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A car chase turned deadly in Baltimore

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"Drive," he pleaded, sweating and panting. "Just drive."

Munpreet Chona had just crashed his car after fleeing Baltimore County police at speeds topping 100 miles per hour, then stolen a police cruiser after a fight with an officer that sent both tumbling over a guardrail on Interstate 95.

Now the 26-year-old's clueless friends, drinking buddies whom he'd called for a ride, were stopped in front of a motel in southern Baltimore, staring down 20 officers with guns pointed at them. And Chona, in the backseat of the 1994 Ford Bronco, was urging them to drive through the blockade. What had Monty gotten them into?

Documents obtained through a public records request detail for the first time the stunning turn of events that led Chona to be killed in a hail of gunfire by police on Jan. 31. It was the conclusion to a high-speed chase that wove through Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City, and involved officers from four different agencies — all of whom believed Chona was armed.

It started with a traffic stop.

Pfc. Christopher Neal, about 18 months removed from the police academy, was sitting at Liberty Road near the Beltway around 1:30 a.m. when he heard the police radio crackle that a white Nissan Altima driving erratically with its headlights dark had failed to stop for another officer in the Wilkens precinct.

And now there was the car, idling right in front of Neal at a stoplight. Neal began to follow it east on Liberty Road, but the driver slammed on the brakes and pulled a U-turn when he spotted the officer.

Behind the wheel was Chona, a lifelong Baltimore County resident and son of two Indian immigrants who died while he was young. A high school dropout, Chona had worked mostly odd jobs, including as a construction worker and bail bondsman, and had previously had a run-in or two with the police that had resulted in prison time.

He did 16 months behind bars after a drug arrest — and trying to flee police — while on probation for a previous drug charge. Then he got sent back for another four months in 2009 after fleeing police during a traffic stop. By most accounts, he avoided trouble after that and was trying to lead a productive life, his family said.

The vehicle turned onto the Beltway southbound and began accelerating quickly, reaching speeds of more than 100 mph as Neal gave chase. Neal radioed his supervisor for guidance as they neared Security Boulevard, and was told to break off. But he continued in the Nissan's direction at a reduced speed, he said, and kept dispatchers advised of its movements.

"I saw [him] varying speeds," Neal told detectives later. "He slowed down, [sped] up, slowed down, [sped] up, and I was just following from a distance."

Stealing a patrol car

From 500 yards back, Neal would later tell investigators, he could see the Nissan's lights turn off as it drove onto the ramp to I-95 toward Baltimore. As Neal maneuvered onto the ramp, he saw a puff of smoke and dust. The Nissan had smashed into the guardrail, and Chona, who Neal could see was wearing a white sweatshirt and jeans, was running away.

"Get down on the ground!" Neal yelled, drawing his Sig Sauer pistol as he gave chase.

Motioning toward his front waistband, Chona yelled, "I have a gun. I'll shoot you!"

Neal was able to tackle Chona, and both flipped over the guardrail. Neal said Chona "struck me several times in the face and upper body," "was able to get to his feet and began running towards my patrol car."

"We had a good fight for a little while," Neal would recall.

Neal's patrol car, a Ford Crown Victoria, was left unattended, as officers are wont to do when getting involved in a call. But they also tend to leave their keys in the ignition. Neal barked at him to stop, and Chona again said he had a gun before climbing into the driver's seat.

In either a tremendous show of restraint or a moment of hesitation, Neal did not fire his weapon. The documents do not shed more light on that moment, and police officials would not make Neal or any police commanders available for comment.

Neal caught up to Chona and tried to pull him to the ground. But Chona "floored the gas pedal" with the car still in park as he struggled with Neal. Chona pulled his right arm free and put the car into drive with half of Neal's body inside the cabin.

The car struck Neal's body, and he radioed to dispatch: His patrol vehicle has been stolen.

Gunning a black Bronco

Shane Edwards, who described himself as a "drinking buddy" of Chona's, was at a friend's house at about 1:30 a.m. when Chona called and said he needed a ride. He didn't say where he was or what was going on, Edwards said, but he wanted to be picked up at St. Agnes Hospital in Southwest Baltimore. Edwards jumped into his black Bronco with friends Nick and Clinton Rose and drove there to wait for him.

