Questions are being raised over whether a Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy violated policy when pursuing a vehicle against traffic on Interstate 10 last week, immediately preceding a high-speed collision that left five people dead.
According to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office, at around 1:30 p.m. on April 1 a deputy attempted to stop a newer model sedan eastbound on I-10 near the mile 49 marker. Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack later said the car had been observed swerving.
The suspect vehicle accelerated in an attempt to outrun the deputy, exiting I-10 at the Wilcox exit and reentering the interstate westbound. Reaching the Baldwin Beach Express, the vehicle then briefly exited the interstate and went southbound before making a U-turn and reentering the interstate westbound.
The deputy continued to try to stop the vehicle as it continued westbound. The suspect vehicle did a U-turn on the interstate and drove eastbound in the westbound lane at a high rate of speed. The deputy lost sight of the suspect vehicle as it continued to drive into oncoming traffic. Moments later, the suspect impacted a 2018 Ford Escape that was traveling westbound head-on, killing both the driver and passenger.
Joseph L. Andrews, 81, of St. Simons Island, Georgia, was injured and airlifted to University Hospital in Mobile, where he died the next day. His son, Kevin J. Andrews, 54, of Milton, Florida, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash.
The suspect vehicle rolled over the guard rail and caught fire in the outside median of the interstate, killing all three occupants.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which is investigating the collision, later identified 34-year-old Crystal Lee Moradie of Converse, Texas, as one of the victims in the 2019 Chevrolet Malibu officers were pursuing. Noting all three in that vehicle were burned beyond recognition, Lt. Joe Piggott said identification of the other two is still pending.
A search of Bexar County, Texas, jail records shows a Crystal Lee Moradie, 34, was arrested March 15 for drug possession and released on $10,000 personal recognizance bond. There is no confirmation this is the same person killed in the collision.
The sheriff department’s own policy on pursuit driving indicates “it is the intent to restrict motor vehicle pursuits to those situations and circumstance in which the immediate apprehension of the violator outweighs the hazards generated to deputies, the public or the occupant[s] of the vehicle being pursued … when it becomes apparent that the immediacy of apprehension is outweighed by a clear and unreasonable danger to the deputy and others, the pursuit should be abandoned.”
While the policy suggests “reckless driving” may “present a continuing danger to other road users” and officers may initiate a pursuit to stop it, it also states “unmarked police vehicles should not engage in pursuit driving for the purpose of apprehending a traffic or misdemeanor violator.”
But the policy further stipulates when pursuits should be discontinued, including when “the hazards of a high-speed pursuit are high, exposing the officer and the public to unwarranted risk, especially if the violation is not of a serious nature.”
“The safety of the general public is always to be given greater weight by the officer than the apprehension of the targeted suspect. At any time the officer feels that to continue the pursuit would jeopardize the health, safety and welfare of the general public, the pursuit shall be discontinued,” it concludes.
Mack did not respond to a request for more information prior to press deadline, but last week told NBC 15 the pursuit and collision were the subject of an ongoing internal investigation which would review “what actions were taken … in accordance with our policy.” Further, he said the results of the investigation would be forwarded to District Attorney Robert Wilters.
Mack was also interviewed by FOX10TV and said, “Keep in mind, these people ran from us. So, they’re the ones that caused all this and we were the ones that were trying to render the situation safe in that. As to why they were running and everything, and as to the continued pursuit, those are all things that we do look at in the investigation and we will review.”
While he didn’t see the collision itself, Charles Gamble was driving home to coastal Mississippi when he witnessed a portion of the pursuit.
“I was headed west when I noticed an 18-wheeler about 2,000 feet in front of me pulling off the highway to the right,” he recalled. “Then the cars in front of me started moving over. I was just getting ready to pull into the left lane and pass them all when a car went flying by me. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw him dodge another car, then looked back and here comes a policeman flying by.”
Gamble admitted it happened so fast he couldn’t be certain of most details, but he estimated the car was driving 60-70 mph and the police vehicle “slightly slower than that.”
But they were both in the left lane of the interstate and not in the median, he said.
“I thought, ‘I cannot believe [the police] are chasing them like that,’” he said. “I thought it was very dangerous … it scared me to death.”
Gamble said he couldn’t recall whether the police vehicle had a siren on, but he does remember flashing lights and believes the SUV was unmarked. While he caught just a glance of the occupants of the other vehicle, “my first thought was they looked like young kids,” he said.
BCSO’s policy also stipulates a pursuit should be terminated if the officer “knows or has reason to believe the vehicle is operated by a juvenile who has committed a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony and that the safety factors involved are greater than a juvenile can cope with.”
In an annual report presented to the Baldwin County Commission last month, Mack said of more than 14,000 traffic contacts in 2018, there were 64 vehicle pursuits.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report on deadly vehicle pursuits in 2017 indicating that for the years 1996-2015, Alabama was the deadliest state for police pursuits, recording fatalities during that time period 121 percent above the national average.
Among other findings, the report said fatalities are 20 percent more likely in Alabama than the second-most deadly state, Arizona, and commuters are more than 212 percent more likely to die in a police chase in Alabama than Florida and 308 percent more likely to die in a police chase in Alabama than Mississippi.
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