School joyride was ‘foolish,’ Detroit cop testifies

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A Detroit police union leader accused of damaging the grounds of a Holly school during a snowy joyride last winter testified Friday he made the “foolish decision to test the four-wheel drive” capabilities of his union-provided GMC pickup truck.

Mark Diaz, 42, is being tried in Oakland Circuit Court on a felony charge of malicious destruction of property and a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving in the incident at Holly Academy.

Diaz, the president of the Detroit Police Officers Association, took the witness stand in his own defense, telling the jury he regretted and was “embarrassed” by his action.

Diaz stressed he drove “cautiously” and had no intention of hurting anyone or causing any property damage by driving off-road through snowbanks on the 34-acre campus about 9 p.m. Dec. 20.

His daughter had gone to school there, he said, and had often seen people driving off-road vehicles on the grounds and doing “doughnuts” in the parking lot in the 12 years he has lived in a neighboring subdivision.

“I was coming from my office in Detroit …” testified Diaz, insisting he had not been drinking or using drugs. “I drove past Holly Academy and noticed some (tire) tracks in the snow. I had not tested the four-wheel drive on the vehicle and I foolishly saw this as an appropriate opportunity to see if it worked.”

Diaz, who had the pickup truck since midsummer, drove through “multiple” snowbanks on the property, in the process damaging a culvert used to direct water away from the area and a steel cable strung between two posts.

Diaz insisted both devices were covered by snow and he didn’t realize he had lost one of his bumpers until the following morning when he was “shocked” to see parts missing from the truck.

Assistant prosecutor Andrew Starr told jurors Diaz’s testimony “didn’t make sense” and that he deserved to be found guilty on both counts for his reckless and selfish actions. He mocked Diaz and asked if he enjoyed his spontaneous test ride.

“I’m not going to say it was boring,” testified Diaz. “… I didn’t get a rush but had never driven a four-wheel drive through snow before.”

On cross-examination, Diaz insisted he didn’t realize he had damaged any property and didn’t feel he had a duty to report damage to a snowbank.

His attorney, James Thomas, sought to have the charges dismissed, saying Starr had not proven that Diaz intentionally damaged school property.

“He (Diaz) has been humiliated and disgraced; I’m asking that you let him go home,” Thomas told the jury in his closing argument. “He’s had to eat crow. He’s done something stupid, immature but nothing he has been charged with.”

The jury was sent home Friday and will return Monday to begin deliberations. A conviction on the felony charge could carry up to five years in prison and bring automatic revocation of Diaz’s license to be a police officer.

Earlier Friday, a Holly school custodian testified Friday she feared for her safety when Diaz’s pickup barreled through the campus.

During the incident, Diaz’s pickup slammed into three-foot-high snow banks and rode over a snow-covered culvert, grassy areas and sidewalks.

The custodian, Christine Voich, said she was taking trash out of a school building about 9 p.m. when she saw the pickup about 60 feet away and the man driving it raising both his hands off the steering wheel as he swerved across the property.

Voich said, “I didn’t know if he could see me out there” and testified that she ran behind a Dumpster, using it as a “shield” in case the vehicle turned her way.

After a few minutes, the truck drove off, Voich testified. No one else was outside the building and the last event of the day, a basketball practice, had ended in the school gym a half-hour earlier, she said.

The following morning, Voich testified, she reported the incident to her boss, facility director Jose Melero, who followed the tire tracks to an adjacent subdivision where the suspect vehicle was parked in the street, with a damaged front end and up on a tire jack.

Parts of the vehicle were found along its apparently random path on the school property. Voich called the Michigan State Police and reported the incident.

The vehicle was registered to the DPOA and was parked on the road in front of Diaz’s address. He admitted he had been driving at the school the night before.

He returned with a state trooper to the school, where he was told that a culvert had been damaged on the property. Diaz later offered to pay the estimated $4,200 in damages but the charges were brought against him.

The incident has been reviewed by the Detroit Police internal affairs section and Diaz is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.

Hermina Kramp, acting director of the Michigan Commission On Law Enforcement Standards – which licenses and sets policy for Michigan’s 18,400 law enforcement officers – said any felony carrying one year or more in prison or a misdemeanor offense involving assaults results in a mandatory revocation of an officer’s license.

About 15 to 20 revocations occur every year, Kramp said.

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