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News Maryland Baltimore Crime Beat

Investigative file raises new questions about Baltimore crash that killed three

Andrew Baker Jr. and Angel Chiwengo were holding hands and listening to soft music on the radio as he drove her home from the Pikesville Doubletree Hilton where they worked.

As they headed east on Northern Parkway and passed through the York Road intersection, a Honda Accord fleeing police blasted through a red light — at more than 100 mph — and smashed into his Jeep.

Chiwengo, 46, and the two people inside the Accord died. Somehow, Baker, 54, survived. But with the anniversary of the Sept. 23, 2013, crash approaching, he bears deep physical and emotional scars: He walks with a cane, and has nightmares and flashbacks. Even worse, he says, is the feeling that he somehow let Angel down.

Now previously undisclosed details about the crash are raising new questions whether police violated departmental policy by engaging in a high-speed chase. Those details, from an investigative report obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a Public Information Act request to prosecutors, shed more light on the role of the unmarked police car that was pursuing the Accord.

Officers were ordered to break off their pursuit if speeds got too high, according to the report. But just seconds before crash, the police car was traveling between 75 and 84 mph in a 30 mph zone, according to two analyses in the investigative report.

Baltimore police officials regularly assert that officers do not chase vehicles, citing departmental rules prohibiting high-speed pursuits except in "exigent" circumstances. But in several cases each year, civilians have been injured or killed in cases where witnesses claimed officers were involved in a chase — the type of incident that can pose a danger to the public, experts say.

In recent months, the agency has publicly disclosed at least three investigations alleged to involve chases; in one of them, a 12-year-old girl was killed. Last month, an officer was charged with assault after allegedly striking a suspect he was chasing — an incident captured by a television news helicopter.

"Baltimore City for 30 years has had a no-pursuit policy which they don't follow," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina researcher who has studied police pursuits for more than 25 years and spent time observing Baltimore police in the late 1990s.

Police say an internal investigation of the Northern Parkway crash is continuing. Prosecutors — who reviewed the circumstances of the crash for signs of "reckless disregard or a gross deviation" from agency rules — declined to bring charges against the officers involved. The department says the officers are back to full duty.

Investigative documents show that the pursuit that led to the crash began when a group of three city officers working patrol in Northeast Baltimore said they smelled marijuana coming from the next car at a stop light.

They flicked on their flashing lights to make a traffic stop, but when the vehicle fled, they pursued the Accord through North Baltimore's intersections, main roads and side streets. The pursuit covered 4.3 miles in less than three and a half minutes, investigative documents show.

One of the officers in the vehicle told investigators in the criminal probe that they dropped back after being told to stop pursuing the Accord, though they continued to follow. He said they wanted to see where the vehicle was headed.

"We continued to follow the vehicle to try to keep in sight. Um, in a safely [sic] manner," Officer Chris Henard told the investigator, according to a transcript. "We're trying to keep it in sight just to see which way it was going."

When the crash occurred, Baltimore police pledged a thorough and transparent investigation, but as the one-year anniversary of the crash approaches, Baker, the lone survivor, says he has never been interviewed by investigators. His attempts to get information about the case have gone without response, he says, except for a two-page report consisting of a diagram of the crash that was mailed to him without a letter or explanation.

Said Baker, "Somebody should at least apologize to me, and apologize to the family."

Police chases

The Baltimore Police Department does not prohibit "high-speed pursuit driving" but limits it to circumstances where a failure to pursue may result in grave injury or death or "instances where the officer determines that immediate action is necessary," according to its general orders.

The orders state that the department "recognizes it is better to allow a criminal to temporarily escape apprehension than to jeopardize the safety of citizens and its officers in a high speed pursuit."

Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the officers who were following the Accord, said it is "natural instinct" for officers to pursue a driver who tries to flee. Even when a stop is for a minor traffic offense, a suspect's decision to flee a simple traffic stop raises suspicions about other criminal activity in an officer's mind. Still, in the case of the Northern Parkway crash, he said, "we do not believe they were actively pursuing the vehicle."

