By Peter Hermann
6:26 PM EDT, May 25, 2012
The motorist who slammed into the back of a Baltimore police car that struck an officer and sent her plunging over the side of elevated Interstate 83 has been convicted of three traffic offenses, closing one chapter of a horrific crash that has ended the officer’s career.
A District judge fined Robert R. Vanderford $260, assessed three points against his license, ordered him to perform 250 hours of community service at a city police station, and, upon the insistence of the victim, ordered him to spend two days in the city jail.
The 23-year-old from Roland Park was incarcerated only for a few hours before the judge brought him back to court and suspended the sentence. Attorneys for the officer, Teresa N. Rigby, and for the suspect said the unusual jail term for minor traffic offenses underscored the seriousness of the accident on June 21, 2011.
“This was a life changing event for her,” said the officer’s lawyer, Mitchel M. Gordon, noting she will be forced to retire on medical disability, most likely next month, due to her injuries. She was just three years out of the academy when the accident occurred.
“She can’t go back and do the job she loved doing,” Gordon said. “Beside the pain and all the surgery, it’s going to leave life-long scars. That’s why she wanted some type of sentence for him. After the court case, he’s going to go on with his life, and she’s not.”
Vanderford admitted to charges of failing to control his speed to avoid a collision and speeding, according to court records. He was found guilty of driving on a suspended license — the result of his failing to pay a fine in New York for making an illegal left-hand turn.
Despite the crippling injuries and the fact Rigby has filed a $15 million civil lawsuit against Vanderford and the person who allowed him to drive the black 1999 Saab, the suspect walked over to the wheelchair-bound officer in the courtroom and apologized.
“She broke down as soon as he came over,” Gordon said.
The lawyer for Vanderford, Gary S. Bernstein, a former city prosecutor, said his client does not begrudge the filing of the lawsuit, saying the officer’s injuries will cost much more than her insurance allows. He said the suit is aimed at getting money from his client’s insurance company.
Vanderford called Rigby “one of the most gracious and decent human beings anywhere” and said it is “morally wrong that she’s forced into medical retirement.”
The accident occurred in the rain as Rigby was helping a stranded motorist in the northbound lanes of the highway near the Pepsi sign, just south of Cold Spring Lane. She was standing on the shoulder as a tow truck driver hooked up the car when the Saab slammed into the back of her cruiser. The cruiser struck Rigby, sending her tumbling over a concrete barrier and at least 20 feet to a paved parking lot below.
The officer was rushed to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in critical condition, suffering broken bones to her face, leg and pelvis. She underwent several surgeries, and her attorney said on Friday she has several more ahead.
Vanderford’s attorney, Bernstein, said his client had seen the flashing lights on Rigby’s patrol car as he drove in the middle lane. He sped up to get into the passing lane, but his rear tires spun. As he tried to correct for the skid, it sent the car into the back of the cruiser.
Bernstein conceded that “there is no question speeding was a contributing factor” in the accident, saying that had his client slowed as he passed the cruiser instead of trying to go faster on the slick road the accident would not have occurred. It was not determined how fast the Saab was traveling. He called that stretch of the highway “notorious for accidents — a horrible stretch.”
The attorney said his client “didn’t go out to hurt anybody. It was an accident. But it was important to the officer to have a sense of justice. … She became a police officer for the right reason, to help other people and to give back to the community. By making him perform community service, he gets to give back to the community.”
Gordon said Rigby — who recently gave birth to a girl — will most likely have to retire next month. The police department in 2004 did away with light-duty assignments for officers injured for more than a year, concerned that some had been taking advantage of the system.
If Rigby cannot perform her duties by July, she will have a choice of resigning or applying for medical disability, giving her 66 percent of her salary for life, tax free.
The president of the city police union, Robert Cherry, called Rigby’s situation “a tragedy. There was always an unwritten rule that if you got shot or injured in the line of duty, the police department would find a place for you and take care of you. … We took care of those who took care of us.”
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