Today we follow Deputy Hussey in Hot Pursuit -- Italian Style. Enjoy!
Sunday nights on the midnight shift were either really crazy or totally dead. You would either run from call to call or spend the entire shift trying to stay awake. Usually the latter prevailed. The first cell phones had been introduced and crack cocaine was created in a lab by mistake. Yeah, what a mistake.
It was the mid 1980’s and the winds of change were blowing through the law enforcement community. Due to several recent automobile fatalities resulting from high-speed police pursuits, several of which occurred in the State of Florida, and pressure from the media and the public, a number of departments had rewritten their vehicle pursuit policies.
It was the feeling of most police administrators that the liability issues far outweighed the danger to the public of just allowing a fleeing driver to go free. Some departments allowed the pursuit of persons suspected of forcible felonies (murder, rape, armed robbery), others just didn’t allow it at all. It was pretty heartbreaking to aggressive cops who enjoyed the old “always get your man" philosophy. The news media didn’t help the situation. They would publicize the policy changes, and lawbreakers would drive around just to squeal their tires and drive recklessly, taunting police, knowing they would not be chased. The media has traditionally made the job of the police much more difficult.
The bars closed at two AM in Lakeland. If you wanted to, you could drive a couple of miles into Hillsborough county and buy alcohol until three. Most people were content to quit at two.
One shift, it was approaching three thirty. The radio had gone dead and I was thinking about coffee. All Night Long”, by Lionel Ritchie, was playing on my boom-box as I patrolled my zone. I was amazed at how quiet it was. With the exception of an occasional dog barking, there was no noise at all. It was sometimes eerie out there driving around, seemingly alone. You weren’t really alone of course, a simple request would send the cavalry to your rescue. The guys in Lakeland were the best backup anywhere. It was a good feeling.
I was northbound on Lincoln Avenue and had just pulled up to the red light at Memorial Boulevard, stopping as the light turned to green. I was nodding off at the light and didn’t see right away that it had turned green. My fatigue probably saved my life.
Zoom.....I was immediately wide awake. A silver vehicle flew past me westbound on memorial, running the red traffic signal. “My God,” I thought, “he must’ve been doing a hundred.” I reached forward and flipped the toggle switch. The overhead blue lights flashed to life. “One-zero-six, I’m in pursuit,” I said into the Motorola microphone. “Westbound on the Boulevard from Lincoln. Late seventies model silver T-bird, dark tinted windows, I can’t read the tag,” I continued.
“Ten four one-oh-six.”
I turned up the radio so I could hear the additional units signing on and heading my way. I turned on the “Federal” siren box and fastened my seat belt and shoulder harness. The officially calibrated speedometer said the 1984 Dodge Diplomat I was driving was traveling 80 mph. The other guy was obviously going much faster and pulling away.
Now the great thing about a pursuits is that it takes every ounce of your skill and experience. You have to drive like a NASCAR driver, keeping your adversary in sight. You have to watch for other traffic, pedestrians and road hazards, not that easy at a hundred-plus miles an hour. You have to operate the radio and be aware of your surroundings and relay that information back to headquarters. Contact with the station is imperative. You don’t want to get caught out in some remote area, with no backup. There’s no telling why your driver is running. He may be a traffic violator. He may have just committed murder and have nothing to lose. If he can get you into an area that he knows and you don’t, he can gain the advantage. It's a contest of wits, and cops who tell you that vehicle pursuits aren’t personal are just lying.
There was no other traffic on the four-lane divided highway. So far we had hit the lights in our favor, and not come in contact with any other vehicles. The Ford Thunderbird was still pulling away from me as we passed chestnut road, the siren screaming. The speedometer said 105 miles per hour. I continued the travelogue. “Passing Kathleen High School still westbound.”
Memorial Boulevard at its west-most end, makes a sweeping curve to the right, then left, takes a slight uphill turn in that curve and empties onto Interstate four headed for Tampa. I knew this guy would have to slow up to make that turn. He showed no evidence of doing that.
