A 22-year-old woman was killed and her infant daughter injured Monday night after a man eluding city police ran a red light and plowed into her vehicle in West Baltimore, authorities said.
The accident occurred two weeks before Jordasha Rollins was to celebrate her daughter's first birthday, and, in a twist of fate, she knew the driver of the vehicle that took her life.
But as family and friends hung balloons and flowers Tuesday at the site where the accident occurred, their anger was not directed at the driver but at police. They contend that the officer, who had been in pursuit of the driver for about five blocks, should not have continued the chase.
"Thanks to Baltimore's finest, my niece is gone," said Rollins' aunt, Lee Avery, 38. Of the suspect driver, who grew up in their neighborhood, she said: "We know it was an accident — we know he didn't mean it."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the suspected driver, identified as Charles Jeffries, had been driving erratically in the 1700 block of Hilton St. and fled from an officer who tried to pull him over. Jeffries allegedly tried to escape on foot after the crash and was caught, and officers found crack cocaine in his possession, authorities said.
The department's policy on pursuits says officers are not to chase suspects, except under "exigent circumstances," and officers say such decisions are made in split seconds. Officers are supposed to report to supervisors when they are in pursuit, who then instruct them whether to continue or break it off.
"This was over in a flash," Guglielmi said. "There was no prolonged chase across the city. The reason why we even got involved is because he was already driving recklessly, and we are going to hold him accountable."
Jeffries could not be reached to comment. He has not been charged; accident investigators are working to reconstruct the crash. Such investigations typically take weeks.
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city's police union, did not have any details about Monday's crash but said those who flee police are ultimately the ones at fault.
"The law needs to come down hard on the suspects in these cases — they're the ones that show no regard, not just for police but for civilians," Cherry said. "Until all the facts are in, where people should be upset is that there's people out there with no respect for the law or innocent civilians."
Rollins was a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School and stay-at-home mom who was "a beautiful, fun-loving person," relatives said.
"She was a good girl, a happy person who loved her daughter and loved her mother," said Avery as she hung balloons from a light post along with Rollins' sister, Melvina Banks, 31, and Tyressa Richardson, a 29-year-old cousin. "Now we've got nothing but memories."
Rollins and her mother, 39-year-old Yolanda Williams, were driving home from the store at about 11:30 p.m. after a late-night run for food and diapers, relatives said. Williams was driving, with Rollins in the passenger seat and Rollins' daughter, Jadore, in a child seat behind the driver. It may have saved the young girl's life.
As they crossed Poplar Grove Street at West North Avenue, authorities say, Jeffries' vehicle drove through a red light, smashing into the passenger side and pushing the car into the westbound lanes of North Avenue, where it was struck by another vehicle.
Sun Ok Im, who works at a corner liquor store where the crash occurred, said she saw flashing police lights and heard a loud crash nearly simultaneously.
Guglielmi declined to release dispatch radio calls and the surveillance camera footage, citing an open investigation. But he said the officer is heard in the dispatch tapes calling in the description of the suspect vehicle and "within minutes, he's calling for a medic."
Relatives said the vehicle folded up "like a piece of aluminum foil." Tracy Edwards, 50, who lives near the crash scene, said she came outside after hearing the crash.
"It looked terrible," Edwards said. "The Fire Department had to pry [the victim] out, and then I saw the baby, and all I could think about was that I hoped the baby was OK."
Police said Rollins died from internal bleeding, and Williams suffered a shattered arm.
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The infant child suffered only minor injuries. Avery said she had seen Jadore at the hospital in a tiny neck brace, and said she was undergoing precautionary tests.
Police said Maj. Melvin Russell, commander of the Eastern District who is also a pastor, visited the family at the hospital on behalf of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III.
At the scene Tuesday afternoon, pieces of broken glass and plastic were scattered throughout a sidewalk and vacant lot.
Jeffries, who according to court records lives in nearby Rosemont, grew up in the same neighborhood as Rollins, family confirmed.
"Where we come from, everybody grew up with each other," Avery said. "We do know the driver, and some people are too old to be doing the things they do." Still, she said, she believed the police pursuit was the impetus for the crash.
She said relatives would come together to raise young Jadore. "Only thing she'll know [about her mother] is what we're able to show her," she said.