Chona called again, saying he was at the Motel 6 off Caton Avenue, room 126. When they got there, Chona came walking out, sweating and out of breath. He got into the car and told Edwards to drive.

"As a matter of fact, it was the last thing he said to me," Edwards would tell investigators.

Police had tracked Neal's patrol vehicle, using its automatic vehicle locator, to the 1500 block of Bloomfield Ave., in front of a bar called Loafer's, but the car was empty. Officers began setting up a perimeter when they noticed Edwards' Bronco drive up to the nearby motel and begin to leave "in a hurry," Baltimore County Lt. Thomas Mescki would later recall.

"It was a car we wanted to stop 'cause it's possibly picked up somebody we're looking for," Mescki said.

Their instincts were right. Inside the car, Chona was yelling at Edwards not to stop for the officers. "Just go. Please just drive," he pleaded. "Don't stop for them."

Edwards wasn't hearing that. He'd met Chona less than a year ago, through friends, and didn't know much about him. "Hell no, I'm getting out of the truck," he recalled telling Chona. "I wasn't thinking about anything but them 20 pistols pointed at me. As I looked over to my left, I seen all of them and I was like, 'What is going on here?'"

"Did you think somebody had done something wrong?" Baltimore police detective Robert Dohony asked Edwards.

"Of course," Edwards told him.

"And what were you thinking?" Dohony said.

"I was thinking Mani had did something to mess up big time," Edwards said.

The officers began plucking the four of them out of the truck for questioning. Edwards was first out, his hands raised in the air. Nick and Clinton Rose, who had been passed out and later told detectives he thought they were at a DUI checkpoint, got out too. But then the fourth man, Chona, stayed in the Bronco, and Mescki saw him lean down.

"I don't know what he was doing. I told him to get his hands up, and he had his hands down," Mescki said. "I don't know if he was using the seat as leverage to push to get to the front seat or what. But he gets to the front seat eventually puts his hands up, and then we're all thinking he's getting out and then all of a sudden he puts the car in drive and takes off.

"He spins wheels and forwards it at a high rate of speed, and he's out of there."

The police swarm

Baltimore County Officer Kenneth Shipley, at the time an 18-year veteran, had heard the sequence of events on the radio and had arrived at Caton Avenue to assist in stopping the Bronco. The other officers were behind the Bronco, and he decided to approach the car from the front. He shined his spotlight into the Bronco, and could see at least two men outside the car. When he looked inside the car, he saw Chona behind the driver's seat, and said he was looking right at him. The car suddenly took off toward him, and he heard what he believed to be a gunshot.

Pfc. Jeffrey Starling, a five-year veteran with the Baltimore County Police Department, had been listening to all of this on the radio, too. He heard the first call come out for the failure to stop, then heard of Neal's encounter. He heard as officers stopped the Bronco on Caton Avenue, and as that car fled from police. He lingered back around the perimeter, but saw the Bronco speed by and joined the pursuit.

Baltimore County Sgt. William Buckingham was also working that night, and was told by a supervisor to join the effort to search the area around the abandoned police vehicle. Buckingham, who'd been with the force 18 years, was taking part in the search when he saw Chona drive past him, pointing what he believed to be a handgun at his own head. Others, like Officer Brandon Pritchard of the Baltimore Police Department, said they saw Chona waving a handgun out of his window during the pursuit.

What officers didn't know — between the spoken threat to Neal that he would be shot, to Shipley hearing what he thought was a gunshot, to Buckingham and others thinking they saw Chona holding a gun to his own head — was that Chona was not armed. But his erratic behavior and nearly everyone's belief that they saw a gun ratcheted up their fear that they could be shot by the wild man leading them on a chase through three jurisdictions.

Cpl. Eric Burns, an Anne Arundel County officer for 20 years who was working patrol in the Northern District, was among those who got the call to assist their counterparts, and "pulled into line" with several Baltimore County police vehicles as they drove on I-695 and onto 295 south, then West Nursery Road near the airport.

