SEATTLE -- A serial car thief with a history of violence has been blamed for a crash in which he and a newly hired Seattle police officer died.
With 20 felony convictions and a number of attempts to run down officers, one of whom shot and wounded him, Neal Ryan Kelley, 35, of Seattle, should never have out of prison, police said Monday following the death of Kelley and Officer Elizabeth Mary "Beth" Nowak, 30.
"There's no way that this individual should've been on the streets of Seattle, no way he should've been in a stolen car and no way he should've caused this accident," police Sgt. Deanna M. Nollette said.
Nowak, recently hired after five years on the police force in Racine, Wis., was the second rookie officer in Seattle to die in a traffic accident in three months.
She was on her way to work when her BMW sedan was broadsided early Monday morning by a stolen Honda Accord that ran a red light with its lights. She and Kelley died at the scene.
On Aug. 13, Officer Joselito "Lito" Barber, 26, who had been on the job two months, was killed when his cruiser was broadsided by a GMC Yukon that, according to investigators, ran a red light at about 80 mph.
The driver of the sport utility vehicle, Mary Jane Rivas, 31, has been charged with vehicular homicide and cocaine possession.
"It's a shock," said Sgt. Richard F. O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild. "Three months to the day from Joselito - and the similarities are just eerie."
Nowak, originally from Milwaukee, had served with the Air Force in Iraq and was looking for more advancement opportunity on a larger police force, friends and relatives said.
"She was just a very well-liked officer," Racine police Sgt. Steve Madsen said. "We're a small department, so we're very close-knit."
Less than two weeks into her first patrol beat in Seattle, "she was happy with the job (but) she was still very homesick," said Cheryl Nowak, her older sister.
Tests on Kelley's body for alcohol and other drugs were pending. He was being sought on an arrest warrant for probation violation, but police said he was not being pursued at the time of the crash.
His record of car thefts dates back to at least 1993.
On Jan. 30, 1999, records show, Kelley tried to elude police by flicking off his headlights and turning against one-way traffic downtown, finally hitting a car and crashing into a fire station.
In November 2002, Kelley was driving a stolen Honda Civic on Interstate 5 when a police officer saw him bump several cars and cause a collision. The officer gave chase, the Civic spun out and the officer reached into the car past a pregnant passenger to put the vehicle out of gear. In the ensuing struggle, the officer was dragged dangling from the passenger door as the vehicle rolled along the freeway and Kelley tried to flee on foot.
On Jan. 10, 2003, sheriff's deputies shot Kelley in the hand and shoulder after he tried to run them over in a stolen Dodge Durango after he crashed into a tree south of Seattle. According to court records, one deputy jumped onto the hood of the Durango to avoid being hit.
In late 2004 Kelley was sentenced to five years in a drug offender sentencing alternative program, splitting his time between incarceration and drug treatment in the community, and was credited with 572 days in the King County jail.
He was released from state custody in January and placed under community supervision, state Corrections Department spokeswoman Mary E. Christensen said.
Kelley was arrested July 26 for investigation into vehicle break-ins near Safeco Field and what police said were attempts to ram their patrol cars. Nollette said he reportedly told the arresting officers, "I guess I should have learned my lesson when county shot me."
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He was released from jail Aug. 7, then failed to report to report to a community corrections officer, resulting in the arrest warrant.