Hot pursuit: Dashcam video fuels Rugby Road chase debate
There has been an arrest in the infamous case of a chase that resulted in a stolen car going around 85mph on Rugby Road and causing over $100,000 in damage by scalping an occupied house. About two months after the August 7 incident, which captured widespread attention after the car's driver somehow disappeared from a seemingly fatal wreck, a 17-year-old city student was arrested in mid-October, according to Charlottesville spokesperson Ric Barrick, who–- in response to a reporter's request–- released a tape of the chase, a 112-second video in which even the police car hits 85mph on the residential road.
The video has touched off a whole new controversy because the chase appears to have violated a policy and, contrary to an initial media report, didn't appear to have been called off. And the pursuing officer, according to the police chief, wasn't even aware that he was chasing a stolen car.
"It was just senseless," says former Charlottesville Deputy Sheriff Steven W. Shifflett. "No car is worth a human life."
Informed that the officer wasn't aware he was chasing a stolen car, Shifflett revises his position.
"That's even worse," says Shifflett. "If a car had been coming through that intersection where the suspect crashed, he would have broadsided it and most likely killed one, two, three, four–- everyone in the car."
Noting, however, that the incident occurred late at night in the summer when UVA wasn't in session, the police chief defends the officer's actions. Yet controversy rages over the question of whether police pursuits, which routinely put innocent citizens at risk, should ever occur in such a populated place as Charlottesville.
Friday, October 30, was the day that a work crew installed a new, larger guardrail to cover the spot where the notorious vehicle left the roadway. The longer, triple-ribbed band of steel is designed to prevent such future dangerous aerobatics, but during the installation, the crew cut an underground gas line, causing a road detour lasting much of the morning.
Meanwhile, that same Friday was move-back day for Russell Skinner, an architect, and his wife, Nura Yingling, an English teacher and Tandem School administrator. They're the couple who lost their garage, their roof, and nearly their lives.
"My pregnant daughter could have been here," says Yingling. "That's the kind of thing that keeps you up at night."
The Russell-Yingling house occupies a unique piece of local terrain. Hidden from the road by dense foliage and built into a steep hillside, its roof lies at roughly the same level as the street. Hence the scalping.
State law doesn't forbid police pursuits, nor does it require officers to obey traffic signals when the chase is on; but it does require any pursuing officer to activate lights and sirens, both of which are evident in the Rugby Road video, now posted on YouTube.
Yingling says she was initially told that the chase was curtailed. However, the video shows the police cruiser hitting 74mph at Beta Bridge, 75 at University Circle, and 77 as the officer passes a 25mph speed limit sign on his way to a top speed of 85 near the intersection where the pursuee went airborne.
A Year 2000 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that police pursuits kill over 100 innocent bystanders every year. In August, a California couple lost all five of their children when a stolen car pursued by police rammed the family pickup truck on its way to a Pee Wee football carnival.
That same month and closer to home, Petersburg police became the target of two lawsuits after a teenage motorist died and another was maimed in a pair of 2008 pursuits at speeds that might have been lower than what happened on Rugby Road.
"A lot of people don't realize how important this issue is until a member of their family is a victim of the police insistence on pursuit," says Charles Cuthbert, the lawyer handling both of the Petersburg cases, which seek a total of $15.7 million in damages.
In 2006, James H. Sears, an off-duty Colonial Heights police lieutenant, was coming home from a gym workout when he was struck head-on by a police car that ran a stop light and hit speeds up to 110mph (in pursuit of Albemarle resident Douglas Michael "Beefy" Brown, now imprisoned in the Buckingham Correctional Center until the year 2050). Sears' widow and three children won a $2.35 million settlement from the pursuing agency, the Chesterfield County police.
No one living in Madison County in the early 1990s can forget the graphic horror after a speeding police vehicle, allegedly without its warning lights on, cut another vehicle in half on Route 29 in front of Madison County High School and killed the father and son riding inside.
