Investigating the Investigation: Darius Vanbrook Traffic Death

Fourteen year old Darius Vanbrook is hit on the highway early on a Sunday morning by a county correction officer, off-duty, driving back to his house.  In almost all reported news accounts, the boy is said to have ran into the path of the CO's truck, and that an investigation is being conducted by the Michigan State Police (MSP) to provide fairness.

Ever since I first reported on this story later in the day that it happened on February 12, 2012-- one year ago-- things didn't seem to add up.  At that point I wanted more information, and when it came over the next few days, it still left me confused as this update showed.  Later on in the year, I made contact with Darius' mother when she joined the Ludington Torch.  Like myself, she was very dissatisfied with the summary conclusions and wanted some justice for her son.

Earlier this week, I spoke up for her and Darius at the February meeting of the County Commissioners.  Having been able to view the various reports and accident scene photos, we here at the Torch have found them contradictive of the official line, and indicative of a serious conflict of interest by the Mason County Sheriff's Office (MCSO).  Here is what we found, with the full police report following, and screenshotted portions sprinkled liberally throughout for support.

The Cast of Characters:

Darius Ryan Vanbrook:  the deceased Lansing boy, long-term safety patrol officer, beloved child of Serene Poyer in temporary custody of his biological father for the first time in two years that weekend

David Michael Vanbrook:  the boy's father and legal guardian that weekend, with prior determinations of child abuse and domestic violence, impaired with at least Jaegermeister that night.

Shawn Daniel O'Connell:  the sober driver of the van that parked in the center lane, he was romantically involved with David's sister, Kelli, and lowly thought of by David. 

Kelli Busk:  Darius' aunt, David's sister, she reportedly spent much more time with Darius that weekend.  

Lisa Yates:  Object of David's attention that weekend who threw her hubby out of the Best Western earlier that weekend.

Rob Ruiz:  the alert night manager of the Best Western that weekend.

Michael Hays:  A part-time corrections officer who drove into Darius that morning.

Kim Cole:  At that time, a sergeant for the sheriff's road patrols, with a commitment for running for sheriff; the lead investigator into this incident, the current sheriff of Mason County.

The Official Narratives

The following local news organizations, and others utilizing the same basic template of the City of Ludington Daily News (COLDNews) article for the most part, commented on the events of that night thusly (links are provided to those news stories)

COLDNews 2-12:  "... (Darius ran) into the path of an eastbound vehicle that, according to the Mason County Sheriff's Office, had no chance of avoiding the boy who died after being struck... The Michigan State Police have been called in to investigate the accident because the driver of the eastbound pickup is a part-time Mason County Sheriff's Office corrections officer."

WOOD  2-12 4:07 PM: "The Michigan State Police will investigate because the driver of the vehicle is a sheriff's department employee."

UpNorth 2-12 9:10 PM:  "The Michigan State Police is investigating the accident."

Mason Co. Press: 2-13:  "The Mason County Sheriff’s Office is investigating. Assisting the sheriff’s office on the scene were Michigan State Police."

TV 9&10:  2-13 12:10 AM: "Deputies say 14 year old Darius VanBrook, from Lansing, jumped out of a stopped van and started walking across US 10. He was hit by a pickup truck driver from Fountain."

MLIVE:  2-13 8 AM:  "(MCSO Undersheriff) Trenner said the officer told investigators he did not see the teen.  "'The teen jetted out from behind the van," he said.  Trenner said Sunday the corrections officer is expected to be off duty for up to two weeks as Michigan State police investigate the crash."

The stories vary, as stories often do, in regards to this accident.  All stories with one exception has the investigation being handled by the State Police, but even though the MSP was involved, they were only assistive in nature, they interviewed CO Hays, drew his blood for testing, and checked the airbag deployment data of Hays' truck.  In fact, when I FOIAed them about this very incident back in 2012, they only sent me a two-page crash report, and said they were only assisting the Mason County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) in their investigation.  The Mason County Press, barely a month old at that point, was the only news outfit that pegged it right.

The stories vary about the actions of Darius too.  He walked, jetted or ran into the path of this truck, and the unfortunate driver had no chance to avoid the collision.  Even more confusing, is the actual variety of accounts of the night's events, some of which don't seem to add up at all, leading to an inconsistent narrative which would make an able prosecutor scratch his head if the report was all he had to go on.

