12/20/2007

13 Fla. deputies suspended for car chase

By John Frank
The St. Petersburg Times

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. It sounds like a classic scene from The Dukes of Hazzard:

A dozen deputies, lights flashing and sirens blaring, driving in circles for 15 miles as they chase a suspect in a stolen sports car at speeds reaching 117 mph.

One sheriff's cruiser skids out on a patch of sand, colliding with an oncoming vehicle. Another blows a tire and pulls out of the chase. Two deputies, blinded by the dust kicked up by the stolen car on a lime rock road, crash cruisers through a T-stop intersection. One drives through a fence, the other hits a dirt berm and goes airborne.

Except, this script is real. And Sheriff Richard Nugent is not amused.

The sheriff suspended without pay a sergeant and 12 deputies involved in the 6 p.m. Thursday pursuit through Spring Hill and Royal Highlands. He said the risks "way outweighed" the possibility for arrest, especially because the incident only involved a stolen car and the deputies involved knew the culprit. The deputies violated multiple elements of the agency's pursuit policy and endangered many area residents, he said.

Each deputy has read and signed the pursuit policy. The latest memo went to all deputies a week before this incident.

"We are not going to tolerate it," Nugent said during an interview in his office Tuesday. "We are not going to allow our folks to jeopardize the safety of civilians out there."

He called it a "breakdown in supervision" and placed the bulk of the blame on Sgt. Frank Loreto, who oversaw the chase and got a five-day suspension.

Loreto wrote in a newly released report that he didn't believe the deputies violated any pursuit policies. He permitted the chase to continue despite knowing about the high speeds and moderate traffic on the roads.

Four deputies were suspended for multiple days, while the eight remaining deputies who provided backup assistance were each given a one-day suspension.

"They got caught up in the moment," he said. "When the adrenaline gets pumping you tend to forget, you get tunnel-vision ...."

The incident involved busy roads including Mariner Boulevard and Sunshine Grove Road and ended in the Royal Highlands area where the driver, Roy Reffuse of Dade City, crashed his red sports car. Reffuse, who admitted he was high on methamphetamine, hitched a ride with a neighbor but was caught at a checkpoint established near the scene, reports said.

The three deputies who wrecked their patrol cars could face additional sanctions from an internal review board that will convene in early January. All have previous accidents in patrol cruisers, internal Sheriff's Office records show:

Deputy George Loydgren, 44, who initiated the chase after seeing the stolen Mazda 6 and later crashed and went airborne, was involved in two preventable accidents, one in December 2005 and one in August 2007.

Deputy Christopher Croft, 33, who crashed through a fence at the intersection, was involved in a non-preventable accident in November 2005.

Deputy Derik Deso, 28, who hit an oncoming Lexus SUV, was involved in an August 2002 traffic crash.

Nugent said he personally reviewed the data on the chase and met with the entire group Tuesday to express "how disappointed I am in their actions." The agency intends to pay to repair the damaged Lexus and to replace the broken fence.

"The way I explained it to our guys is: Is it worth your life or the life of one of your family members to catch some guy who stole a car?" he said. "And everyone of them shook their head no."

Nugent asserted that the chase was atypical for the agency. "The majority of pursuits are terminated immediately," he said. "This is so far out of the norm. That's why it took some extreme measures."

The sheriff said he is not recommending further agencywide training on pursuits because "we have done almost everything humanly possible as it relates to pursuits and controlling them."

He said there are few, if any, circumstances to continue chases, such as murder, bank robberies or other violent crimes. "You can't say never on pursuits," he said, "but you have to be able to justify it."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or 754-6114.

Suspended list

A sergeant and 12 deputies were suspended without pay following a 15-mile chase through Spring Hill during rush hour Thursday. Below is a list of the deputies disciplined in the incident and the extent of their involvement

Five-day suspension:

Sgt. Frank Loreto, who supervised and authorized the pursuit

Three-day suspension:

Deputy George Loydgren, who Initiated the chase and reached 103 mph before he wrecked his car at an intersection and went airborne

Two-day suspensions:

Deputy Dustin Mormando, who reached 112 mph as one of the lead deputies following the stolen car

Deputy Christopher Croft, who topped 110 mph before crashing his car through a fence at an intersection

Deputy Stephen Miller, a canine officer who drove 117 mph to respond to the scene of the chase

One-day suspensions:

Deputy Seth Kern, who provided backup and participated in the chase

Deputy Derik Deso, who crashed into oncoming car as he responded to the stolen vehicle chase

Deputy Matthew Spooner, who provided backup and participated in the chase

Deputy Brandon Cox, who provided backup and participated in the chase

Deputy Richard Noberini, who provided backup and participated in the chase

Deputy Wayne Peterson, who provided backup and participated in the chase

Deputy Sean Reynolds, who responded to chase but didn't participate

Deputy James Smith, who provided backup and popped a tire during pursuit

Copyright 2007 St. Petersburg Times

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