Bishop Thomas O'Brien's defense team revealed Thursday it has possession of a car that may have run over the pedestrian that the former leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix struck first in a fatal hit-and-run.
A Phoenix police spokeswoman acknowledged that detectives have always had the information that could have led them to the car, but simply missed seeing it. A license number was buried in transcripts of radio transmissions.
Evidence at the June 14 crash shows that Jim L. Reed, 43, was dragged almost 70 feet by a second car after a car identified as O'Brien's struck him, according to police reports.
"We have never stopped looking for this second vehicle," Sgt. Lauri Williams said.
O'Brien is charged with one count of leaving the scene of a fatal crash and is set to stand trial Jan. 12.
O'Brien's attorney, Tom Henze, declined comment, but a motion filed Thursday said defense investigators tracked down the car through public records and "have taken a statement from the driver of the second car which places him at the scene of the accident on June 14."
The driver neither admits to involvement in the crash nor seeing it, the motion states.
The motion also said the defense has "obtained the vehicle and secured its possession" and there is evidence on it that could be relevant to the bishop's case and the police investigation.
Barnett Lotstein, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, the agency prosecuting O'Brien, said the discovery of the second car "in no way impacts" the bishop's case.
If it is the second car, he said, the case against the driver would be separate from O'Brien's.
"We're somewhat concerned that the defense attorney had in their possession specific information which may relate to a second crime and has withheld this information for a substantial amount of time," Lotstein said.
Police had the information on the second car in radio transmissions, Williams said.
A police helicopter spotted a driver of a gold car — same color as O'Brien's — looking at the undercarriage of his car near the crash a short time afterwards, she said.
A patrol car began following the car but the officer decided not to pull it over when the license plate did not match the bishop's Buick, Williams said.
The patrol officer broadcast the second car's license number.
"It's like looking for your glasses when they're on top of your head," Williams said.
Police still aren't sure, though, that the car the defense has was involved in the crash.
"We're going to find another investigator to track that end of the case from this point on and we're going to see internally if there was something we could have done better to make sure we're reviewing these cases thoroughly," Williams said.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are scheduled to meet today in Maricopa County Superior Court to argue pretrial motions and hash out with Judge Stephen Gerst what information the jury can hear.
O'Brien resigned from his position at the Phoenix diocese June 18.
He told investigators he was traveling on Glendale Avenue near 19th Avenue when he felt an impact he believed to be a rock thrown at him or a large animal, but drove on without stopping, police reports state.
He drove the car the next day with a crushed windshield and on June 16 called his secretary to set up a windshield repair.
A couple of weeks before the crash, O'Brien acknowledged he had covered up for priests accused of abusing children in the diocese.