The Basic Timeline of Events

Avoiding some of these inconsistencies, here is what happened to lead up to this tragedy, I will use first names of those already mentioned in the cast above, since all are different.  Shawn, Kelli, Lisa (w/her husband) stayed a couple of nights at the Best Western in a couple of rooms.  David and Darius, were visiting on Saturday, after Lisa had threw her husband out.  The adults were mostly partying amongst themselves, David admittedly drinking Jaegermeister, while Darius was out in the off-lobby area, sometimes being visited with by Kelli, fixing her computer, staying out there way into the early morning hours past five.

David had repeatedly went outside to smoke with Lisa, and while he was obviously interested in her, he was obviously not interested in his son who he had not seen before this weekend for about two years.  Shortly thereafter, it was determined that David and Darius could not stay, and so Shawn left with them driving his van back to his Jebavy apartment.  A verbal spat between Shawn and David started and Shawn pulled into and parked in the middle lane of the 5 lane highway, and both David and Darius got out.

At about the same time, Michael had finished his shift and was on his way back home in the eastern part of the county.  He dropped off movies at Walgreens, and got back on the highway.  When he was picking up speed, he noticed the van parked in the middle of the road and thought it odd, saw people outside the van, and then ran into Darius, likely killing him instantly.  His body and his effects were thrown about the area from the crash; Michael stopped, called 9-1-1 and briefly inspected the scene before Kim arrived a few minutes thereafter responding to the call.  Kim asumes incident command and  has PM Fire Dept. dispatched for traffic control, is contacted by the Hart MP as to whether he needs their help, and readily accepts it.  The investigation begins.

Conflicts of Interest

The first bit of information I sought was the police crash report and investigation, from the State police.  I received only the traffic crash report (p. 19, 20 of the packet), and a notice that they only assisted at the scene.  This contradicted the media, except for the Mason County Press version, and then-Sergeant Kim Cole is listed at the bottom of this report (here) as the sole investigator of the scene.  The diagram says Darius was 'standing' in the road when he was hit, in part because he was blinded by the headlights of the vehicle in the middle of the road.

The first page of the report has Darius, the pedestrian, "failing to yield" to the truck driven by Hays.  How can you be motionless (i.e. standing) and fail to yield to another user of the road?  Darius standing in the roadway, would have the right to the road where he stood.  Michael Hays' truck violated his right of way, Michael's prior action was noted as "going straight ahead", and by this report itself the driver should have been charged with the failure to yield, not the boy.  But the biggest revelation of the report was that the MCSO was investigating a fatal accident where one of their own was at least partially responsible.

Getting the full report from the MCSO through a FOIA was a difficult task, and during the meantime I had also asked for their conflict of interest policy.  When I had went to the MCSO to get these records, now-Sheriff Kim Cole asked me into his office.  He went over a previous case similar to the Darius accident in an attempt to explain why charges against the driver were not pursued here, and a little about conflict of interest as he understood it.  I appreciated his candor, his loyalty to his fellow deputies, and considered his views.  After a little more effort, I was finally able to get both FOIAs.

The MCSO conflict of interest written policy is primarily concerned with monetary gains by officers, which did not apply in this instance.  The general rule of thumb is to assume there is a conflict in an investigation, if you can foresee anyone else perceiving a problem with professional objectivity arising.  But standard police policy as detailed in the book Conflict of Interest in Policing:  Problems, Practice and Principles looks at it in detail.   Among other stuff, a  study is shown about various types of conflict reported as problems, and this snippet explains the problem of friendship vs. duties.

The FOIA reply showed the MSP did have some more input than their own reply showed, but it was limited to blood draws, interviewing Michael Hays, and impounding the vehicle for crash data retrieval.  Incident command, interviews, statements, crash reconstruction, and compiling a report to the prosecutor was handled by Kim Cole and other MCSO deputies, to decide whether their traumatized MCSO brother was guilty of anything.  I perceive that as potentially a major conflict of interest.

Conflicts of the Witnesses

According to the investigation, there were no witness to the actual crash.  Michael's written statement (p. 28) he saw the parked van, says it was facing west (pointed his way), but makes the comment that there was no where to turn, which would seem to mean it was either between Adventure Island and Grand Rental Station-- or that he was confused and misspoke about the direction it was facing.  He states he did notice people standing outside the van and then hit Darius, whom he hadn't seen, in his lane.

When Michael was interviewed by the State trooper after he arrived, he noted that Darius had been "walking in the middle of the lane" (p 79 midway), he later reiterated this noting also that he never actually saw Darius, and stated he had seen a female outside the van as well (p. 80 bottom).  He then says a female (not mentioning if it was the same one) and others threatened to kill him once he went outside his vehicle to check on what he hit.

