Despite the cost, local cops can't resist deadly pursuits

McCall says a supervisor ordered a Berkeley officer to back off after about fifteen minutes. "It was longer than we would have liked," McCall says. "They did a lot of driving while the supervisor was trying to piece information together."

Pursuit policies in several suburban departments are more liberal than those in place in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Instead of limiting pursuits to felonies, some departments leave it up to the officer and his supervisor to decide whether it's OK to chase someone for a broken taillight. And that's the worst kind of pursuit policy, Alpert says.

"There's no town that's good to chase crooks," Alpert says. "The worst policy is one that is very vague and amorphous and basically says, 'Use your best judgment.' Those are the ones where people get in trouble all the time."

Mark Andresen
Mark Andresen

Fueled by beer and fear of arrest, Ryan Lee King acted the fool last Labor Day weekend.

St. Peters police officer Todd Lewis had just pulled a U-turn and flipped on his emergency lights. King was driving with his high beams on, and when someone does that at 11 p.m. on a holiday weekend and doesn't notice a cop flashing his headlights, it's a safe bet they'll get pulled over. Lewis' hunch was on the mark. King had been drinking -- he later admitted downing fifteen beers that Sunday. He also had a warrant for his arrest on forgery charges.

When Lewis' lights went on, King pulled into a Denny's restaurant near the Cave Springs interchange on I-70, but he didn't stop. Hoping to prevent a crowd from gathering in the parking lot, Lewis turned off his emergency lights as he followed King behind the Denny's and into a gas station. This traffic stop looked routine as King nearly brought his pickup truck to a halt. Lewis once more turned on his emergency lights.

That's when King punched it.

"He had it to the floor, as far as I could tell," Lewis told a judge at a preliminary hearing in October. While Lewis radioed his dispatcher, King ignored stop lights and stop signs as he made three turns in the space of a half-mile, first bearing right onto Cave Springs Road, then left onto Mexico Road, then right onto a frontage road on the south side of I-70. He was traveling between 65 and 70 mph on roads with limits of 35 mph, Lewis estimated. Lined with restaurants, gas stations and strip malls, the intersections are some of the busiest in the city. Other motorists feared for their lives.

Antoinette Eckman was stopped at a red light on Cave Springs Road, ready to get on the interstate, when she saw King barreling toward her. She was taking her four-year-old son to the emergency room for breathing difficulties when she realized she might not make it to the hospital under her own power.

"I didn't know if he was going to go straight, I didn't know if he was going to turn, but I could tell he was not stopping for the police," she said. "And all of a sudden he turned and I was sitting at the stoplight and he turned in the side lane beside me. I didn't know if he was going to run into me or not. I was very scared. So when he turned and actually made the corner, I took off through the red light because I thought maybe he was going to ... hit me. I just wanted to get out of there."

As King made his final turn onto the frontage road, he crossed the border between St. Peters and St. Charles. Lewis was talking to his sergeant, who ordered him to terminate the pursuit -- under department policy, officers are not supposed to chase outside the city limits unless the suspect is wanted for a dangerous felony. Officers are also prohibited from pursuing motorists for traffic infractions or negligent driving. "If any doubt exists, a high-speed pursuit shall not be conducted," the policy says.

Lewis followed King after shutting off his lights and siren. He says he tailed the pickup at a safe speed and distance so that he could radio King's location to St. Charles police, even though the St. Charles Police Department prohibits pursuits for traffic offenses and other misdemeanors. With Lewis still behind him, King didn't slow down. He was outdistancing cars on the interstate as he sped down the frontage road, crossing the double-yellow center line as he shot past two vehicles near a miniature-golf course. "It was flying past highway traffic," recalled Matthew James Foster, who was playing golf with friends.

David Harrison, who lived in the Sandalwood Creek apartments next to the minigolf course, picked the wrong time to venture onto the frontage road.

An accident reconstructionist determined that King was going 73 mph -- nearly 30 mph over the 45 mph limit -- when he saw Harrison's red Oldsmobile and hit the brakes. He got it down to 69 mph before striking the driver's side of Harrison's car. Lewis had flipped on his emergency lights approximately 1.3 miles before the accident, and the officer estimated that he turned them off between three-tenths and four-tenths of a mile before King hit Harrison. As the first officer on the scene, Lewis handcuffed King, who was trying to run despite a broken foot.

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