- Published on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 14:38
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Shortly after 9:30 Tuesday morning a routine traffic stop lead to a high-speed pursuit through downtown King George, almost ending in a tragedy and ultimately leading to a manhunt, leaving much of the area in shock.
“It was like in a movie,” Rosie Vandeusen, a witness, said.
According to King George Sheriff Lieutenant Christopher A. Giles, a deputy with the King George Sheriff’s Department, Tracy Merritt, initiated a traffic stop against a maroon Camaro in the Sealston area of Kings Highway, on the border with Stafford County. Giles said the reason for the stop was reckless driving by speeding in excess of 80 in a 55mph zone.
When Merritt initiated the stop, the 22-year-old driver of the Camaro did not stop; instead he began racing eastbound down Kings Highway toward downtown King George at speeds well over 100 miles-per-hour, Giles said. At some point the subject lost Merritt, however Giles said that he saw the vehicle pass by him at Kings Highway and Rokeby Lane.
“When Deputy Merritt lost sight of him coming in, he ceased pursuing and then I began pursuing,” Giles said. At this point Giles was the only unit pursuing the subject and while he said he couldn’t put an exact number on how fast he was traveling while chasing the Camaro, he said he was significantly exceeding the speed limit.
“When the suspect vehicle entered the Courthouse area, he went off to the right side and struck a parked car,” Giles said.
He said the parked car, a golden 2003 Chevrolet Malibu, was thrust into a building—an old floral shop located exactly in front of the old King George Sheriff’s Office and the Courthouse. Virginia State Police Officials say the accident site was at Route 3, Kings Highway and Route 638, Hudson Road.
Witnesses described hearing several loud bangs and said that the Malibu went airborne. Some witnesses said they thought that both vehicles became airborne.
Vandeusen, who was visibly shaken, lives only several feet from the accident site and said that the car looked like a rocket going by.
“The only thing I can tell you is that there were several loud crashes,” she said. “I looked up and the gold car was sideways like a bullet and not touching the ground—it was up in the air and flying toward the florist. The red car hit it and propelled it up in the air. It reminded me of September 11, 2001, and I went into hysterics,” she said.
Some witnesses said that the driver of the Camaro was ejected from the car, however Giles denies those accounts.
“He got out of the car and began to run,” Giles said. “He got out of the driver’s side door.”
Giles said he initiated the foot pursuit while law enforcement officials set up a perimeter, which ultimately was the suspect’s undoing.
“He ran right into the deputies,” Giles said.
Except for some cuts and scrapes from bushes, neither the victim (who was seen by paramedics and released) nor the law enforcement officers involved in the manhunt were seriously injured.
Before the suspect was apprehended, he ran behind a store filled with shoppers; in fact the owners of the Chevy Malibu were in the store when their car was totaled.
James “Jim” Thayer and his wife Amy own the gold Chevy Malibu that was catapulted into the air like a projectile when the suspect careened into it at an estimated 100-plus miles per hour.
“All I can say is that that red car came toward here at over 100 miles per hour,” Jim Thayer said. “To me it looked like he was trying to escape onto this side street, but couldn’t make it to get away from the deputy chasing him,” he said. “We went down there to check on our car and by then he had fled and was out of there on foot and the deputies were chasing him.”
Amy Thayer said that she was at the Opp Shop, when she saw the Camaro fly by the building.
“It was so fast, it was like a jet plane hit—all I saw was that our car was up in the air,” she said.
Vandeusen said she hoped that there was only one subject—earlier speculation was that two people had escaped; however this was false.
Giles confirmed that there were no other suspects and said that a specialized police working dog was brought to the scene for what he called an “article search.” The objective was to find any weapons that the suspect might have thrown away as he was running from law enforcement officers after the violent crash.
Giles said that neither drugs nor guns were found by the dog as it searched the area the suspect had fled through.
The King George Sheriff’s Office charged the suspect with felony eluding, which is a class six felony in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Felony eluding is a charge that includes the offense of failing to stop when directed by a law enforcement official and for initiating a pursuit at reckless speeds.
Giles said that the Virginia State Police is now the lead investigative agency of the crash because of standard protocol; ensuring that there is an unbiased and conflict-of-interest free investigation. He added that Virginia State Police officials may choose to file additional criminal charges against the suspect along with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
Sergeant Thomas J. Molnar, spokesman for the Virginia State Police, confirmed that the King George Sheriff’s Office is the primary agency involving the pursuit while the Virginia State Police are actively investigating the motor vehicle crash involving the suspect. Molnar said that Jason M. Smoot, 22, of Stafford, was charged by Virginia State Police with misdemeanor hit-and-run, possession of controlled paraphernalia and reckless driving. Molnar said that while speed was a factor in the accident, alcohol and drugs have been ruled out.
In addition to her fear, Vandeusen had some criticism for the police: “They should not ever be speeding through a 35 zone like here at 120 miles-per-hour,” she said. “This recklessness on the police’s part threatens lives. I don’t know what this guy did but he must be a murderer,” she said in regards to what she thought was an excessive chase unless the suspect was wanted for a very serious crime.
“They should have waited until they got the [expletive] out of here. I believe the police should do their duty, but do it in a safer manner,” she added. “Don’t jeopardize peoples’ lives…I mean if those two people had been in their [gold] car, I am certain they wouldn’t have made it,” she said.
To Vandeusen the bottom line was that there should be no police chases in the middle of any town.
“They just shouldn’t do it – it puts at risk innocent peoples’ lives. I don’t think there is ever a need to have an in-town police chase,” she said.
“It was my intention when I lost sight of him to stop pursuing him but by the time I crested the hill, he had already crashed,” Giles said. “He was steadily pulling away from me, so it wasn’t like I was right behind him,” he continued. “I certainly was traveling above the speed limit, but I certainly wasn’t going as fast as him, that’s for sure.”
Asked whether King George County has any protocols for its law enforcement officers similar to those in Los Angeles and other urban areas that have over recent years sharply decreased the number of high-speed chases due to their danger to the public, Giles said there was no such protocol.
The suspect, Jason M. Smoot, 22 of the 10 block of Saint Mary’s Lane in Stafford, was held without bond and will be arraigned in the King George General District Court today, Giles said.