Shawn was talked to by Dep. Hanson at the Best Western (p. 4) and related he drove the van, with David in the front seat, Darius in the backseat passenger side.  David becomes belligerent and asks to be dropped off so he can call a cab.  Both he and Darius get out, and he pulled away.  The next thing he hears is some yelling and screaming and he looks around and sees the crash results.  Even though he admittedly didn't see anything he repeats that the driver did nothing wrong.

Another interview with Shawn (p. 13) in the patrol car, has him saying that just after he pulled away he heard Dave screaming, then "he turned around in one of the drives just west of the Best Western and went back to see what happened."

According to his statements, Shawn had to be facing east in the center lane for if he pulled forward facing east, he would be farther away from Best Western than where the crash occured.  I find it also strange that he heard Dave screaming, but not the sound of the impact, which must have been an unexpected loud noise.  He mentions no presence of a woman, until later when he picks up Kelli.

David, the guardian of Darius, was given a PBT by Dep. Davila and tested .036-- impaired but not legally drunk, but allegedly he was not driving.  His only statement throughout the investigation was a brief exchange with Kim (p. 3), adding that it was all his fault.  He conferred with Shawn's statement to the main, adding little more than saying "He never looked up, why didn't he look up, he's a good kid.".  Nothing more than this is ever asked of him.

Later documents reveal that David has had his problems with the law regarding child abuse and domestic violence, other statements refer to him as being very neglectful to his duties as Darius' guardian that weekend.  This includes diaries from Darius' mother, Serene documenting hers and others such abuse (p 41- 69), a 2009 Wexford County offense by David where he repeatedly hit and kicked a young boy (p. 94), a 2006 offense where he assaulted his wife Sue (p. 102).

David had reportedly went outside with Lisa several times to smoke, but is noticed by others as having nothing to do with the boy that weekend, being too interested in drinking Jaegermeister and allegedly doing Ritalin or other mind-affecting substances.  Serene reported that he had told her about purchasing life insurance for Darius just prior to seeing him for the first time in two years.  If Darius died, not only would David not have to worry about future child support, but may have also gained a large sum of money if he made such a purchase.  Would he, impaired by alcohol and/or drugs, be willing to kill his own son that night given the opportunity that came up?  There are some who think so, and he definitely has motive.  Should he have been more thoroughly vetted?  Definitely.

Lisa was interviewed (p. 16), adding she saw David doing Ritalin, and her actions.  But the only other 'witness' to events was the Best Western night manager Rob Ruiz.  Rob never left the Best Western, but he witnessed what happened within the motel and some of what happened without.  They originally talked with him via phone that morning after he had went home after his shift (p9-10).  Rob reported Shawn's van headed west and then stopped in the road.

In his longer recorded session with Kim taken four days later on 2-16-2012 (p. 108- 123 of the report, summarized on p. 15), his interview has Rob believing that "there was no doubt Darius' death was because of his dad" and on (p. 117) and (p. 118) he states he thought Shawn's van 'spun out', because his 'lights were pointing at me'.  That would mean he saw the van pointing east.

So even though the testimony of Rob and Shawn has the van pointed east and CO Michael Hays, the truck's driver, never mentions headlights, Kim Cole's police report says (p. 20) the headlights blinded the driver.  Not to mention that Darius "failed to yield" and was "crossing- not at intersection" in the state traffic accident report (p. 19) even when Michael or anyone else says this didn't happen.

There is a conflict about what Darius was actually doing when he was hit, the direction the van was pointing, the amount and gender of people outside the van, whether the van was moving or not before the accident, no statement from the woman/women that were at the scene, and the drunken/drugged person responsible for Darius (David) is never interviewed as to what he actually saw and experienced.

Would there would be so many loose ends in an investigation if it wasn't handled by the driver's fellow 'brothers' at the MCSO.  Is there a coincidence that Kim Cole's fellow road patrollers and the MCSO corrections staff unanimously endorsed Cole for such acts of loyalty to his own men a scant few months later for the Sheriff's race?

Conflicts of the Evidence

The following evidence conflicts some of the official story in Kim Cole's police report.  Here is the passenger side of Michael's truck, with a piece of Darius' shirt caught in it

This shows the spot where Darius undoubtedly was hit by the truck, if you believe he may have been hit as he 'ran' across the road further up on his front, this next photo shows that is not the case:

The only impacted area is left of the 'GMC', the body winds up directly up the street along the same line.  If he was running across he would have wound up off the road due to the additional direction vector.  His shoes and effects also gives an indication of his orientation.  His left shoe pops off and winds up on the side of the road (see the first picture of this thread), his right shoe winds up in the passing lane:

If his back was to the truck, his shoes would be opposite where they are.  Conceivably, the shoes could wind up where they were if he were walking across, but the more likely result would be that he was standing or walking to the west on the far left of the road.  This is where he is supposed to be if he was traveling on the highway, facing into traffic as a pedestrian (MCL 257.655 (1)).  Darius had worked for several years as a safety patrol officer, according to his mother, and would know basic safety rules like this.  Having never been a driver himself, and figuring he was in the light of the streetlight at that area, he likely expected any driver to see and go around him.  But that didn't happen that morning.

