling 76 mph less than a second before striking the back the Rajanna’s car. The crash caused a chain reaction that also impacted two other vehicles.

Phone records obtained by detectives through a search warrant showed Watkins’ cellphone was actively being used moments before the crash was reported to police dispatch, prosecutors allege in court records.

The Missouri Highway Patrol helped the Kansas City Police Department Accident Investigation Unit investigate the crash.

Three lawsuits filed by the teen’s family last November accused Watkins of negligence, driving too fast, failing to watch the road properly, following too closely and failing to brake in time to avoid hitting the family’s car. Those lawsuits remain pending in Jackson County Circuit Court.

“The Rajanna family appreciates the hard work of the investigators and prosecutors to file charges and to ensure accountability for Chandan’s passing,” David R. Morantz, the family’s attorney, said in a statement.

“The family hopes that the criminal case will shed light on why this needless tragedy occurred, including whether there were ways in the days preceding the incident that it could have been prevented,” Morantz said.

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
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