By Sam Levin
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Terrye Martin and a partner, Antonio G. Robinson, had just robbed a man at a North Kingshighway bus stop, taking $38 and his shoes at gunpoint, then driving off in a 1988 Buick LeSabre. Martin, who was behind the wheel, soon realized he was in trouble. Witnesses had flagged down a patrol car and pointed out the Buick.
On parole for a tampering charge, Martin didn't want to go to prison.
"I didn't see the police behind me at first," says Martin in a telephone interview from South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri. "They were about a block back. I just hit the gas and was hoping to get away, for real. The police behind me hit the gas. It was to the floor -- I wasn't easing up on anything."
Martin turned off Kingshighway onto side streets but couldn't shake the cops. He says he'd never been chased by police, and this wasn't what he was expecting.
"I knew they were chasing me, but it wasn't like what you see on TV, with sirens and all," Martin says. "It was quiet. All I saw was in the rearview mirror. I was trying to stay calm and just get away."
After driving a few blocks through a residential area, Martin says, he got back on Kingshighway, driving as fast as he could. Luck stayed with him for six blocks, until he reached Cote Brilliante Avenue, where he ran a red light and plowed broadside into a Toyota Camry driven by Tyrica Fowler, whose three sons were also aboard. An accident-reconstruction team determined that Martin had been traveling at nearly 58 mph.
Six-year-old Derion Brooks, one of Fowler's boys, died after he was thrown from the car and landed headfirst against a tree. Tyrice Dobbins, two years old, suffered minor injuries. Nine-year-old Eric Brooks was comatose for several weeks and still hasn't fully recovered, according to his mother's attorney. And Martin, who's serving 25 years for murder, robbery, armed criminal action and assault, is sorry now.
"After they apprehended me, they took me back to the scene in the paddy wagon and informed me someone was dead," he recalls. "I couldn't do anything but hold my head down and think about what happened."
The tragedy on August 10, 2001, marked the beginning of a rash of deaths and serious injuries in the metropolitan area that have resulted when motorists have fled from police. Since then, at least seventeen people in the St. Louis region have died as a result of motorists' fleeing police, a death rate well above the national norm and the average in Missouri, where an average of seven people are killed each year during police pursuits.
The city of St. Louis has seen the most pursuit-related deaths. In the five fatal accidents that have claimed eight lives in the city since Brooks died, police were chasing for relatively serious crimes, including robbery, carjackings and auto theft. The tragedies have forced the department to tighten its pursuit policy, which until last year allowed officers to chase for virtually any reason. Now, city cops are allowed to chase only when the quarry has used or threatened to use deadly force to commit a felony.
It's a different story in the suburbs, where at least three people have died in chases that began with traffic infractions. With 65 police departments patrolling streets in St. Louis County, policies vary widely. Municipalities with strict pursuit policies adjoin cities that allow pursuits for virtually any reason. And that can be a recipe for disaster as cops stoked on adrenaline chase people who won't stop for anything.
In each of the fatal accidents, police in the city and in the suburbs insist they did nothing wrong. Not everyone agrees. In the case of Brooks' death, a jury may decide the truth.
Fowler has sued the St. Louis police, claiming her son would be alive today if police had turned on lights and sirens to alert her of oncoming danger. The officer behind Martin, however, reported activating his lights and siren, a claim backed by two witnesses, including Robinson's sister, who was riding in the Buick. Fowler also claims that officers, contrary to state law and department policy, did not slow down or stop at controlled intersections.
The department was initially reluctant to admit there was even a chase. Immediately after the accident, Police Chief Joseph Mokwa told the media that police weren't pursuing the Buick. "This did not constitute a chase," the chief told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Rather, department officials said, police were simply following the Buick and trying to keep it in sight.
That's not what city lawyers say in response to Fowler's lawsuit, filed a few months after her son died. In two motions to dismiss filed in January and March, deputy city counselor Ed Hanlon says the same thing: Martin and Robinson "were attempting to avoid apprehension by officers of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department who were then engaged in a high-speed pursuit of the vehicle."
Mokwa referred questions about city pursuits to Captain Paul Nocchiero, who declined to discuss specific cases, including the accident that killed Derion Brooks. But Nocchiero acknowledges that police don't always make the right decisions.
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