The coroner's report summary (p. 14) states that Darius had fractures to the inside of his left, lower leg, his upper right leg had a fracture, his lower right arm was broken, and his right kidney was badly damaged.  This is consistent with the other data for being hit while facing west or mostly west.

The MSP did take a blood draw of Michael and Darius (both were at zero) and impounded the vehicle to look at the data that modern vehicles store in a crash like this, even when air bags do not employ.  Among the findings in those reports was the fact that Michael was speeding and effectively accelerating in the five seconds prior to impact (going 61 mph when the impact occurred) and never used any brakes prior to the event (p. 35), and confirmed in the MSP trooper's report (p. 39).  Michael also was not wearing a seatbelt (p. 35, top).  The troopers full report is on p. 77-86 of the report.  Here is the complete report on the accident and its investigation, without pictures posted on our Facebook partner, Ludi-Leaks:

Darius Vanbrook Complete Investigation as per MCSO


When a young person dies, the public deserves a full explanation of what actually happened to take that life filled with so much potential and promise away from society.  In this case, it is easy to see what caused Darius' death-- being hit by a truck-- but we have been disallowed from seeing what led to this death.  On a full review of the facts, few people would come to the conclusion that Darius brought his death upon himself, but the adult's involved in the decisions which led to the conclusions in this case seem to do so.

David, his father, readily takes the blame, saying it's all his fault and totally absolves fault of CO Michael-- while saying "(Darius) never looked up.  Why didn't he look up" and somehow evades any proper questioning as to his part in the tragedy.  Michael was aware enough to see the van and the passengers outside the van and think about why they were parked there, but never noticed a figure in the lane, he admittedly never left, in front of him, while speeding up to the scene.

Sergeant Kim Cole, who prides himself on crash-scene reconstruction, reconfigures a crash report wherein he claims Darius failed to yield to Michael's truck, when it was actually the converse.  Undersheriff Trenner compounds the damage by telling news agencies the reconfigured data, saying Darius jetted out from the van and into the car's path, and that the driver's employer was not the primary investigator.

Nearly three weeks later, Mason County Prosecutor Spaniola joins the party and officially states Darius was really the only person at fault for wearing dark clothes and not looking (p. 24).  This is the same prosecution which went after Custer teacher Matt Millspaugh for a misdemeanor for running into two motorcyclists with his truck in the summer of 2012 to avoid colliding with a vehicle in front of him that stopped.

In that case:  Spaniola said the deaths of Gary and Carol Berenbrock came down to a simple moment of inattentiveness on the part of 41-year-old Matthew Millspaugh.  "In the judge's eyes, there are lots of cases in which you have a much more egregious state of mind," he said. "This is mere negligence. There wasn't any alcohol. There was no speeding, no drugs and no cell phone involved.  He had just looked to the side of the road."  The Vanbrook incident was the same, but the driver's speed along with inattentiveness to the road were factors. 

If the facts in this case were allowed to be passed on fully to a fair prosecutor, without the taint of all the conflicts involved, without all the unanswered questions, with more facts based on the data, would we have some justice for this young boy, some sense of justice for all the people that know, or who are very close, to the truth of the situation?  Some closure for the friends and family of the deceased that is not based on David Vanbrook and the Mason County Sheriff's Office ducking their duties to the dead child lying in that road whose image should haunt them forever until the full truth is revealed.

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Hello Ludington Torch, as a collision estimator of 15 years I need to correct an inaccuracy in your post. The Damage to the GMC pickup belonging to Michael Hayes is to the Right of the GMC emblem on the Grille of the pickup. Left And Right are as if you are sitting in the vehicle.

Those who wonder why an airbag would not go off in this case may read on...I see many deer-vehicle collisions each month as well as other types of collisions. In most cases airbags do not 'activate' when a person hits a deer as opposed to another vehicle or stationary object. Airbags are meant to protect the driver in a collision where the vehicle stops abruptly and the person's body would still be moving forward as the vehicle stops/slows.