Lawyer Cuthbert says that he contacted various Virginia localities to examine their policies for conducting a chase. "The only pattern," says Cuthbert, "was that there was no pattern."
The Charlottesville policy gives the officer latitude to determine whether the pursuit justifies the risk.
"The initial decision to engage in or abandon a pursuit lies with the individual officer," reads part of the policy. Another part, however, forbids officers from running red lights or stop signs "without first stopping and checking traffic in all directions."
Early in the video, both the officer and the fleeing driver appear to run a red light at the corner of University and Rugby.
Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo, addressing the case in a letter accompanied by a copy of CPD pursuit policy, conceded that the chase raised a pair of concerns–- particularly the speed. He also conceded that the officer wasn't aware that he was chasing anything other than a traffic violator.
However, Longo emphasized the dry pavement, the fact that UVA was out for the summer, and that the near-2:30am timing meant an absence of pedestrians.
"I find the officer’s actions to have been reasonable based on the totality of the circumstance," Longo wrote. "Had this occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon when traffic conditions were different, I may not have come to the same conclusion."
Yingling however, who serves as the director of Tandem's upper school, considers this chase something of a teaching moment for her students. She finds the pursuit, conducted by Officer Jeremy Carper, unsafe.
"If he's been an officer for more than a few days," says Yingling, "he knows there's a house at the end of the hill."
Carper, through his chief, declined to speak with a reporter about his 60-miles-per-hour-above-the posted limit chase. But his chief, alleging that bystanders "may have well been harmed had the officer done nothing," doesn't seem to accept the notion that chases create their own danger.
"Officers responding to property crime calls whether in progress or just occurred, shall be limited to driving no more than 20 mph over the posted speed limit," reads County policy.
"We were never permitted to chase misdemeanor offenders," points out Barbara Jones, police spokesperson in Orlando, Florida, where rules regarding police chases are among the strictest in the nation.
On Rugby Road at 2:26am, the offense radioed to headquarters was a failure to yield, a misdemeanor.
It began on Highland Avenue
The escapade began around 11:30pm August 6 when a perpetrator allegedly burgled a home in the 700 block of Highland Avenue in the Johnson Village neighborhood. The homeowner slept through the incident, unaware that an interloper was traipsing through his home and swiping the keys to his car, says the City's Barrick.
On the video, shot about three hours later, an alert Officer Carper spots a vehicle speeding east on University Avenue– 42 miles per hour according to the police chief. Carper (who'd been traveling 36mph in the 25 zone when he passes the perpetrator) makes a quick U-turn, and follows the car up Carr's Hill near the UVA Rotunda, accelerating to 55 mph.
The two vehicles blow through the red light and zoom past "Mad Bowl." Although the lone bystander vehicle traveling their way on Rugby pulls over to let them pass, both cars cross the center line, as the chase quickly exceeds 70 mph and proceeds through the heart of fraternities, sororities, and other off-campus student housing along Rugby. Curiously, not a single pedestrian is spotted in the video, despite the fact that final exams for UVA's summer school had wrapped just a few hours earlier and bars closed 26 minutes before the chase.
Just after the green light at Grady Avenue, a pair of rightward bends in the road bring the pursuit past the Unitarian church, where Rugby shifts to upscale single-family dwellings. There, the police vehicle hits speeds of 64 to 85 miles per hour, as shown in the video.
At 75mph, the officer passes a taxi traveling in the opposite direction. At 77, he passes one of those radar-equipped "Your speed: ______" signs near tranquil Winston Road, but the flashing display is illegible on the video. What is legible are three 25mph speed limit signs along the way.
Up ahead lies the Rugby Road-Preston Avenue T-intersection, which carries 21,000 cars each day, according to a state report. That's 15 cars, on average, for every minute of the day, one car every four seconds. It's one of the busiest intersections in town.
Mercifully, there are no cars in sight as the stoplight, apparently red in the video, looms. And then the pursued car disappears.
