Donald Duckett was struck by a car while riding his motorized wheelchair in a crosswalk on Prater Way at Lillard Drive shortly before 6 p.m. on Sept. 19.
The 77-year-old man, known by neighborhood children as the “Red Rocket” because of his red wheelchair, was taken to Renown Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead the next day of multiple blunt-force trauma.
The driver who ran into Duckett and his wheelchair near the Sparks Police Department headquarters was given a traffic ticket at the scene for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. A month later, the driver, identified as Phuoc Thanh Luan, walked into Sparks Municipal Court and paid a $175 fine at the counter, records show.
Because the Sparks Police Department didn’t release any information, the accident didn’t find its way onto any local TV newscasts or on the pages of any newspaper. Duckett’s death, and the details of how he died, would go largely unnoticed, confined to a routine traffic accident report.
Duckett’ family members in Sparks first learned of the tragedy from a friend who had come across the accident scene. The victim’s son, Don Duckett, rushed to the hospital. The victim’s daughter, Elizabeth Estes, who was in San Diego at the time, grabbed a flight home. Duckett, who was confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke, was living at the home of Estes and her husband a few blocks from the accident scene.
For weeks after Duckett’s death, family members said they made numerous phone calls to Sparks police seeking information about the accident.
They said they didn’t get any information beyond the standard response that “it’s under investigation.”
“It had gotten to the point where they (police) started getting indignant,” Don Duckett said. “’How dare you call us when you’ve already gotten the answer you’re going to get’ is the way they were acting.”
He added: “The wagons are being circled, and I’m wondering why. Why can’t you just come out and tell us what’s going on? How hard is that?”
Estes said police acted as though her father didn’t matter.
“I feel as though they were demeaning to our family,” she said. “They were condescending toward our family. They think that we’re fools.”
The family, however, was undeterred by the stonewalling and hired attorney Jerry Mowbray to get some answers.
About a month after the accident, the attorney obtained the accident report from the police department and followed up with the city attorney’s office.
Through the attorney, the family learned that the driver had paid the fine for the failure-to-yield citation 30 days after the accident. Family members said they also wondered why the accident didn’t result in a more serious charge, such as vehicular manslaughter, a misdemeanor offense.
After looking at the police paperwork the family’s attorney obtained, Don Duckett said he didn’t see any investigation at all.
Estes eventually filed a complaint with the police department, and last week finally got a chance to talk to a Sparks police official about the accident when Lt. Chad Hawkins spoke with her.
Hawkins told the Sparks Tribune that police reconstructed the accident and did other additional investigative work after learning that Duckett had died of his injuries. Police, he said, are preparing a package on the investigation to send to the city attorney’s office to determine if further action, such as the filing of a vehicular manslaughter charge, can be pursued.
Further prosecution, however, remains a question because of the double-jeopardy clause, which prohibits prosecuting a person for the same crime more than once.
As for the police department’s refusal to talk to Duckett’s family for weeks following his death, Hawkins said that was a mistake.
“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses,” he said. “We dropped the ball.”
He said he will try to rectify that with the family as best he can.
The Duckett family’s experience, he said, is a reminder that police need to cooperate with victims’ families. “What if that was your wife?” Hawkins said of the need to let officers know that victims matter. “Is that how you’d want this to happen?”
Donald Duckett’s children said they simply want to make sure their dad’s death is not ignored because his life mattered.