Impacts with deer are generally to "soft" (the deer does not bring the vehicle to an abrupt enough stop/slow for the SRS(Supplemental Restraint System) to activate to set off the airbags and seat belt buckles and pretensioners(the part over your shoulder) which  in modern vehicles are activated in a collision along with the airbags.

Thanks, Sheila, haven't heard from you for awhile.  I kind of knew the proper orientation of how a collision expert like yourself would view the damage to the grille, but used the direction 'left' because that's the way it was with the picture supplied.  Non-collision estimators would likely be confused if I said 'right' while the picture has it to the left. 

The collision download begins in the police report on page 33, please let me know if there is anything else of relevance in this data if you could take the time to do so, perhaps telling us more about 'soft' collisions, and what is the normal threshold for airbag deployment. 


How could any adult allow a kid to walk down the road at that hour of the day. or even not give him one of the hotel rooms and the adults stay on the other. I feel so bad for his mom.

Place the blame on that on Darius' dad, David.  According to both him and Shawn, he created a scene which caused the stop out in the middle of the road, and if you go back through the weekend throughout his history, you can get a fairly clear idea of a very negligent, abusive man. 

But unlike he did that night, I will not assign this accident as being all of his fault, Michael Hays had a part in it too, and he deserves at least to be tried for what Matt Millspaugh was tried for, to be fair.  Millspaugh wasn't speeding and he was aware of what was happening in his lane of traffic. 

It's been four years since we lost this young man.  Even though I did not personally know him, it still tears me up when I think about what happened leading up to the death and aggravates me when I think of what happened afterwards with all involved.  The boy died because of poor decisions made by two adult men, plowed into by a speeding truck in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.  Yet neither of the men ever received their due, their karma, for their negligence, as the investigating agencies failed the youth.  RIP Darius.

Amen to that X, and time keeps ticking away on this tragedy, while some walk in the shadow of guilt and negligent homicide, without any punishment nor justice for Darius.

Most of the links don't work for me X. All I get is a 404 error. 

Anyone else having issues with this or know of a solution?

I apologize for that.  In many of my older links that has proven to be the case that the pictures and links have disappeared.  It is either due to an attempt by Ning to switch platforms, or, and I think this is the most likely, it was due to me creating many of these older, more complex, articles in the "Keepers of the Torch" closed group (or even in the old Ludington Talks closed groups) until they were ready for publication, at which point I copied and pasted over here, and then deleted the draft. The links and pictures would apparently be connected to that original and they seemed to disappear over time.

My reason for believing the latter is that the older articles I didn't draft elsewhere seem to have survived intact, and ones that I have not deleted in the closed group are still good.  Unfortunately, most stuff I produced before 2014 has been affected, but they should be good since. 

Most of my pictures and files are archived somewhere, but it's a daunting task to try and revise all the old articles; I invite anybody to inquire further by sending me a message if they need more info on any of these older topics and I will address them the best I can, or do some spot revising.

The death of Darius Vanbrook happened exactly five years ago today.  It's sad that all of the adults have seemed to come out of this 'accident' without any consequences.  The driver of the vehicle that was speeding and accelerating when he hit Darius walking legally on the road got off because he was a Mason County Corrections Officer who claims he was distracted by Darius' impaired father whose inability to get along with his ride home in the middle of the night led to the tragedy. 

What reminded me of this earlier today was looking in the COLDNews and seeing "Shawn Daniel O'Connell" in the From Our Court section, Shawn was the driver of the vehicle that stopped in the median.  He was arrested Jan. 22 by the Mason County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) on a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance and a misdemeanor charge of unlawful license plates, and got a minor slap on the wrist for his transgressions. 

I think it's a product of how 'progressed' we are to have almost all journalists and public officials scared to productively buck the system by choosing the 'little guy' over the system they serve and report on.  That's how I would prefer the Ludington Torch and other journalistic ventures to operate. 

It's difficult speaking out for those who have gotten run over by the juggernaut of official indifference and flattened spiritually by the steamroller of rote journalism.  You have a tendency to make powerful enemies and powerless friends when you investigate further and critique the system that feeds you the news; it's typically better for your career and involves less energy and grief to have friends and enemies in reverse of that.  Thus, most sane officials and journalists (turned propagandists) protect the system they're part of whether it's good or bad. 

They tend to ignore the victim, whether he be a boy caught in an accident caused by many adults behaving badly, a bicyclist clipped from behind by an impaired driver who drives off, a retired teacher who is shot in his own house late one night by an overzealous cop, or a host of other incidents around Mason County and beyond that need to have further explanation than a paragraph describing the 5 'Ws'.  How can you be a reporter with integrity without looking beyond the official line?


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