Timothy Dolan, the former chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, said it is a reality that police officers will give chase.

"To a certain degree, we have to do our job. We have to do traffic stops, and we're going to follow cars," said Dolan, who served on an advisory board for a nonprofit whose goal was to reduce injuries in police pursuits. "It's not a chase until they start driving erratically, blowing stop lights, speeding. When that becomes unreasonable, [police] have to break it off."

Baker's story is the kind retired Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Michael Andrew said he often stressed to young officers when warning them against giving chase.

"What I told officers was, if a police officer in the jurisdiction you live in was in pursuit and runs over your son, daughter, mother or father, and says, 'I was trying to catch a drug dealer,' would you accept that?" said Andrew, who acknowledged that he had engaged in such pursuits during his career. "Nobody would raise their hand."

Alpert said many police departments track pursuits, and highlighted Las Vegas and Orlando. If agencies are accredited through the Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation, it is a requirement that they keep such records. The BPD announced in December 2011 that it would seek accreditation, but CALEA says it never applied. A Baltimore police spokesman said the agency is reviewing a process to track future pursuits.

"The best practice is to track it, for public safety and for officer safety. There's a push for evidence-based policing; without evidence, you're going on a whim," Alpert said.

For six years, the International Association of Chiefs of Police asked a group of agencies to submit chase data for analysis. That analysis of more than 7,700 pursuits found that less than 9 percent of pursuits were initiated because officers believed a violent felony had occurred. Forty-two percent were prompted by traffic violations, and 18 percent started because officers believed the vehicle was stolen.

Eighteen percent of pursuits stopped when the suspect got into a collision; only 17 percent ended because an officer or supervisor discontinued the pursuit.

Dolan said the public tends to fault police, but the blame rests with drivers who choose to flee. Still, he said the actions of officers heavily influence the drivers, and when a chase is broken off it must be broken off completely.

"You'll see times when they'll turn off lights and sirens, but they're still back there in the rearview mirror, and that individual still believes they have to flee," he said.

The fatal crash

Last September's chase began in the 2500 block of Harford Road. When investigators began to reconstruct the night's events, two of the officers in the vehicle, Officer Adam Storie, who at the time was a two-year veteran, and Warren Banks, who had five years on the force, declined to be interviewed. Officers have the right to remain silent when they are under criminal investigation.

But detectives were able to glean an account of the night's events by speaking with Officer Christopher Henard, who was in the back seat of the vehicle; the district's on-duty supervisor, Sgt. Tashania Brown; and witnesses.

Police said the three officers were in an unmarked Dodge Avenger when they pulled up to a traffic signal behind the Accord. Storie told the others he could smell marijuana emanating from the car and decided to pull it over, Henard said.

The officers activated emergency lights, and the Accord appeared to be pulling over when suddenly it took off at a high rate of speed.

"Got a vehicle refusing to stop, traveling northbound on Harford Road crossing the Alameda," Banks said over the radio, according to a transcript.

Brown, sitting in an office at the Northeastern District station near Morgan State University, heard the officers describing the pursuit, and asked what the vehicle was wanted for. She told them to break off the chase if it was reaching high speeds; 23 seconds later, she yelled, "Have that unit break it off!"

The dispatcher asked if the officers heard the instruction. Banks replied, "10-4."

"We backed off," Henard later told investigators.

As the officers continued, they could see the Accord's tail lights in the distance on Loch Raven Boulevard, and caught up at an intersection near Good Samaritan Hospital. The Accord got tied up in traffic, navigated through it and accelerated again. The officers had re-activated their emergency lights to get through the traffic, and were once again in pursuit. Henard estimated that after the cars turned onto Woodbourne Avenue, the vehicles were separated by eight car lengths.

Ahmed Al-Sanbani, a pizza delivery driver who was at Woodbourne and The Alameda, said a car flew up behind him, followed by an "undercover car" with flashing lights, though he estimated it took the second car about 15 seconds to catch up. He pulled over, afraid he was going to be struck.

"They were driving like I can say more than 80 like close to 100."

