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I-95 suspect has history of harrowing truck chases

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Monday afternoon's flight of a tractor-trailer cab up Interstate 95 was a volatile mix of reckless driving, alcohol and 10 tons of steel that threatened the lives of motorists and officers engaged in a potentially deadly pursuit, authorities said yesterday.

Police added driving under the influence of alcohol to a long list of charges filed against Gregory M. Wallace, 36, whose bail hearing had to be postponed early yesterday because officials determined he was still impaired 12 hours after his arrest.

Witnesses to Monday's chase that started in East Baltimore and ended near the Delaware line expressed amazement that nobody was killed during the perilous journey along crowded city streets and the busy four-lane highway.

Robert Smoot was stuck at a traffic light on Pulaski Highway when he heard the wail of police sirens and then saw a white Freightliner trailed by six city patrol cars plow through a line of vehicles behind him.

"They were pushed like pins in front of a bowling ball," said Smoot, 43, whose Chevy Lumina was knocked so hard that the frame shifted. "I couldn't move my foot to the gas pedal fast enough."

Later, the truck rear-ended a state police cruiser, police said, locked its front bumper to the sedan's rear bumper and pushed it a half-mile on two wheels before it spun across three lanes of interstate and slammed into an embankment. The trooper who was driving suffered a separated shoulder.

"It was obvious that this guy had complete disregard to the motoring public," said Maryland State Police Lt. Joseph A. Barker Jr. "He was creating a grave danger to everybody."

250-mile chase

For Maryland police, the case recalled an incident four years ago when the same suspect, Wallace, led them on a similar, but longer pursuit in a stolen tractor-trailer along 250 miles of state highways.

Wallace was released from prison six months ago after serving three years of a four-year sentence for numerous traffic violations.

Authorities defended their decision to chase the truck cab - which had been sought since Sunday when police said its driver rammed a police cruiser during a routine traffic stop - saying they believed the public's safety was in danger.

"The driver had shown that he was not averse to hurting people with that truck," said Baltimore Police Lt. Carl Gutberlet, who accidentally became involved in the pursuit as he was driving home from work in an unmarked police car.

"He was not going to stop."

Eight shots fired

State police stopped the rig north of Route 272 in Cecil County, about five miles south of the Delaware line, when a trooper leaned out the passenger window of a police car going 60 mph and fired eight shots from a handgun to blow out the truck's tires.

Wallace was then arrested and taken to the JFK state police barracks for processing. In addition to driving while intoxicated, he was charged with two counts of attempted murder of a police officer, vehicle theft, possession of drugs and numerous traffic offenses.

Cecil County District Court Commissioner Chris Thren postponed Wallace's 4:30 a.m. bail hearing yesterday because he said the defendant was intoxicated. He was seen again by a commissioner at 6 p.m. and ordered held without bail.

Police said they found a glass pipe with suspected crack cocaine in the suspect's pocket. He also was given a blood test for alcohol and drugs at Harford Memorial Hospital. The test results were not available yesterday.

Police said the suspect smelled of alcohol and was incoherent when arrested.

Family members and others acquainted with Wallace declined to comment yesterday, though privately they complained that efforts to get him help have been repeatedly thwarted by officials who viewed jail as the only solution.

Police said that Wallace had no valid driver license because of his previous convictions on traffic charges. He has been convicted of eight crimes since 1986, including burglary, breaking and entering and theft.Wallace has been convicted twice before in cases involving stolen trucks.

In 1994, he backed a stolen rig into an East Baltimore pizza shop, destroying the faM-gade, stole money from a cash register and then sped away. He was convicted of burglary and traffic violations and spent less than three months in jail.

Two years later, he led police on the 250-mile chase from Baltimore to Delaware, from Delaware to Bethesda, from Bethesda to Elkton, and from Elkton to Sparks.

In that case, Wallace stole a 1995 General Motors tractor-trailer from H&K; Equipment Co. on Pulaski Highway. He was convicted of vehicle theft and traffic offenses and served three years of a four-year sentence. This past weekend, police said he reprised the 1995 theft and targeted Valleywood Industries, a pallet company on Landay Avenue, a few blocks away from H&K.;

Company owner Charles Walcutt Jr. said someone used a key to unlock the front gate and drive off in a used 1996 white Freightliner rig worth $40,000. He said Wallace had never worked there and none of his current employees knows him.

City police said they became aware of the truck Sunday morning, before Walcutt reported it was missing. A traffic officer pulled it over at East Monument and North Milton Avenue for going through a red light.

Sunday chase averted

Police said the driver drove off after refusing to hand over his license. He stopped at the other end of an intersection and a woman jumped out. The traffic officer parked his cruiser to block the truck, but police said the driver took off and rammed the cruiser.

Officers started to pursue the truck then, but were ordered to stop because supervisors deemed it too dangerous. Police said an officer spotted the truck about 3 p.m. Monday in the 1400 block of East North Ave.

Officers, with lights and sirens activated, followed it traveling about 30 mph. On Pulaski Highway, near North Point Boulevard, police said the truck drove through a line of cars waiting for a red light.

Monday's chase

That's when Smoot, who lives in Harford County and was trying to pick up his son at work, encountered the truck barreling toward him. "It looked like something out of the movies," he said.

The truck then entered I-95 at Exit 14, near Moravia Road, and police said it picked up speed. Gutberlet, who heads the traffic section, was headed home from work when he noticed the truck and police cars behind him.

He flipped on his siren and dashboard lights and stayed in front of the rig to warn other motorists. When the pursuit got to the Baltimore Beltway, he ordered city officers to stop and let Maryland State police take over.

Troopers swarmed around the now-speeding rig, and others quickly blocked on-ramps and tried to clear the highway of motorists.

Gutberlet remained in front, but reported being run off the road twice. The pursuit raced up the highway through Baltimore County and into Harford County, where police worked feverishly to spring a trap.

Spikes damage tires

Police set up barricades at a toll booth north of the Susquehanna River and guided the rig through a particular booth, where spike strips were put across the lane.

Two tires were punctured with the spikes - the front right was shredded - but the truck continued to speed north. Police said it then rammed the cruisers, including the one that spun into the embankment.

Barker said supervisors then decided to shoot out the tires.

"It was a controlled discharge of his weapon," Barker said, adding that police waited for a clear section of road shrouded in woods to prevent any misses from ricocheting into the southbound lanes.

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