Police: Caution was used in pursuit
HUNTINGTON -- The leaders of two local law enforcement agencies say their officers used caution during a Thursday afternoon police pursuit that resulted in a three-vehicle crash, injuring three people, including a Cabell County Sheriff's Deputy.
The crash occurred at the intersection of 5th Avenue and 10th Street as authorities pursued a man who was a suspect in a string of spare-tire thefts. The deputy's cruiser collided with two cars crossing the intersection, bringing the pursuit involving the deputy and at least two Huntington Police Department cruisers to a halt.
Huntington Police detectives were in charge of the crash investigation, the results of which were released Friday evening.
Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook said the investigation determined the cruiser that was driven by Cabell County Sgt. Larry Gay entered the intersection at a rate of speed that detectives were "not able to determine with any degree of certainty."
Based on evidence gathered at the scene and witness statements, investigators determined Gay, while using his emergency lights and siren, attempted to cross the intersection against the red traffic light. They also said the drivers of a Toyota Corolla and a Mercury Grand Marquis failed to yield the right of way to Gay's cruiser.
Holbrook said the intersection is surrounded by large buildings close to the street which "obviously have a significant effect on the way that sound carries." Environmental features also restrict what can be seen on the intersecting roadways by approaching drivers, he said.
Detective Mike Albers, who was involved in the crash investigation, said the situation that the pursuing officers and the motorists found themselves in was a tricky one. When motorists are at an intersection and they hear sirens but can't see emergency vehicles, they should take a moment of pause, he said.
"You just need to sit still until you do see where that vehicle is coming from," Albers said. "It's a difficult situation for everyone."
Gay was taken to a local hospital after the crash, and he remained on injury leave Friday, Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas said. One of the other drivers involved in the crash was released from a local hospital prior to Friday evening. McComas did not have an update on the third driver, whom paramedics described as having only minor injuries.
The chain of events leading up to the crash began at 3:34 p.m. in the 900 block of Washington Avenue, which is approximately four minutes prior to when the crash took place at 3:38 p.m., according to the findings of the HPD investigation.
A Huntington Police officer was pursuing 34-year-old Anthony Merritt, who was a suspect in a stolen tire investigation, in the 900 block of Washington Avenue, Holbrook said in Friday's release.
Both Holbrook and McComas said Cabell County Sgt. Larry Gay was fueling his cruiser when he witnessed Merritt run a stop sign in the 1100 block of Virginia Avenue, and Gay attempted to initiate a traffic stop.
A pursuit ensued with Gay as the primary pursuit unit and the Huntington Police cruiser behind him.
The pursuit continued east on 5th Avenue. A second Huntington Police unit joined in the pursuit at 1st Street, behind Gay and the first Huntington Police unit.
The two Huntington Police cruisers followed Gay's lead upon learning he was pursuing the suspect's vehicle. That's why Holbrook said his officers did not back off when the pursuit reached downtown. Rather, they were allowing Gay, who had tried to initiate a traffic stop on Merritt, to lead the pursuit, he said.
McComas said his deputy followed department policies and procedures, which urge deputies to use caution in such pursuits. The stop sign violation, the suspect's refusal to pull over and knowledge of the ongoing city investigation justified Gay's actions, McComas said.
"You have to infer if somebody is running that hard, they have some reason," McComas said.
Local computer systems initially showed Merritt as having felony charges in Cabell and Wetzel counties, but many of those warrants already had been executed. They involved receiving/transferring stolen property, grand larceny, burglary and failure to appear. McComas was unsure as to when Gay learned of those charges and if they impacted his decision to continue the pursuit.
Holbrook and McComas said that according to a review of radio transmissions and witness accounts, all three police vehicles used emergency lights and sirens during the pursuit.
Even though investigators could not determine the exact speed at which Gay's cruiser was traveling as he approached the intersection, they did determine one of the Huntington Police cruisers was traveling "36 mph and slowing" at the time of the crash.
There was no information in the release regarding the speed of the other Huntington Police cruiser or the highest rate of speed that the vehicles reached during the chase.
The release said GPS data indicates the HPD cruiser closest to the accident scene was in the 900 block of 5th Avenue, one block away from the accident scene. Two other cruisers were approaching 6th Street and traveling in the 700 block of 5th Avenue. The release did not indicate how the third Huntington Police unit was involved, if at all, in the pursuit.
McComas compared the necessity of police pursuits to that of ambulances and fire trucks that rush to emergencies. He said deciding that inherent risks outweigh the benefit could convince criminals to run every time.
But the sheriff acknowledged every pursuit must be done with caution and within department policies.
McComas would not provide The Herald-Dispatch with a copy of that policy, but he summarized it by saying pursuits must be conducted while weighing the risk against the suspect's allegations. The deputy also must use the cruiser's light and siren and approach every hill crest and intersection with caution.
The sheriff, based upon his preliminary review, believed Gay acted within those bounds. Still, McComas acknowledged a downtown pursuit poses a greater risk as tall buildings can obstruct the deputy's view of oncoming traffic at intersections.
McComas referenced Gay's 12 years of deputy experience and his military service, including a deployment in Iraq.
"He has never been an officer that has thrown caution to the wind," McComas said. "(He) was compliant with what the department would expect of any officer in similar circumstances."