"Both the vehicles?" asked internal affairs Sgt. Angelo D. La-Viola, according to a transcript in the investigative file.

"Both of the vehicles, yeah," he said.

When the suspects reached the intersection with York Road, Henard said, officers saw a chance to move in for an arrest.

"We see his brake lights light up and the vehicle slow down drastically," Henard said. "We believed at that time he was gonna bail out. He didn't bail."

The car turned right onto York Road. Noah Diakete was at Stokos carryout, where he heard brakes and saw one car on the bumper of a vehicle in front of it. He recalls seeing police lights but hearing no siren.

As the Accord approached Northern Parkway, Henard estimated the suspects were about "three blocks in front of us," and the officers were approaching East Belvedere Avenue. Then, the collision.

Evelyn Taylor, 65, had just driven past the traffic signal and heard a tremendous boom. In her rearview mirror, she saw a vehicle airborne. When it landed, it caught on fire.

The driver of the Accord, Terrell Young, 28, and passenger, Devell Johns, 26, were killed instantly, as was Chiwengo.

Using video footage from a gas station one block south of Northern Parkway, crash investigators found that the Accord passed a crosswalk at 95 miles per hour. The police vehicle passed the same point about a second later at 84 mph, according to the footage; a second analysis determined the officers were going 75 mph. The posted speed limit is 30 mph.

A separate reconstruction pegged the Accord's speed at more than 100 mph on Northern Parkway.

Baker's vehicle was going just 43 mph.

He had been driving Chiwengo to see her pregnant daughter, who gave birth later that day. The baby was named Hope.

The investigation

After the crash, Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez told reporters the Police Department would thoroughly investigate.

"The incident and its magnitude was clear to the commissioner," he said at a news conference. "We can assure you that our pledge to be transparent, the commissioner's commitment to transparency, has not wavered."

Police Commissioner Anthony Batts visited the Chiwengo family to offer his condolences, said brother-in-law Nathan Franklin.

"He promised there would be no coverup, that the truth would be known," Franklin said. "Since then, we haven't heard anything."

Chiwengo's family did hear later from prosecutors, who wanted to explain why they declined to bring charges in the case. Franklin said the prosecutor told them police had broken no laws but "should and would be held accountable for breaking their own pursuit policies."

Prosecutors denied that such a statement was made, and said such a determination could only be made by the Police Department. In a statement, prosecutors said that "the officers' actions in this case did not constitute a reckless or wanton disregard for human life or a gross deviation from the standard of care of a reasonable person under the circumstances to constitute manslaughter by automobile under the applicable criminal statutes."

Police officials declined to comment about the continuing internal investigation, though they said they had only received the prosecutors' declination letter — which is dated Feb. 12 — last month. That delayed their ability to conduct interviews, Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said in an emailed statement.

"The agency will be as transparent as possible within the law. The public's interest is also served by ensuring that a thorough and complete administrative investigation takes place that is not compromised," he added.

Franklin said Chiwengo's family wasn't necessarily seeking criminal charges. "We want accountability," he said.

Baker spent days in a coma. He said he suffered crushed lungs, cracked ribs, a cracked vertebra, and burns on his legs.

When he awoke, family members broke the news that Chiwengo was dead. "For the life of me," Baker said in a recent interview, "I'd never dream anything like this would happen."

Chiwengo had immigrated to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she had been an accomplished business woman, importing used cars and other goods from Asia. She spoke three languages.

She and Baker had met at the hotel, where she was a housekeeper, he a building engineer. They worked different shifts but became friends, eventually developing a deeper relationship.

Initially, Baker said, he didn't remember the crash. But scenes have been coming back to him. He remembers the impact — like being hit by a train. His last memory is reaching for Chiwengo right before the car exploded.

Now, he is afraid to let people drive with him and stops at intersections regardless of the signal.

He feels as though it was his responsibility to keep Chiwengo safe while transporting her. As often as he can, Baker visits her grave at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium during his lunch break.

He has already scheduled time off from work to spend the anniversary of the crash there.

"I'm going to give her that day," he said. "As long as I live, I'm going to give her that day."

jfenton@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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