July 09, 2001
Crash kills officer, 3 teens
Anchorage Daily News
(Published July 10, 2001)
Four people died in a fiery crash just before sunrise Monday when a teenager fleeing in a Blazer toward Eagle River at speeds of up to 80 mph crossed the median on the Glenn Highway and collided head-on with a police car driving toward Anchorage.
Officer Justin Todd Wollam, 28, died at the scene. Wollam had been with the department since 1999. He leaves a wife and 4-year-old daughter.
The fleeing driver, Robert M. Esper, 19, also died at the scene, as did two of his three juvenile passengers. A fourth passenger was taken to Alaska Regional Hospital in critical condition with a fractured skull.
Esper had a juvenile criminal history involving stolen cars, drug abuse and attempted burglary, according to juvenile probation records. He turned 18 last year and began amassing an adult record. He was convicted last month of drunken driving and vehicle theft, according to court records, and was on felony probation at the time of his death.
Events leading to the disaster began 34 minutes earlier and miles away, at Lake Otis Parkway and 72nd Avenue, according to police accounts.
At 3:23 a.m., a patrol officer spotted a red 1985 Cherolet Blazer "full of young people" stopped at the side of the road, said police spokesman Ron McGee. The officer went to investigate and the Blazer took off, McGee said. The officer, who was not identified, pursued briefly, turning on her lights and siren, but the Blazer accelerated.
When it became clear that the driver did not intend to stop, the officer stopped chasing it and activated the department's no-pursuit policy, Anchorage Police Chief Walt Monegan said.
To avoid the dangers of a high-speed chase, especially through residential streets, officers faced with flight from a routine traffic stop radio a description of the fleeing vehicle to central dispatch. A supervisor then organizes a search by other officers, who try to locate the fleeing driver and keep the car in sight, McGee said.
This is what happened Monday, he said. Over the next half-hour, the Blazer was seen several times and followed from a nonthreatening distance.
Esper was spotted almost immediately traveling west on O'Malley Road toward Minnesota Bypass on the wrong side of the road. Police blocked an entrance to the bypass to safeguard other drivers, McGee said.
At one point, the Blazer pulled into a trailer park at the dead end of Arctic Boulevard near Garnet Street and police saw three people jump out and run away. Two were captured almost immediately and told police the driver had been drinking, Monegan said.
Minutes later, the Blazer was headed out of town on the Glenn Highway. At least one police car followed at a distance, McGee said.
Meanwhile, Wollam, who was on duty in Eagle River, and a second Eagle River officer were told to drive toward Anchorage, to the Fort Richardson overpass, and mine the exit there with spike strips to keep the Blazer from getting off the highway onto neighborhood streets, said Lt. Audie Holloway.
The Blazer had already survived at least two efforts to spike its tires and force it to stop, Monegan said.
Wollam and the second officer headed toward town in separate cars, traveling at 60 to 65 mph, police said. Esper was now also on the Glenn, thundering outbound.
The effort to spike the Fort Richardson exit was futile. Esper passed it long before Wollam and the second officer got there.
Wollam and Esper should have passed each other, flying in opposite directions with four lanes and a median between them. But shortly before the big S curve, halfway between the Fort Richardson exit and the Eagle River Loop exit, Esper crossed the median into the Anchorage-bound lanes and continued barreling toward Eagle River.
He had gone less than a mile when a white vehicle appeared, traveling at proper speed in the correct direction, police said. Investigators theorize that Esper swerved to his left to avoid hitting the white vehicle just as Wollam came around the curve.
"Both appeared to try to take evasive action," Monegan said. "They saw each other too late."
The officer in the second car witnessed the collision but was not injured, Monegan said.
The dead, in addition to Wollam and Esper, were identified as Makayla Lewis, 16, and a 14-year-old girl whose name was not released because her next of kin had not yet been notified, McGee said.
A third passenger, Savanah Fielding, 15, was thrown from the Blazer, suffering a fractured skull and broken ankle, Monegan said. She remained hospitalized in critical condition Monday night.
The southbound side of the Glenn remained closed for most of the rush hour, with incoming commuters diverted in crawling streams around the crash site.
"This is a tragedy not only for the Police Department but for the families of the occupants of the other car," Monegan said at a press conference later Monday morning.
He said police don't anticipate charging the three passengers who got out of the Blazer in town.
"They wanted out. . . . They were trying to use their common sense," he said.
Police identified only one of the three: Travis Barrett, 19, who was taken into custody on three old warrants, including driving without a valid license.
Monegan said police would like the driver of the white vehicle, described as a sedan or van, to help reconstruct exactly what happened. That driver is not considered at fault in any way, Monegan said.
Monday's collision was a worst-case example of the Catch-22 that police face when dealing with a fleeing motorist driving erratically and endangering others on the road, Monegan said. Police have to make a fast choice. Do you let someone continue to drive until you corner him or he realizes he can't get away or might run out of gas? Or do you chase him in a way that makes him drive even faster and more dangerously?
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about one-third of the people who end up dead after a high-speed police pursuit are innocent bystanders. In 1999, for example, 318 people died nationally as a result of police pursuits. Of those, three were police officers in pursuit; 212 were in a vehicle being chased, and 103 were bystanders.
Reporters Lisa Demer, Zaz Hollander and Peter Porco contributed to this story.