Forgive Us Our Trespasses

The world called Paul Pelton the 'Nightcrawler of Lorain' after police arrested him for videotaping a grisly crash scene and trying to sell the footage. It was a devastating story, except it wasn't true.

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Pelton was in his garage late Sunday night / Monday morning, July 13, when he heard the squeal of the tires and the whine of the engine. As he often does, he was working on a motorcycle and preparing to make a video showing off his handiwork.

"Ironically," he said, "I thought it was a bike flying down the street." But when he heard the crash, the heavy-duty crunch of metal on metal, he knew it was something more substantial. His three kids were awakened by the noise, and he and his daughter Corrin — "sort of my sidekick," said Pelton — hopped in their Jeep and set off to investigate.

A month later, at his auto shop in Lorain, Pelton hooked up his phone to a boombox and played me the video from his garage.

"I got the audio just by chance," he said. "They were probably going 100 miles per hour." And as Pelton's video panned across a motorcycle, the effect of the accompanying audio was that of a fighter pilot flying very low overhead. "Around here, dawg, everybody thinks they're the Fast and the Furious."

click to enlarge Forgive us our Trespasses
Sam Allard / Scene

Lorain, Ohio, is transected by train tracks on its north side, near the lake. On the streets that run perpendicular to the tracks, one can find tire marks and grooves in the pavement from drivers skidding to stops after ill-advised jumps.

Corrin, at her father's auto shop, told me about a time last year when she was driving with her dad on Oberlin Avenue and they nearly collided with a Honda Civic speeding over the tracks on that street.

"It was airborne," she said. "Like 10 feet off the ground. And my dad turned right — we were like hugging the curb — but we could've died."

Pelton said that accidents happen in his neighborhood all the time, and that, especially in a town full of auto shops, people tend to record their vehicles as a matter of habit. He certainly does. Beyond the fact that in 2015, "everybody records everybody," it's important for documentation and for liability to have photo evidence.

The early morning of July 13, he and Corrin drove the wrong way on Kansas looking for the accident. But they were soon drawn to the crowd of people already outside at 426, taking photos and talking among themselves. One contingent of neighbors, Pelton could tell, was irate: at the property damage, at another reckless driving incident, at being woken up so late.

"So I walk up," Pelton said, "and the car's dark. And I wanna see what's going on in this car. So I click my camera on and I scroll to the light on it. I turned that on and I also started to record. I'm not like this" ­(Pelton demonstrated, holding his phone with two hands, in a photographer's pose). "I'm like this," (with one hand above and in front of him, almost as a work light). "When you watch the video, you can tell it's vaguely recorded, because I'm not really recording. I'm just shining the light in there. I'm having a conversation with the lady, and she makes reference to what's that in the back? My daughter looks in the back. I'm looking in the back. She's looking in the back. Everybody was there, looking in the back. Nobody got into the car. Nobody got in there, trying to film dying teens."

Two of the central arguments against Pelton, as articulated by the Lorain Police after his arrest (ancillary to the flimsy vehicle trespass misdemeanor) were that 1) Pelton called the boys "idiots," and that 2) he chose to film the accident instead of "rendering aid."

To the first (non-legal) charge, attorney R.J. Budway suggested to Scene that, though it's indelicate to say so, plenty of people would consider "driving so fast and losing control of the car" an idiotic thing to do. And though Pelton's utterance — "this guy ... idiots" — is clearly audible in the video, it's also clearly spoken to himself, in the dumbstruck way one might wonder aloud: "What were they thinking?"    

click to enlarge 426 Kansas Ave., three weeks after the crash. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
426 Kansas Ave., three weeks after the crash.

To the second argument, Pelton himself said that it would have been a bad idea for anyone other than a medical professional to render aid to Cameron Friend. Using his phone's light, Pelton saw black glass in Friend's forehead, glass which he determined had come from the sunroof.