I was probably a quarter of a mile back from this car and he was pulling away. The windows were tinted several shades too dark to be legal. Yet, later in a defense deposition, I would be asked later in court if it wasn’t true that the only reason I was chasing the driver was that he was black. Sign of the times. Unbelievable. I couldn’t even tell if a human was driving.
As we approached the on ramp for I-4, I got a bad feeling. In the right hand lane, I saw for the first time a slow moving, dark colored, full sized, Cadillac, four-door sedan. As long as he stayed in his lane, we’d be okay.
If you believe in Murphy’s law as most cops do, you’d know that something bad was about to happen. Happen it did and trust me, things happen fast at a hundred and ten.
The T-bird moved left to the passing lane and from the quick flash I got of the brake lights, slowed down slightly.
The driver of the Cadillac must have seen the rapidly approaching vehicle in his rear view mirror. Being in his normal speed mode he tried to avoid being struck in the rear, and he too moved his vehicle to the left. What happened next has been diagramed by investigators and shows an incredible chain of events. What I saw was this: The T-bird, which was moving at over a hundred miles per hour, struck the Cadillac, which was moving about 40 miles per hour, squarely in the rear. The Ford deflected to the left, and slid off the roadway, traveling into the wide grass median in the center of the interchange. The Cadillac moved right, the impact blowing the right front tire. The wheel dug into the pavement, causing the front end of the car to dip down. There was a large flash, caused possibly by metal scraping the pavement. The Cadillac looked much like a toy, as it vaulted end over end, across a ditch and up a hill, landing on its top.
I looked toward the last place I’d seen the suspect vehicle and saw just a small pillar of smoke rising from the nearly six foot high grass. The hell with him; my responsibility was to the innocent victims in the Cadillac. I turned my attention to them.
I turned off the siren and jumped out of my patrol unit, running up the hill, and across the ditch, not even noticing the foot of cold water I'd stuck my shoe and leg into as I crossed the darkness. Any veteran cop will tell you that after any “hot” incident the quiet that follows is almost ear-shattering. There was absolute quiet. The only sound I heard was the wail of police sirens way off in the distance. As I made my way to the steaming wreckage, I realized I had walked approximately 30 yards from the place I had parked the police car. I turned on my flashlight and for the first time saw the carnage that the dark sedan held.
I had never seen anything like it there were bodies everywhere. I couldn’t even tell how many people were inside the car, but my initial reaction was that there were “guts” everywhere. Bloody, stringy, entrails were hanging from the people’s ears, they were on the dashboard, they were on the windows and on the roof. I grabbed my lapel mike and called the station.
“One----ze--ro---six,” I said breathlessly.
“Go ahead one-oh-six,” the dispatcher said.
“Roll—me—backup, an—amb—ulance—and---rescue,” I panted.
“On their way,” the radio crackled.
I got down on one knee, to see if I could render some aid. It was then I heard a moan, then another, then the mass of flesh began to move. All the windows in the car had been open at the time of the accident, and they afforded all who were able, easy access to the outside. They were crawling on their hands and knees out windows in all directions. As I watched speechless, six huge people, moaned and groaned their way out of the car. I was absolutely shocked that anyone could have survived the crash, especially with the bloody parts that seemed to be everywhere.
After several minutes, all six people were standing outside the car and were excitedly discussing their ordeal. There wasn’t one of the six who weighed less than three hundred pounds. All were well dressed middle aged black people, three men and three women. They appeared to be relatively uninjured.
“Who else is in the car?” I asked.
“We it” one man said. “We was coming from church. From a spaghetti supper. We all had a plate of spaghetti in our laps, sure made a mess in the car.”
"You mean that’s what I saw in the car, spaghetti?” I asked in disbelief.
Well the backup got there and everybody had a hell of a good laugh, one of those relieved laughs you have when nobody gets hurt. It feels good.
The driver of the T-bird was so drunk he didn’t even know what had happened. He was arrested and eventually convicted. The driver of the Cadillac watched a lot of television and had some friends who were lawyers. He eventually sued the police department for continuing an “obviously dangerous” pursuit. The city settled out of court for an “undisclosed” amount. I wonder how much six plates of spaghetti is worth.