The Bronco led them from Winterson Road, then eventually to Corporate Boulevard, then back toward West Nursery Road.

Being more familiar with the area, Burns maneuvered to the front of the convoy and called out the road names to the dispatcher. Asked to recount these later, Burns said he lost track of all the streets they took, and would estimate about 30 police cars from the two counties, the city, and state police were following Chona.

Somewhere along the way, the Bronco drove over a stop strip, spiking the back right tire. But he kept going, with the wheel falling part, and traveled from Nursery Road onto Baltimore-Annapolis Boulevard.

The pursuit had now slowed, due to the deteriorating condition of the Bronco. Officers set up a blockade at Annapolis Road and Patapsco Avenue, near the Patapsco Flea Market. Undeterred, Chona turned into the Patapsco Village Shopping Center, a strip of businesses slightly elevated and set back from the main road. Instead of following him, some officers broke off to block the exits.

Chona won't surrender

Burns pulled up alongside Chona, and began screaming orders at Chona to stop and show his hands. Chona was driving parallel to him, and looking directly at him. As Burns yelled, he saw that they were headed straight for a parking island.

Chona disappeared from view, as if attempting to get something from under the seat, Burns would later say. The cars were still driving side by side, barreling toward the parking island. They collided, and Chona leaned back up. Did he have a gun?, Burns wondered, and pulled his department-issue Sig Sauer handgun, firing one shot.

Chona was struck in the shoulder, leaned back, then leaned forward. Burns fired two more rounds, striking the driver's side door, and Chona leaned over to the passenger seat. He then drove into a marked Baltimore City police cruiser, which had pulled in front of his path to stop him.

The pursuit was over, but Chona hadn't surrendered, and the panicked officers were trying to make sense of his actions. A city officer, Roy Roberts, wrote in a report that he heard Chona yell, "I have a baby in the back," which was a lie. His foot was on the gas pedal, but the tires were spinning.

The officers jumped out of their vehicles and moved in. Shipley and Buckingham saw Chona leaning down. Shipley and Starling leapt onto the hood of Burns' vehicle, guns drawn, and ordered Chona not to move. It appeared Chona was trying to crawl into the back seat, and could be concealing his hands.

Buckingham came from the passenger side, ordering Chona out of the vehicle, and calling for the other officers to provide cover. Burns was moving toward the vehicle from the opposite side, and a fellow officer pulled him out of the way, fearing he could be hit by the crossfire. Buckingham opened the passenger door, and Shipley saw Chona twist his body up and to the left, toward the officers. This was perceived as a threatening motion, with Chona potentially preparing to lift a weapon.

Shipley, Buckingham and Starling all fired, striking Chona a total of 16 times, according to the medical examiner's report.

The day after, Chona's family and his girlfriend told a reporter they were stunned. This wasn't the Monty they knew, the one who bought a new school wardrobe for his girlfriend's cousin, and had taken on a parenting role with her three children.

What was Chona running from? To be sure, no gun was recovered at any point during the investigation — not in Edwards' Bronco and not in the Altima. Why would he want armed officers to think he had a gun?

A toxicology test showed that Chona was intoxicated that night; his blood alcohol level of .09 was just over the legal limit in Maryland. Police also said they found a green plant-like substance in the center console of his abandoned car, though there were no drugs in his system.

If he didn't have a gun, what did those officers seeing him holding up against his head? Maybe it was a cellphone. While the zig-zagging route he took to evade police seemed without purpose, police would later determine that he drove through the parking lot of a Linthicum motel where he had been living, and at one point pulled off a main road to pass the Halethorpe home of his brother.

According to a tip received by detectives days after the shooting, he called his girlfriend, Barbara Brand, during the chase. "I'm being chased by the cops, and I'm not going back to jail," he had said, according to the tip.

In a brief interview, Brand, who has since moved out of state, confirmed that she received a call, but that it went straight to her voice mail as she slept.

Police say his brother, Sundeep Chona, told them in a taped interview that Monty had once said he would pretend to have a gun and threaten to shoot the officers if police ever tried to stop him.

His brother recalled: "He was not willing to go back to jail."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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