Making sense of it
The August 7 wreck perplexed many. But neighbor Lucky Stone, awakened by what he first thought was thunder, believed he figured it out by daybreak. In a same-day interview, he pieced together what might have happened after the silver Ford Five Hundred sedan narrowly missed the existing guardrail, took out a pedestrian signal, and broke a curb-like concrete barrier.
“He smashed into the roof of the garage, and I guess that gave him some lift,” said Stone. “And then he smashed into the roof of the house, which I guess gave him a little more lift. He wound up upside down with the air-bag deployed.”
Pointing to a black stripe on the pavement spanning the breadth of the roadway, Stone said the perpetrator probably never applied brakes–- that he tried to negotiate a right turn at a speed that the laws of physics simply wouldn't allow.
“That’s a yaw mark,” explained Stone, pointing to the stripe.
“I thought a plane had crashed into my house,” said Russell Skinner, interviewed later that day. “There was debris everywhere, and I could look up and see the moon, so I thought it was either a plane–- or a meteor.”
Skinner says he and his wife were sleeping just 10 feet from the impact zone but that neither were injured. He didn't think he could say the same of the driver, whose landing occurred about 100 yards from the road.
Skinner and his wife were promptly ensconced downtown at the Omni hotel by their insurance company because the ripped-open house was declared unfit for living by the City.
Skinner noted that another car plunged through his property just two months earlier and wound up next door in Stone’s yard. Stone says police quickly found that fleeing driver but were initially stumped by this one–- who seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
Given the severity of the wreck and the magnitude of the trajectory, Stone says police were particularly surprised not to find any signs of a driver. Although tree limbs 15 to 20 feet above ground were broken, there was no body dangling from a tree. Infrared devices and dogs failed to locate anyone, dead or alive.
Shortly before dawn, officials turned the mangled car right-side up.
“I’ve seen people walk from horrendous wrecks,” says Stone, “but I was half expecting when they flipped the car over that they’d find his body in there.”
The car was empty.
Not only that, but Stone says there was no blood. Still, police were on the lookout for someone badly bruised, or worse.
The Hook has learned the 17-year-old arrested in mid-October is (or was, at least until his arrest) a junior at Charlottesville High School who played for the football team, Tsaye Simpson. A City schools spokesperson would confirm only that he was enrolled at CHS through October 14.
A source says a late-October hearing resulted in the decision to try him as an adult in Charlottesville Circuit Court, where the Hook has petitioned for the records to be unsealed. The source says Simpson was released from custody to a parent after his arrest. Attempts to reach the Simpsons were unsuccessful.
No details on the teen will be released, according to Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman. However, Chapman confirms that the case has been transferred to Circuit Court and slated for the December 21 docket call.
Homeowner Skinner says that he has been told that, as the absence of blood at the scene suggested, the driver was completely uninjured despite hurtling through the air at a height estimated as much as 50 feet above the steeply-sloping land.
"Lucky, lucky, kid," says Skinner, theorizing that, after the car shattered his garage and scalped his roof, the next thing broken by the death-defying sedan was a tree that cushioned the car's return to earth.
'Grace of God'
"By the grace of God no one was injured." So says the chief of police in Charlottesville. Other localities, however, have decided to put their faith in stricter pursuit policies.
Despite fears that crime would explode, Orlando and Orange County, Florida, went ahead in 2004 with what may be the nation's most restrictive ones. They limit pursuits to those involving people suspected of violent crimes.
John Phillips remembers all too well what spurred the policy.
In 2001, when he was 18 years old, his older sister was a college sophomore preparing to enter a nursing program. Sarah Phillips went out one night with three friends to a movie. After dropping off her friends, she unknowingly found herself on the same road as a police pursuit.
"I was in high school and worried about high school things," recalls Phillips. "I went to bed one night and woke up, and life was completely different."
Sarah Phillips was driving a Ford Escort when a fleeing suspect rear-ended it at 70 miles per hour. She died a the scene.
"She was just a bystander," says her brother, now 25.
When the details started emerging, the Phillips family coupled its sadness with anger and launched a lawsuit against Orange County. Part of the settlement was a review of the pursuit policy. Today, John Phillips runs PursuitWatch, the organization his late father founded to call for, among other things, better reporting.