"So you could see, the way he must've had his head, he probably jacked his neck up," Pelton said. "I was like, he's probably in some bad neck trauma or whatever, so it's a waiting game for the proper medical people to get there. That's kind of like how people are. If you've ever been to a car accident, if you decide that you can't render aid, or that literally you can't do nothing, you stay ready just in case they might need you. Which is kind of how everybody was. They weren't there to not help nobody. They make it sound like people were rendering aid. That kid needed an MRI, dawg. He needed to be put on a flat board and have that thing on his neck where they pump it up with air."  

Additionally, much has been exaggerated about the small fire in the engine compartment. "As [Pelton] played videographer," wrote the Daily Beast, "neighbors worked to pull Goodin out of the burning vehicle." (Recall that Goodin, though dazed and visibly hurt, had already exited the vehicle, and that neighbors didn't move Friend at all.)  

R.J. Budway said that the most evocative way to characterize the fire was how his client first characterized it to him: "Tiki-torch-sized." Pelton works with cars every day and said that in addition to its small size, he could immediately identify the fire as electrical in nature.

"You can smell it," Pelton said. "There was no smell of gasoline. There wasn't going to be no explosion. In the video, I try blowing it out just to see if I could, or to see how bad it would get, but by that time, everyone was yelling fire and scattering."   

The police narrative of Pelton's video is for the most part accurate, if incomplete:   

In the video, the male makes comments that the boys were "idiots," and holds his cell phone so that he can film these two boys who were in medical crisis. The male then opens the back door of this vehicle and leans in to continue capturing video. He walks around to the driver's side and video tapes the driver, and then returns to the door that he opened and continues to capture video of these boys and the interior of the vehicle.

That much is true, though the causal relationship is erroneously inferred. Pelton didn't open the back door and lean in, for instance, in order to continue recording. He opened the back door and leaned in to shine a light and "assess the damage," while his camera continued to record. At any rate, the narrative stops there. It doesn't mention that Pelton then walked away from the crash to apprise arriving officers of the fire. And it certainly makes no mention of the fact that Pelton then filmed officers dropping and dragging Cameron Friend.  

Police assumptions — the erroneous intent inferred above — led to perhaps the most damning allegation against Pelton, and the one that the media sensationalized with Hollywood connections: that he filmed the gory scene for the express purpose of selling footage to local TV news.

"The person who took this video does not, at that time, elect to turn the video over to Police to assist in the investigation, instead choosing to post the video to Facebook," the LPD wrote in the Pelton-arrest press release. "He then approaches at least two news organizations and attempts to sell the video of the dying and injured boys for a profit ... Persons are not ... allowed to trespass into a person's vehicle criminally and without permission for the seemingly singular cause of filming, a young man's dying moments, for profit."

The smearing is deft indeed, rife with tactically subtle misinformation: Pelton is portrayed here as uncooperative, but it's not as if police asked for a copy of the video at the scene of the crash. It's not as if, at the moment Pelton stopped recording, he could elect to hand it over to authorities or not to. As it turned out, Pelton emailed both his videos to Sgt. Buddy Sivert the following day, after Sivert and Capt. Roger Watkins left a business card at Pelton's residence while he was in the shower.

"I do not know nothing else other than what is portrayed in both videos." Pelton wrote. "I offered assistance by clearing the backseat and to notify law enforcement of the fire. And that's it."

The fact that Pelton had provided a copy of the videos to "assist in the investigation" at the time of his arrest went unmentioned in the LPD press release.  

And Pelton told Scene that he posted the video to Facebook early Monday morning not totally unlike the way he might post a picture of a beer.

"Like, this is what I'm experiencing, you know. Here's this bad car accident. They were speeding over the tracks and they crashed. This is the video. I put a warning on there, like 'watch this with your teens so they can slow down.'"

It didn't even occur to Pelton to shop his video to local news stations until he received a call from Channel 8 a few hours later, about 10:30 Monday morning. Pelton said that Channel 8, after seeing the video, had been looking for a way to contact the owner to obtain permission for use. A friend of Pelton's provided Channel 8 with his phone number.  

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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