ORLANDO, Fla.—More than a month after Dale Earnhardt slammed his stock car into a concrete wall at the Daytona International Speedway, the detective leading the death investigation knows little more about how Earnhardt died than he did on Feb. 18.
From Day 1 of the case, according to the lead investigator, Daytona Beach police have abandoned previous procedures and blocked detectives from making routine inquiries about the death of stock-car racing's most popular driver.
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- Detective Robert Walker, the lead investigator, said he was ordered by a supervisor on the night Earnhardt died not to attend the driver's autopsy or to inspect and photograph the racer's wrecked car. He would not identify the superior.
- Earnhardt's helmet and racing suit went to his family and have never been examined by police or the Volusia County Medical Examiner's Office. Experts say the helmet is a key piece of evidence to analyze in head injury cases like Earnhardt's.
- NASCAR never told Walker about the broken seat belt it later blamed for Earnhardt's fatal head injury. Since then, it has locked away the car in North Carolina and kept the findings of its own crash investigation secret from police.
- Police have done more thorough investigations of previous racing deaths at Daytona International Speedway. For example, after the 1994 death of racer Rodney Orr at Daytona, Walker attended the autopsy and examined the car.
I do what they tell me to do, he said. I don't know why, and I didn't ask. If left to my own devices, I would have gone to the autopsy and photographed the inside of the vehicle.
On Monday Sgt. Al Tolley, police spokesman, insisted that no one has told police how to investigate the Earnhardt death. He also said that since the death was accidental, it does not require as thorough a probe as a murder case.
You're assuming that these facts are true, Tolley said of Walker's statements. We have to try and find out about it. As far as these questions, you are assuming facts that are in controversy. We'll need more time to review that.
No consistent guidelines
Interviews with law enforcement agencies across the country indicate there is no consistency in how racing deaths are investigated. Unlike such dangerous sports as boxing, stock-car racing has spread across America since the 1940s without government regulation.
At some of the largest tracks in the nation, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Talladega Super Speedway in Alabama; and Lowe's Motor Speedway in North Carolina, police do not work fatal crashes. They say there is nothing to investigate in an accidental death on private property in a sport with well-known risks.
More common are law enforcement agencies that rely completely or partly on NASCAR to do the work. However, officials in states that require racing death investigations say it's foolish to rely on a billion-dollar business to investigate itself, especially when its findings are not public.
When you have self-governing bodies, it's always going to be suspect that they're having the outcome go the way they want them, said Sgt. Eric Mutter, head of the New Jersey State Police Motor Vehicle Racing Control Unit.
When Walker arrived at Halifax Medical Center on Feb. 18, Dale Earnhardt had just died. An ER nurse took Walker to the trauma room where the racer's body already lay covered with a sheet on a gurney. He noticed no marks on Earnhardt's body.
By 5:45 p.m., according to a hospital property inventory sheet, Earnhardt's racing helmet, racing suit, wedding band and other personal items were released to his widow, Teresa.
Walker said he never saw or examined the helmet.
It was gone before I got there, Walker said. I don't know where it went.
About 6:40 p.m., two hours after the crash, he found Earnhardt's black No. 3 Chevrolet Monte Carlo atop a flatbedtruck in the speedway infield. A tarp covered it. Walker said track officials worried about photographers or souvenir hunters getting near the car.
He spoke to a police superior, who told him, There is no need for you to attend the autopsy tomorrow.