There is no national requirement for reporting police pursuits. What little data exists comes from reports voluntarily submitted by myriad state and local law enforcement bodies. For instance, the latest data for chases conducted by the Virginia State Police is dated 2006–- and compiled only after a request from a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter.
That year, says spokesperson Corinne Geller, the State Police conducted 350 pursuits, and 89 of them resulted in accidents. That's a 25 percent accident rate, but Geller downplays what might appear a chilling statistic.
"It could be anything the car suffered," she says, "such as a scratch."
Sometimes it's far more than a scratch. Data from FARS, the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System, found that there were 40 chase-related fatalities in Virginia from 2006 to 2008: 25 pursuees, one police officer, and 14 people like Sarah Phillips, who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Not everyone is as lucky as Russell Skinner and Nura Yingling," says Candy Priano. "A 59-year-old electrician in a brick house on Long Island was killed in his living room."
Priano directs an organization called PursuitSafety, founded two years ago on behalf of innocent bystanders. Trying to refute some of the alleged myths about pursuits, the group remains particularly skeptical about the allegation that crime will rise if police don't pursue.
"Chasing is not a deterrent," says Priano. "It has neither lessened crime nor stopped the fleeing."
There's little or no scholarship on this specific point. However, journalist and former patrol officer Thomas Lewis, in a 2008 article, likened any quest to ban pursuits as the equivalent of banning medication due to the small percentage of drugs that backfire.
"Criminals have intervened in our lives enough without allowing them the right to escape justice," wrote Lewis. "[Without pursuits], the criminal will win because he will be less likely to get caught after robbing our homes, driving while intoxicated, or whatever criminal activities he decides to be involved in."
Priano agrees there are many justified pursuits (such as chasing a murderer), and she supports mandatory jail time for everyone who attempts to elude capture. That's why she notes an irony about what happened in Charlottesville–- that after a nearly fatal pursuit, the suspect has been deemed harmless enough to be released from custody.
She also notes that since the 17-year-old's arrest took place more than two months after the incident, neither the public–- and certainly not the owner of the car that suddenly went from stolen to totaled on Rugby Road–- received much benefit from the chase.
City spokesperson Barrick wasn't able by presstime to put a complete dollar figure on the City's cost for repairing the curb and replacing the guardrail and signal pole. Homeowner Skinner says that the total tab for putting his house back together was nearly $110,000. But property damage is the least of Priano's concern.
"A human life is not replaceable," says Priano. "It just doesn't make any sense to chase for a stolen car."
So what should police do when someone won't stop?
When it's a property crime, the rules are clear around Orlando. The officer must turn off flashing lights, halt the siren, and then turn around. They have helicopters, spike strips, and other methods.
Priano says that some departments have successfully used "auto trap" to rein in those who flee: An officer calls in a description, and unmarked units quietly stalk and surround the driver.
PursuitSafety says that 40 percent of all pursuits result in collisions, and about three innocent bystanders are killed every week. That's triple the government's death toll, but Priano says the government undercounts.
For instance, she says, chased-and-killed DUI suspects are logged as DUI fatalities, and people who die hours or days after the crash are excluded. And, she notes, babies and young children who die in a fleeing car get cruelly categorized as "occupants of fleeing vehicle."
Virginia State Police spokesperson Geller says troopers receive six months of training, part of it in an effort to chase wisely.
"There's a lot of factors they're weighing," says Geller. "Why is the person running and refusing to stop? What is the intent? If we did not seek out the purpose," says Geller, "who knows who we'd be letting get away?"
The troopers "quite often" cease a pursuit, says Geller. "Safety is the ultimate objective."
And Charlottesville Commonwealth Attorney Chapman vows to strike a blow for safety in prosecuting those who take flight.
"The behavior of eluding police is rampant," says Chapman, "and it's extremely dangerous. Anything can happen, and the consequences can be the highest degree of tragedy."